I've said it before, and I say it again: The core of the Harry Potter books is closer to P G Wodehouse's school stories than to J R R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. The real magic of J K Rowling's world lies in the subliminal, deeper messages -- the importance of family, of friendship, of tolerance, acceptance and inclusiveness; that suffering ennobles man; that love is more precious than riches -- than the simpler, more obvious chosen-one-versus-evil track.
And that is where the films on the publishing phenomenon floundered. Well, the first two at least. Things started turning with Prisoner of Azkaban, got better with Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix.
And with Half-Blood Prince, it takes hormones and puppy love to turn Harry and gang into real people, beyond wand-wielding charmers.
Like the ones before it, the sixth film of the series takes liberties with Rowling's world. But it pays homage to her detailing too -- for example, a shot in the sequence where Harry's mentor Albus Dumbledore are battling Inferi (dead bodies turned into soldiers by dark magic) is straight out of the book cover, with swirling flames all around Dumbledore's upheld wand hand.
Speaking of the Hogwarts headmaster, Michael Gambon finally comes into his own as Dumbledore, and it is largely because his role finally has some meat. In the previous films, Dumbledore's character -- so very crucial in the books -- has got less than his due.
Finally, you feel the bond between Harry and Dumbledore. In the books, Harry often doubts Dumbledore, and at one point even hates him with adolescent angst -- Dumbledore is really the father figure he never had.
The other thing the films have missed is the shades to the characters. Even the evil Lord Voldemort has a past: A troubled childhood because of his parents' unlikely pairing. Even Harry's best friend Ron Weasley nurtures a grudge somewhere in his heart -- that he is not as famous, popular or rich as Harry.
The films miss that kind of nuance.
But what director David Yates' Half-Blood Prince makes up for it with is witty dialogue: After Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright is a great fit, transforming from an amorphous mass of black cloak to a lissom, attractive girl) and Harry get back from a private moment in the Room of Requirement, Ron asks Harry 'Did you guys do it?' A startled Harry asks back: 'What?' Ron retorts impatiently: 'Get rid of the book!'
Another thing Half-Blood Prince underscores is how good the casting actually is. Rupert Grint is the goofy Ron. Emma Watson shines as Hermione Granger. Daniel Radcliffe is outstanding as the Harry Potter who begins to understand his destiny even as love finally fills his heart. The scene where he twitches his neck like Voldemort is an inspired touch, as all Potter fans will realise.
And Helena Bonham Carter owns Bellatrix Lestrange, playing one of the few unadulterated evil characters like a female Johnny Depp (the Pirates of the Caribbean version).
The Harry-Ginny and Ron-Hermione romances are almost real. There's definite chemistry between all the characters, and the young love touches your heart.
Even the special effects and the little things that go to making a film an experience are top notch in their understatement, stepping out front when they have to -- like the superb action scenes -- and finely fuelling emotions when they need to, like Auld Lang Syne playing in the background as Hagrid mourns over the dead body of a monstrous spider he reared.
And Hogwarts finally begins to feel like the magical school it really is. It still can go a long way, because the school is really Rowling's masterstroke: The perfect combination of realism and magic.
I will not insult you by outlining the film's storyline. If you haven't read the books, go watch the film and try to figure out for yourself as Harry Potter is finally let in on Lord Voldemort's deepest secret.
As an aside, I must point out that Rowling's world is a medley of borrowed riffs: The magic from Tolkien, the school from Wodehouse, the tragedy from Dickens. Voldemort's pure-wizard-blood obsession is straight out of Hitler's Aryan theory -- there is also a bit in the final book about how Voldemort turns an ancient symbol into a sign of hate, a la the swastika. The Harry Potter-Voldemort prophecy reminds us Indians inevitably of Krishna and Kangsha mama. Even Voldemort's Horcruxes are not new -- we have all heard about demons storing their souls in other objects and animals in grandma's stories.
But recreating that medley is rather like playing Pink Floyd songs -- everyone knows each phrase, each hook, each turn so well that no matter which one you choose to keep, the listeners will miss hearing some.
That said, as an unashamed Potter-maniac, I would say Half-Blood Prince is definitely a film to be watched more than once.