Essays · Movies

How Humor and Dread Go Hand-in-Hand in ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’

The sixth installment of ‘Harry Potter’ goes evocative in the adaptation process, distilling poignant themes from its richly detailed source material into a powerful cinematic experience.
Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on April 18th, 2019

This article is part of our One Perfect Archive project, a series of deep dives that explore the filmmaking craft behind some of our favorite shots. In this entry, we revisit Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Mentioning the Harry Potter film franchise to fans of J.K. Rowling‘s original seven-part novel series can be quite the polarizing activity. Truthfully, the books and movies have decently solidified their status as indelible popular cultural milestones. But back in the day, as the Harry Potter movies continued to develop and change in tone over the course of 10 years, they faced their fair share of criticism.

Mainly, the issue of fidelity in these films — or lack thereof — frequently bothers book aficionados. Honestly, I can actually see why. Even as an avid fan of this franchise, I can’t help but notice that the adaptations strayed further and further from their source material with each passing installment.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is arguably one of the most divisive installments of the franchise for this very reason. For clarity’s sake, it’s important to point out that film critics absolutely adored the movie. It even earned Bruno Delbonnel an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography among its many accolades.

That said, the movie version of The Half-Blood Prince trades the darkly reflective narrative of Rowling’s literary original for an emphasis on fluffy humor and a largely pared-down plotline. And considering how the Harry Potter book series is chock-full of tiny but vital details, the act of glossing over any of them in the name of spectacle and broader entertainment is ostensibly rather annoying.

Each Harry Potter book deconstructs the typical expectations of heroism and allyship and this is made increasingly apparent as the series approached its end. In particular, The Half-Blood Prince tasks its eponymous boy wizard protagonist to confront the people closest to him, as well as those he assumes to be his enemies.

By the events of The Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter’s coming-of-age journey grows ever murkier. He has now witnessed and been further scarred by death. Meanwhile, he still bears the unrelenting responsibility of being a symbol of hope. Harry and his best friends are going through the more normal yet equally frustrating shenanigans of growing up, too.

Most notably, The Half-Blood Prince is also a necessary stepping stone in Harry Potter lore overall. The novel provides essential backstory and context through the use of memories and flashbacks, filling in the gaps about the origins — and potential weaknesses — of Harry’s archnemesis, Lord Voldemort.

Unsurprisingly, Rowling’s text is rich and convoluted; delightfully so, in fact. However, the film adaptation of The Half-Blood Prince still does well to take a more freeform and emotionally-driven approach to the narrative.

Now, I’m not saying that destroying the Burrow was necessarily the best choice on the part of director David Yates. That said, even after shaving a ton of subplots and characters for a more evocative story, The Half-Blood Prince retains both the sense of bleakness shrouding Harry’s future, as well as the sparkling wit and buoyant youthfulness that has characterized the series from day one.

Delbonnel’s brilliantly moody cinematography does plenty of the heavy lifting in The Half-Blood Prince. The movie deliberately steers clear from the warmer, more vibrant hues that have pretty much been a staple since Chris Columbus opened the franchise with The Sorcerer’s Stone. Instead, metallic washes of color make The Half-Blood Prince appear either steely or softly sepia-toned, depending on how a scene is set up.

Moreover, there’s a haziness to every image that can skew unsettling or tender. This technique works well in multiple scenarios. It adds a sense of anticipation when Harry, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger cautiously spy on schoolmate Draco Malfoy in a dodgy shop in an even dodgier alleyway. The soft focus communicates the heady effects of a Potions class about love potions. And of course, once the movie really begins to dig into the darkest depths of death, Delbonnel’s images are frighteningly icy.

I like to call The Half-Blood Prince a great representation of our One Perfect Shot ethos because its obvious prettiness is very much functional. The gorgeous camerawork that netted Delbonnel the Oscar nomination operates in service of an adaptation that actually needs more than words to tell. Visually, The Half-Blood Prince has always prepared audiences for emotional devastation.

How then should we read the fluff that’s present in the film? No one can escape the highly amusing travails of young love whenever Harry and his friends remember that they’re actual teenagers and have to deal with crushes and infatuations.

Perhaps these are comparatively silly endeavors for anyone thinking about saving the entire wizarding community from a tyrannical fiend. The focus on humor and romance doesn’t prove to be much of a distraction from the overarching story in The Half-Blood Prince, though. As it turns out, these concepts, which largely juxtapose such ominous images, powerfully illustrate the heavier themes of the narrative.

On the surface, the relationships cultivated between Harry and his peers can sometimes come across as cringey puppy love. Furthermore, not all ships are created equal in this magical universe. Many pairings are drastically simplified and some are merely hinted at compared to their book counterparts.

So why include them at all? Well, when fluffiness is cleverly placed alongside something potentially dire, these scenes play much differently.

Harry tries to cure Ron of the comical effects of an irritating, unwanted love potion, only for the latter to drink poisoned mead by accident and come dangerously close to death. After a duel that leaves Draco Malfoy literally sliced up, Harry’s quiet romantic moment with Ginny Weasley in the Room of Requirement recenters him greatly. Finally, the most memorable comedic scene in the movie — Harry blitzing through Hogwarts high on Liquid Luck — is contrasted with the grimness of an animal death on the school grounds as well as the difficult task of unveiling more about the seemingly impenetrable Lord Voldemort.

Such a tricky marriage of buoyancy and trepidation in The Half-Blood Prince is effectively facilitated by these contrasting visual cues and storytelling devices. The film is an emotional rollercoaster amplified by visual prowess. It would seem a little wrong to call Delbonnel’s images “dreary” due to how beautiful they are, but they certainly effortlessly establish the film’s gloomy tone nonetheless.

Still, alongside The Half-Blood Prince‘s visual and thematic somberness, moments of true levity serve as potent anchors in the story, even when laughs and fluff are fleeting. Hence, the delicate balance that lies at the heart of Rowling’s book is retained in spite of the numerous striking differences between the film and its source material. Simply put, The Half-Blood Prince is streamlined in all the right ways.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)