Before the Hallows

19 Nov

In anticipation of a full review of the newly released “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I,” here’s what I wrote when I first saw “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” Enjoy.

7.15.09 “Remember Cedric Diggory and Dumbledore’s Mercy”

I just had the pleasure of watching the 6th installment of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. In the novel readers can find J. K. Rowling showing new found strength and maturity as a writer. This was evident in the 5th novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but the Half-Blood Prince demonstrates the diligence that Rowling is capable of in writing a suspenseful, yet intimate climax to Harry’s time at Hogwarts. [He leaves the school in the next installments, where the last battle between good and evil in the books is finally resolved.]

At the end of the Half-Blood Prince Dumbledore is killed. This is not a spoiler, for few fans could have managed to avoid this important development. If I say then that while I enjoyed the film adaptation very much I felt that scene where Dumbledore dies was mishandled, then you understand the gravity of my claim.

First, let me say why I enjoyed the film. I understand the challenge of condensing a 650p novel into 153 minutes, so I should start my praise with how well the story arc and its major elements were maintained. In the film we see just enough of Snape’s activities to cast serious doubts on his loyalties, which is the position that must be offered to audiences because it is really Harry’s story. Audiences must see Snape make the unbreakable vow to help Draco Malfoy kill Dumbledore, just as they must see him commit the act himself when Draco cannot. Likewise audiences are shown a great deal of Draco’s struggle with his task. Murder is a difficult thing and Draco cannot bring himself to do it. The writers were wise to reveal the vanishing cabinets early on in the film because it so helpfully cut out much of Harry’s suspicions about what Draco was up to. The audience (presumably) knows what is going on and since it is presented early in the film there is less ado about them in the climatic tower scene where I felt things went wrong. But still more praise before I get to that.

This film, like the Order of the Phoenix, is dark in character, oppressed by the weight of encroaching evil. Unlike the previous film, however, Half-Blood Prince never manages to capture the dangerous appeal of evil. Dolores Umbridge was a truly magnificent character and I must confess a little sadness that Half-Blood Prince did not offer Dumbledore up as enough of a contrast to show the differences between good and evil authorities. Instead, audiences were treated to legitimately humorous flashes of teen romance. The darkness was dispersed not by the power of the light coming from honorable characters but from the humor that life always possesses, even in the darkest moments. I’m sure that teen audiences will be both relieved to see this humor and also pleased by its familiarity. Who cannot remember a first kiss? An infatuation gone too far? The awkwardness of friends coming to terms with their feelings?

That humor and romance was offered in quite admirable performances by the big three, Rupert Grint (Ron), Emma Watson (Hermione), and Daniel Radcliffe (Harry). All are turning out to be most excellent casting choices and fine actors. On acting I must say that the show seem to be stolen not by Jim Broadbent (Prof. Slughorn) or Michael Gambon (Dumbledore), but by Hero Fiennes-Tiffin and Frank Dillane, who played Tom Riddle (aka. Lord Voldemort) at ages 11 and 16 respectively. They presented Riddle as stone-faced, slow to emotion, but ruthlessly calculating and manipulative. The younger Tom is eager for recognition and unaware of the ethics of power, while the elder Tom is hungry to satiate his darker instincts and willing to play any part in order to succeed. They are not the same Voldemort played by Ralph Fiennes in the Goblet of Fire–there is not yet a supreme joy in pain and suffering or a playful maliciousness that lingers with one after the film has ended. Instead we see a cold evil, a evil that lurks below the surface. In this sense the lake of inferi and Dumbledore’s impressive magical flames are an apt suggestion of the relationship between good and evil in the film. This is not, however, what I think Rowling was after when she wrote her tower sequence.

In the film the invisibility cloak is abandoned, which one can understand giving the technical difficulties arranging such a shot would have posed for director David Yates. Instead Harry oversees the conversation between Draco and Dumbledore hidden below their feet. Dumbledore has repeatedly told Harry that Harry’s life is far more valuable than his own–a reflection that readers can appreciate but which is also undermined somewhat when one knows that Dumbledore was going to die from the poisoned ring that mangled his hand. The value of life is repeated enough that I found it astonishing when the writers chose to omit what I took as the most crucial piece of dialogue in the entire volume. Here’s the scene as it is written (just a few lines of it) by Rowling. You can read along on page 592-593:

“I appreciate the difficulty of your position,” said Dumbledore.

“Why else do you think I have not confronted you before now? Because I knew that you would have been murdered if Lord Voldemort realized that I suspected you…. Come over to the right side, Draco… you are not a killer….”

“But I got this far, didn’t I?” [Draco] said slowly. “They thought I’d die in the attempt but I’m here… and you’re in my power… I’m the one with the wand… You’re at my mercy….”

“No, Draco,” said Dumbledore quietly. “It is my mercy, and not yours, that matters now.”

The screenplay of the Half-Blood Prince, in its need to condense a rather lengthy dialogue between Dumbledore and Draco (and the Death Eaters), chose only to have Dumbledore offer his aid and insist that Draco was not a killer. These are both crucial bits of dialogue, but the writers have missed the golden words that Rowling herself penned for this scene. As written Dumbledore’s mercy is the most important thing protecting Draco. Audiences familiar with the books may gloss over this moment given their foreknowledge that not only was Snape bound by the unbreakable vow, but was asked by Dumbledore himself to complete the act. Not if Draco was unable, but when Draco would fail. Dumbledore’s mercy is a wealth-spring of information for readers, for it not only identifies the relationship between Draco and Dumbledore (always one of teacher and pupil and never one of good and evil), but also the relationship between good and evil in the entire series.

Dumbledore’s mercy is to keep Draco from becoming evil. In fact, Dumbledore’s consistent failing in the text is his desire to keep Harry from evil. Over-protection is at the root of the model of good in Rowling’s world, a place where Harry lacks the necessary will to pull of the cruciatus curse and where Hogwarts stands as the idyllic place where evil may be kept at bay. It is Dumbledore’s last merciful act as headmaster of that castle of goodness, where even the latent evils of Slytherin house members is kept in check. In this respect, while I had wished to see the battle in the tower I was happy to let it go in order to preserve Hogwarts as a “safe” place despite the Death Eaters’ successful mission.

Mercy is the means by which Dumbledore preserves goodness. Mercy is shown to be the tool of the powerful, the weapon of the righteous in the face of evil. When Steve Kloves excised this line from the novel in his screenplay he gutted Dumbledore of his most powerful weapon and what may be the most central element in this moral world.

Mercy is a difficult friend and many thinkers have tried to explain how we might try to turn the other cheek. Or, to use Dumbledore’s own words at the end of the Goblet of Fire:

Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.

The choice between what is right and what is easy led Dumbledore to die on the tower at the hands of Severus Snape and not Draco Malfoy. Mercy is the harder path, and I can’t help but think that removing it from this scene was not right but easy.

When the final films come out in 2010 and 2011 it will be interesting to see whether mercy, which is so crucial to the final scenes in The Deathly Hallows, will also find itself on the floor of the editing room. When Harry comes to realize that it is necessary to place himself, just as Dumbledore did, at Voldemort’s mercy in order to do what is right, will we remember that mercy has two faces? Will we remember Cedric Diggory? The right path? Dumbledore’s mercy?

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2 Responses to “Before the Hallows”

  1. Matt M. December 4, 2010 at 11:18 am #

    I can’t help but wonder what J.K. Rowling would think of this commentary. Very insightful…

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  1. Left Behind rewrite « FanFiction Fridays - December 28, 2012

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