Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Avada: Thoughts on J.K. Rowling's HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE (2005)

Harry Potter and the Exploding Kinetoscope -- In preparation for the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, ExKin is posting a series of archival essays on Harry Potter media. Basically, here are some old pieces I wrote elsewhere, years ago, which am reprinting (and slightly revising). While my occasional predictions of future Potter Universe events is sometimes (self-)satisfyingly accurate, I assure readers that I was once fully convinced that Ron Weasley's death had been meticulously foreshadowed since the first novel, and would tell anyone who cared to listen. Though this is primarily a film and television blog, on this eve of the Half-Blood Prince film, I was revisiting my notes on the novel, and find them a fine celebration of exactly those elements in Rowling's books that were lacking in the last two film adaptations.

These notes were written in July, 2005.


Like the rest of you I devoured HBP in two days, but then I stewed for a week writing the below. I will be ironing out the typos and grammar errors and elaborating a few points over the next few days. Enjoyus!

WARNING: I solemnly swear I am up to no good
This post is predicated on spoilers, contains spoilers in every paragraph, and spoils every single Harry Potter novel. This is not a review proper, but closer to "first thoughts on Half-Blood Prince."


Every Flavor

You're doing something right when hours after your novel is published, fans are speculating on the next book and obsessively combing 3365 pages of past volumes for clues.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is about how Harry Potter, adolescent boy-witch, learns the origin story of fascist newly-embodied black mage Lord Voldemort (silent T, says J.K.R.!), investigates a string of assassination attempts at school, falls for a little red-haired girl, and learns to disdain celebrity hangers-on. In the end, Mr. Potter is set up for a black future, largely by his own personal problems.


I've heard of House Elves, but this is a baby!

It's a wild ride, Half-Blood, the mile-a-minute plot developments betray Rowling breaking into determined sprint, her finish line finally in sight. The Potter novels are lovable, scruffy books for several reasons, most heartbreakingly because they try their damnedest to be all things for all readers. Not in a Spielbergian broadest-common-denominator sense, but instead by cramming the books full of something for every disparate genre interest: global politics, race wars, teen romance, Gothic horror, British humo(u)r, high abstract fantasy, nerdy alternate-world fantasy, frothy Jane Austen comedy of romantic manners, young adult persecuted orphan tearjerker, red-herring-and-secret-passage Agatha Christie page-turner. So say what you will about her increasingly scatterbrained plotting: J.K. Rowling is an overflowing font of story.

Popular reports have it that Prince is a breezier, funnier, more taut adventure and return to form after the impenetrable, overlong Order of the Phoenix. That's slightly accurate, in that it's a shorter novel, with more tangible plot developments, but with the need to report on the ever-swelling ranks of cast and geography of magical Europe, and diverse expectations of a planet of fans, Rowling will never write a Harry Potter mystery as meticulously plotted and coolly perfect as Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban. But this not a problem, so much, of a garden grown out of bounds, but necessary expansion: Books IV-VI are not as hermetically sealed as I-III, but Prince's developments in the seven-novel arc are inventive, earned and feel fated.

Vanishing Cabinet

Subverted expectations are the only certain rule in Harry Potter, and the longer an assumption is held, the more likely it is to be undone. Genre tropes will be inverted, stereotypes will be strongly implied then shattered, history has always been distorted by misinterpretation, and every, every story has two sides. If you didn't become wary when supposed uber-nerd Neville exhibits the toughest kind of bravery in the first book, well fair enough. If you didn't learn your lesson when escaped ex-con Sirius Black, wizarding's Charles Whitman, turned out to be Harry's dear-heart godfather, shame on you triple. If you thought Chamber of Secrets seemed a curiously stand-alone volume, Half-Blood Prince brings it home.

