Perhaps it is axiomatic, but it may as well be said up front: the film adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess's Stardust: Being A Romance Within The Realm of Faerie is not as good as the illustrated novel. (If you read it without the illustrations, shame on you. On the other hand, now's the perfect time to get your hands on a copy.) It's not a fair comparison, obviously; a book is not a film, and vice versa. That seems to be the clear attitude of the filmmakers, who've taken nearly every opportunity to turn up the story's volume with big effects and big fights. The result is a film that is perfectly entertaining and, for the most part, perfectly forgettable.
The original, for those unfamiliar, is an award-winning tale with echoes of Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter. The story of a boy seeking—and later falling in love with—a fallen star remains essentially intact in the film. Indeed, aside from some curious choices at the start, the filmmakers are about as faithful to the source material as could perhaps be expected. It is primarily the tone which has shifted, from dark and bucolic to grand and heroic. In the process some of what makes Gaiman and Vess's original so special has been lost.
Tristan Thorn is a hapless dreamer living in the village of Wall, so named for the low structure which separates it from what no one speaks of but everyone knows lies beyond—Faerie. Tristan's dreamy nature is perhaps explained by his heritage—he does not know that his mother was a captive princess whom his father met in the market village beyond the wall. The two men live alone in the village, where Tristan works for the grocer. He plans to do far more with his life, however. In wooing the village beauty, Victoria, he tells her of the places he dreams of traveling to and the deeds he hopes to accomplish. Victoria (Sienna Miller) is a shallow beauty who tolerates Tristan because she enjoys seeing herself through his adoring eyes. She has already settled on one of his wealthier, more dashing contemporaries; but when Tristan pledges to bring back a falling star to prove his love, she gives him a week to retrieve it and change her mind.
Tristan has no way of knowing that the star has been felled by a projectile—the royal ruby of Stormhold, hurled by that country's dying king. The throne of Stormhold, by tradition, falls to the last male heir standing; disappointingly, three—no, two—of the seven are still standing at the time of their father's death. (Much of the comedy of the film is provided by the chorus of dead princes, who will haunt their murdering brothers until the new king is determined.) In the absence of a clear successor, the king declares that the prince who retrieves the ruby shall take his place. It is a mark of the success of the fairy tale approach that the idea of a star felled by a ground-to-air missile of this sort never seems worth questioning.
Also seeking the star are three witch-queens who have extended their lives for many hundreds of years thanks to the life-giving qualities of the heart they cut from the last star to fall over Faerie. The witches are down to the final scraps of their power, which they give over to one sister (Michelle Pfeiffer) in order for her to chase down the star.
The star in question is of course not a fallen meteorite, but a seemingly normal young woman—radiantly beautiful, of course, and wearing the Ruby of Stormhold which felled her, but otherwise normal. As Yvaine, Claire Danes is the best thing about the film. Quickly captured by Tristan (played by Charlie Cox), she loses no opportunity to pelt him with hilarious sarcasm; when she falls for him we are almost convinced that he deserves her. (Tristan is not the most chivalrous of heroes. He first chains Yvaine, then forces her to travel on an injured leg, and finally tethers her to a tree, leaving her to the mercy of passing wild beasts while he goes to find provisions.) Opposite Danes, Cox is out of his depth. He plays Tristan as cheerful but addled throughout the film, like a lovestruck Samwise without Sean Astin's gravitas.
Then again, there is little call for gravitas here. Director Matthew Vaughn's previous effort, 2004's Layer Cake, was a Brit-gangster caper with some confusion of tone; at times Stardust has the same feel. There are explosions, car chases, and gunfights, albeit of the magical, 19th century variety. At times the princes, particularly Prince Septimus (Mark Strong), feel like they are part of a different film altogether, perhaps the one Vaughn would rather be making. One could argue that this is a strength—the fallen star, after all, is like the treasure in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World": an excuse to set some very different (and dangerous) characters at cross-purposes. Pfeiffer, however, plays Lamia more like a stock villain than someone whose life depends on catching the star. Her performance is too hammy to be frightening, too haughty to convey the desperation she must be feeling.
Pfeiffer is not the only heavy on hand, of course. Ian McKellen's narration cannot fail to put one in the fairy tale mindset, but Rupert Everett is wasted as quickly dead Secundus, part of the chorus of dead princes. Ricky Gervais is, as usual, wonderful as Ricky Gervais. Most prominent, of course, is Robert De Niro as the captain of a lightning-harvesting airship; behind his rough talk he hides (or thinks he does) his appreciation for fine food and clothes, and becomes a mentor to Tristan and Yvaine. De Niro's character is broadly drawn (he's a "whoopsie," as one of his crew affectionately puts it), and it seems as though the point of it is entirely to see him play against type. It's amusing as far as it goes, which is about half as far as it's taken.
What this all adds up to is a fair amount of magic, swordfighting, and racing across picturesque green fields. The climactic battle is a smorgasbord of effects—shattering mirrors, a mid-air drowning, and a lot of green fire. Tristan chooses Yvaine over Victoria, is reunited with his mother, and inherits the kingdom. Thanks to the performances of Danes and Strong and to visual treats like a helpful unicorn and Captain Shakespeare's flying ship, the film is worth the trip.
And yet. What's disappointing about the adaptation, overall, is that the shadows and edges have been mostly removed. Vaughn's journey into Faerie has neither the wonder nor the menace of Gaiman's. The visuals never match the strangeness of Vess's market scenes or the horror of his murdered unicorn. The charm of Gaiman's work, the thing that distinguishes it from the mainstream of contemporary fantasy, lies in the way that he plants his tales in a larger landscape of story. He teases readers with glimpses of roots that reach far deeper than what is on the page. Hunter's backstory in Neverwhere, for instance, or the "less than ten thousand" living humans who are old enough to have seen a saber-toothed tiger in the "Brief Lives" arc of Sandman. By implying that the world is far stranger than we acknowledge in our daily lives, and by never suggesting that story-life is any less grim and complicated than "real" life, Gaiman makes his stories seem almost commonplace, as if they might be happening just around the corner. At their best, they do what so much of great fantasy does: they make the world seem more filled with possibilities than before they were told. And while scraps of Stardust's vestigial stories have made it into the film, their resonance is lost.
It's the nature of adaptation, of course, that details fall away. Characters drop out, and the workings of the plot are elided for the sake of economy. In the end Vaughn and his collaborators have made a pretty good movie out of Stardust, and maybe that should be enough. Still, it seems a shame that so many of the easy Dunsanian charms and chills of the original work had to be sacrificed in favor of a self-important score, an inexplicable framing device, and a climactic battle that could have easily taken place in an X-Men film.
David J. Schwartz's first novel, Superpowers, will appear in 2008 from Three Rivers Press and Vintage Originals UK. He lives in Chicago.
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