I often find that I need to give a movie a “break” before I see it, if I’ve heard too much about it beforehand. Perhaps I’ve heard so many good things about the movie, and I worry that my expectations are too high. Or maybe I’ve heard so many troubling things that I worry that my opinion may be predisposed to be negative. Whatever the case, it often means that I miss out on seeing it in the theatre and have to settle for DVD, but I feel it’s the only way that I can give the movie a fair shake, that I can judge it on its own merits.
I suppose it’s an odd little quirk of mine, but it’s served me well in the past. And so I did it for Stardust, an adaptation of what is most certainly my favorite of Neil Gaiman’s works. I had read some troubling things — e.g., negative reviews that pointed towards disturbing changes to the storyline — but I resolved to watch the film as fairly as possible, keeping in mind all of the usual caveats concerning literary adaptations. It was an endeavor that proved pointless about thirty minutes into the film: Stardust was much worse than anything I had steeled myself for.
Narrated by Sir Ian McKellen, Stardust is the story of young Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox), who lives in the English village of Wall (so named because of the giant wall nearby) but dreams of bigger things. Namely, winning the hand of Victoria (Sienna Miller), the town beauty. One night, while trying to impress Victoria, Tristan makes what seems to be an idealistic-yet-rash promise: if Victoria agrees to marry him, he’ll cross the wall and bring back the shooting star that has just passed overhead.
The promise is rash because the wall is no ordinary barrier. It separates the town of Wall (and the rest of England) from the magical kingdom of Stormhold. A kingdom that is currently undergoing succession. The current king (Peter O’Toole) is dying, and has assembled his living sons to make them a challenge: whoever retrieves the king’s jewel will become Stormhold’s new lord. His last act sends the jewel flying into the heavens, where it strikes a star and sends it falling to earth — the same star witnessed by Tristan and Victoria. The brothers take note of where it lands, and so begins the chase.
Meanwhile, a trio of witch sisters led by Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) also see the falling star and realize it as a solution to their aging problems, for whomever eats a star’s heart will be given new life. Using the last remaining bits of their magic, the sisters send Lamia out to claim the rare prize.
But what’s that bit about the star’s heart? You see, the star is not just some lump of cosmic rock, as Tristan supposes. It’s actually a beautiful young woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes). A beautiful and strong-willed woman who greatly objects to Tristan’s using her as a wedding gift. But Tristan ensnares her, and so the duo set off back to the wall. But they have only a week until Victoria’s birthday, and there’s a whole lot of magic kingdom — complete with murderous princes, scheming witches, sky pirates, and other dangers — to traverse.
It’s a wonderful story — in the book, at least. And the filmmakers get it wrong on nearly every count. What bothers me is not the stuff that they’ve added — e.g., Captain Shakespeare, a cross-dressing sky pirate played by Robert De Niro — but rather, the stuff that they’ve removed. Specifically, every bit of wit, cleverness, subtlety, mystery, and sadness that exists in the novel, and all so that they can have a big, bad-ass, pyrotechnics-filled — and utterly generic — Hollywood fantasy film.
Stardust is not necessarily Gaiman’s best or most highly acclaimed work, but it’s my favorite: it’s the one that I enjoy the most, the one that I return to most frequently. It’s a simple and earnest story, and that’s precisely why it works so well. Sure, there are big fights, heartpounding chases, and whatnot, but much of that is conveyed only in passing; that’s not where the focus of the story lies. Which is something the filmmakers apparently missed entirely.
Every time I sat through another sweeping, epic vista, or watched another slow-motion chase with galloping horses and a pounding orchestral score — all of which seemed like little more than the filmmakers begging for Lord Of The Rings comparisons — or whenever the movie tossed out a little joke or got tongue-in-cheek — Robert De Niro’s prancing, Michelle Pfeiffer’s vamped-up performance — my heart just sank at how far the filmmakers had missed the mark.
I’ll spare you a laundry list, but here are a couple of important details that I wish the filmmakers had strayed less from the book on. For starters, the book places much more emphasis on the otherness and scariness of the world beyond the wall, and weaves in more traditional Faerie folklore (one of Gaiman’s great strengths is his ability to take ages-old folklore and weave it convincingly into a new context). However, all of that is either tossed out of the movie entirely, or glossed over to give more time to silly Ricky Gervais routines.
Additionally, more emphasis is placed on Tristan’s status as an outsider in the village of Wall, especially within his family (which is entirely absent from the movie). Furthermore, there’s a touching sadness in the relationship between Tristan and his father Duncan, especially when Tristan sets out on his quest. One gets the feeling that Duncan wants to go with him because he knows, in part, the wonders beyond, but knows he can’t because of his responsibilities at home, and so Tristan is going in his stead.
The romance between Tristan and Yvaine is much better developed within the novel. Their constant bickering — or rather, the star’s constant frustration at Tristan’s simple, naïve ways — is one of the most delightful things in the novel, and it makes the love that eventually blossoms between them all the sweeter. And the scene in which they finally confess their feelings for one another is done with great tenderness and romance, in contrast to the movie’s bawdiness.
And finally, while I won’t spoil any endings, I will say this: the novel’s ending may be a good deal more melancholy, but it’s also filled with magic and grace, and is therefore much more haunting and memorable than the movie’s “fairy tale” ending. This is perhaps the filmmakers’ most egregious error: they exchange a subdued-yet-perfect ending for, of course, a needless climactic battle and a dénouement whose only purpose, it seems, is to ensure that certain characters receive their comeuppance — rather than the grace and forgiveness that they receive in the novel.
Neil Gaiman is one of our greatest living fantasy authors. His works are clever and full of wonders, and so skillfully written as to make them incredibly accessible and open for enjoyment. And so it saddens me that one of his works is treated this poorly, with the filmmakers trading all of those wonders for the most simplistic and trivial of things. Nevermind the fact that this particular work is my personal favorite, which makes it even more painful to watch — for me, at least. (And adding confusion is the fact that Gaiman apparently approved all of the changes to the story, something I can’t quite fathom.)
Of course, it need not be this way. Peter Jackson and his team proved that you can make changes to great fantasy works in order to bring them to the big screen, and not lose any of the magic in the process. Would that the folks behind Stardust had paid a bit more attention to Jackson’s philosophy, rather than just do their best to ape his style and technique for a story that doesn’t warrant it, nor can support it.