The title mystery ("who is the Half-Blood Prince who previously owned Harry's loaner Potions textbook?") is a bit recycled. If Mr. Potter is seriously trusting the advice of magical used books after Ginny Weasly was nearly killed by one in Chamber of Secrets, well, ten points from Gryffindor for being a dumbass. The ultimate revelations about the brilliant annotations in the Prince's Potions book are perhaps not world-shaking. The identity of the Half-Blood Prince seems set-up as the centerpiece mystery, but as usual what appeared as the B-plot is the real key: what is Draco Malfoy up to? Rowling's a master of diversion because her red herrings have payoffs. And if you haven't learned your lesson about Rowling's skill for planting information to yield a jaw-dropping crop later, so much the better. Ever since Harry talked to a snake in Philosophercerer's Stone only to find out what that predisposed bilingualism Really Meant in Chamber, and that the Parselmouth plot thread continues to pay-off through the subsequent books, the astute reader may be convinced that every cute detail is a story unto itself.

But metaphorically, the title is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince because the book is a grand summary of Harry and Professor Snape's relationship. Throughout the books, Harry reaps the benefits of Snape's begrudging assistance and protection but ultimately never trusts him. That is both of their faults, through personal prejudice to family history to personality incompatibility, and the finale is the ne plus ultra of Snape taking an extreme risk and Harry subsequently misinterpreting and condemning Snape's actions.

Oh you may not think I’m pretty,
But don’t judge on what you see



What House do YOU belong in? Probably Hufflepuff, you dork.

Half-Blood Prince concludes by having compromised some of Rowling's great humanitarian themes, and not setting them right.

A key idea in these books is not to judge people by physical appearance, and not to let personal prejudice or circumstantial evidence outweigh a person's deeds. And I'm talking about Severus Snape here. That human cumulonimbus, Snape, is Rowling's most fascinating and complex creation besides Harry himself. And if you think for a second that Snape's loyalties aren't to the Order of the Phoenix, you're not paying attention to these books' plot, sensitivity to dynamic characters, or morality. In the same scene that Snape is forced to take Dumbledore's life, he saves a child from becoming a murderer and/or a murder victim. In the same scene he kills his savior (for it was Dumbledore who gave Snape a shot at redemption), Snape is under complex possession by the devil (for he's under Unbreakable Vow, and almost certainly on Dumbledore's orders). Judas figures are complicated and tragic: they're not merely backstabbing sell-outs but Agents of God. History remembers them as monsters, when they're necessary factors in equations of messianic sacrifice.

Do you see the parallels between Hermione and Snape? Both are braniac outcasts of impure stock, driven to overcompensating to protect their secret, yearning hearts. The difference is Hermione has good friends who care about her. When you are the cleverest witch of your age, persecution for nerdiness and parentage beyond your control, in spite of your merits, is likely to drive you inward. Being smarter than everyone else is a dangerous and lonely talent. The greatest tour de force moments in Phoenix are Harry's illicit trip into Snape's Pensieve, the only glimpse we have gotten -- and given the ex-Potions Master's acumen at Occlulmency, probably the only one we'll get -- at Snape's injured soul. One only hopes when the Dark Lord's veil is lifted that Severus gets to grieve. Snape is Dumbledore's man, through and through.

The P is His Scar!

Where is the Famous Harry Potter in this mess? It is good for the world that Harry has been forced to grow up fast, no longer wallowing in the guilt, anger and adolescent outbursts that define him in Phoenix. Phoenix is an angry, black political fable, difficult to look at because our hero is such a mess and behaves like an ass throughout.

At the beginning of Prince, he's still grappling with his avoidance issues in situations where his insensitivity hurts others. He still owes Cho Chang a serious apology, still needs to recognize the humanity of people he doesn't like, still needs to recognize his terrifying capacity for corruption, and still needs to work out anger and grief without letting them force his hand to violence. A key moment in Stone is the Sorting Hat nearly placing Harry in Slytherin. It has nothing to do with being "evil," Slytherin House, it has to do with cunning, and willingness to achieve goals and gain power through any means at your disposal. We've seen Harry lie, steal, sneak, spy, use violence both physical and magical, and in Prince nearly kill Malfoy. What makes Harry a Gryffindor is a surplus of bravery. One by one Harry confronts these problems. Dumbledore has been supplying advice all along, but now Harry is given object lessons in these ideals.

In Percy Weasly's seduction into heartless bureaucratic tool, Harry sees how idealism and inflexibility can be manipulated and corrupted, no matter the intentions. Percy loses sight of the essential human dimension at the core of wars and political conflict. Harry learns your lot in life is not improved if your friends are lost. Harry has been handed through inheritance the celebrity and socioeconomic relief that Percy pursues and that tortures Ron. When offered Percy's life by Rufus Scrimgeour, the new Minister of Magic, it's the example of Ron's and Arthur's integrity which gives him pause.

Harry heeds another dark mirror of his own life in Draco Malfoy, previously the most gleeful and willfully cruel character, now led into a life-threatening, inescapable assignment by an extremist Order once joined by his father. If Mr. Potter can't relate to that, then no one can. Harry can draw a hard line when it comes to sympathy, but when he spies on Draco crying alone in the bathroom, it jars Harry as much as the dive into Snape's Pensieve: everybody has their reasons. Malfoy is a scared boy trying to save his imperfect dad, agent of apocalyptic evil or no. And what he lacks is an excess of bravery.

Harry's ability to empathize with the enemy must be important. It is essentially Dumbledore's last school-room lesson to show Harry every available scrap of humanizing memory of Voldemort that he can locate. The Dark Lord is probably the most frustrating, faceless lead villain in the series, because he has been merely abstractly Evil. For several books, this looks like a mis-step of Rowling's, but now now the design becomes clear. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is an abstract repository for all of society's fears and a scapegoat excuse for oppressive behavior by other authorities. It's always been Dumbledore's special talent to counter that: it's Dumbledore that encourages Harry to use Voldemort's name. So when Dumbledore gives Harry a crash-course in Tom Riddle back-story, is it any surprise how many biographical details mirror Harry's?


Ginny Weasley: Her orange hair steals our hero's heart!

The stand-up-and-cheer moment is Harry and Ginny's triumphant first kiss. Like George and Fred's exit from Hogwarts, it's one of those soaring scenes that are the pop fic equivalent of a big power chord sing along chorus. But what makes the scene deeper and greater, is the tempering memory of Harry's heartbreaking, confusing real first kiss. Harry will probably never recognize it is survivor's guilt that bound him to Cho Chang. But in Ginny, he finds the strong-willed, resilient woman he will need to stand by him. Cho and Giny can both relate to his pain, but only the unflappable redhead is fighter enough to deal with Harry's constant mortal peril.

Which brings us inevitably back to...

Kadevra


Exclusive costume design drawing for GoF movie.

I'm obsessing over Snape, I know, because he's pivotal to the series beyond previous indications. Snape is the second title character of Half-Blood Prince for the reasons above. Just as the anguished, complex and epic Order of the Phoenix in many ways was the definitive statement on Harry's relationship with Dumbledore. There's a sea-change moment in Phoenix where Dumbledore confesses his failure of judgment, and weeps. The scene humanizes Harry's idol for him. A lot of Half-Blood Prince is given to private briefings between Dumbledore and Harry, and finally they go on one grand, scary adventure. After all this time, the master and apprentice are side-by-side in battle. It's a final reminder of why we love Dumbledore -- from his daft gentility to ferocious power -- right before he is taken from us. It is both a gift and makes his death hurt all the more.


He could turn into a deer.

In some ways, Harry has never appreciated James and Lily Potter's sacrifice. When he learns in Snape's Pensieve that the Potions master wasn't lying about James' flaws, part of the blow is realizing how he has deified his father. Harry's never known his parents so they were guardian angels. Dumbledore has made sure this boy he loves most knows him as fallible man and a personal friend. So Dumbledore's is the sacrifice that may resonate the most deeply. The final scenes of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince show Harry finally purposeful and full of clear-eyed resolve. The Boy Who Lived (Again) is the Man Who Lived. They grow up so fast! Good trick.

Note: Special thanks to Hannah, who drew the Sorting Hat, James Potter and Snape pictures. Though her website from which I swiped the drawings is long gone, her art lives eternal.

2 comments:

ddadmin said...

David Yates (director) did a superb job just magnificent to watch, may be Alfonso Cuarón would have made them ROCK. I am a great fan of Harry Potter series. My favorite still remains HP3: Prisoner of Azkaban. But Half Blood was simply outstanding on levels. I'll be seeing it again Saturday on IMAX which will be even better as it's one of the original IMAX screens that loom up and over the audience as opposed to newer screens that are just big.
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