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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 12, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Stardust: the book and the movie

At first glance, one might think that Stardust was the big loser of the past weekend's box office take. While Rush Hour 3 raked in the bucks in the tens of millions, and Bourne and The Simpsons added to their already impressive piles, poor Stardust only took in nine million bucks.

Well, it was a disappointment. But not a surprise. The movie had little advance publicity; it was not a sequel and so had no built-in audience. Based on a book by bestselling writer Neil Gaiman was not much help because (a) movies cannot survive on book sales totals, and (b) it was far from being Gaiman's best-known novel. The movie of his American Gods will be far better known and more anticipated.

But I am one of the fans of Gaiman's remarkable work, and the moment I saw a promo of the movie -- incoherent as the promos were -- I bought the book to read in advance of the movie, and made plans to see the film and, I hoped, review it on its opening weekend.

The book Stardust opens in a tone evocative of old-fashioned storytelling -- but with a slightly arch attitude, so that it is also making fun of that kind of tale. In fact, it's several chapters before the main character is introduced; you think for a while that the book is about someone else.

What emerges along with the real main character is a story that is part whimsy, part traditional young-man-finds-himself story. It's a genre that includes Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn -- a young man finds himself caught up in dangerous magical events that demand heroic effort from him, all because he fell in love with a woman.

The book -- more novella than novel -- is like a short story that outgrew itself. Gaiman, always an inventive storyteller, brings up story elements that cry out for further elaboration, but he simply moves on. And the whimsy is not defended or justified in real-world terms.

It's simply taken for granted that stars can fall to earth and when they do, if they happen to land in Faerie, they take the form of young women, who are in grave danger of having their hearts ripped out of their living body by witches who know that eating such a heart will allow them to live forever.

Subplots proliferate: There are the brothers of a dead king who follow the family tradition of choosing the new king by process of elimination: They do their best to murder each other and the last man standing gets the crown.

There's also a woman who has been enslaved by an evil witch and can only get her freedom when there's a week with two Mondays and other unlikely events.

And there's the young man, Tristran, who is desperately in love with a girl who really has little use for him, and who promises to marry him when he brings back a fallen star only because she doesn't believe that he can do it.

Throughout the book, because of its brevity and whimsy, I was always aware of a kind of lightness. I cared, but I suspect I cared more than the writer did, or he would have taken time to flesh out all the tantalizing bits of storytelling magic that he so blithely tossed out of his imagination onto the page.

I was also disappointed that at a point when a different young man is enchanted into sleeping with the witch's captive, Gaiman took two paragraphs to describe the sex act with far more detail that was necessary, considering that none of the details changed the story one iota. All we needed was to see him return to the woman who was enchanting him, and then nine months later have the baby left at the gate.

We really are clever enough to fill in the details without explication, and as a result, the sex scene seems to have no literary purpose. It is merely a digression into prurience and is beneath the dignity of the tale. (In American Gods Gaiman writes sex scenes that are far more explicit, but they don't feel digressive because they truly are, in detail, a vital part of the storyline.)

Why write a book that would be charming for whole families to read, and then insert a couple of copulatory paragraphs that make it nearly impossible for parents to hand it to the younger children who would otherwise have embraced the book? Such a thing is hardly "daring," just vaguely dumb. If Gaiman had thought about it more, I suspect he would have left it out.

But despite such quibbles (and one Jack-and-the-beanstalk storyline that turns out to be a complete throwaway joke), I enjoyed the book very much and looked forward to the movie.

The good news is that while the movie makes quite a few changes from the storyline of the book, most of them are obviously necessary and some of them are actually improvements.

Many things have to be cut out for the movie adaptation because movies are so much shorter than books -- even slim books like Stardust.

Also, things that require complicated explanations in a book are not a burden -- there's plenty of time to explain and the reader can always go back and reread if there's something that evades understand or slips out of memory.

In fact, I did that when I read the terms of Tristran's mother's captivity. She will be released when? Two Mondays in the same week ... moon's daughter ... oh yeah.

But while watching the movie you can't go back and refresh your memory -- the movie goes on, with you or without you.

So while I missed the clever terms of Una's captivity, I also agreed with the filmmakers about their decision.

I missed some characters who were cut, as well, but understood that they weren't essential to the plot. And where the book gave short shrift to the young man taking the goat to market, the movie treated him much better.

Some of the changes led to good scenes that would have been wasted in the book. The book does not have a final confrontation in the witches' castle; the moviemakers, convinced that final confrontations are essential in all films, created a scene that hadn't existed before.

But within that scene is a delicious moment when the animals the witches kept for divining purposes get their revenge. And there is another delight when Michelle Pfeiffer's character gets one last laugh at the young lovers' expense.

All the same, there were some unfortunate flaws in that scene, too. It was not Neil Gaiman's deft hand in charge, and it showed. Gaiman would never have prepared a hero, giving him swordfighting lessons and showing him act with increasing boldness, only to have him spend a long sequence of the climax cowering in a corner with his mother.

It was inexplicable that he did not use the time when the wicked prince Septimus is distracting the witches to make a run at the altar where his love is waiting to try to free her. It's as if the filmmakers had said, "That's too ha-a-a-ard! Don't make us do two things at once!" But the result was that we lose respect for that character by the minute, as he lets another man die at the hands of the common enemy without making the slightest effort to intervene.

If he had distracted Pfeiffer before she could use a voodoo doll to destroy Septimus, he might have kept an ally alive. He had no reason to think he would do a better job of freeing his beloved alone than with someone at his side! It was a hopelessly bad decision and it was obvious that Charlie Cox, the actor playing Tristran, had no idea what to do with his character when they cut to him during that sequence.

And there was the absolutely awful crowning scene, where Cox was destroyed by the set designer and costumer and hairdresser. We had watched him grow in confidence, only to see him, on the throne, looking pathetic and goofy, while Claire Danes was allowed to be elegant.

The shape of the movie was drastically changed by the decision to beef up the part of Captain Shakespeare of the sky pirates. Casting Robert De Niro might have come first -- I suspect they might have beefed up the part because he was playing it, or in order to persuade him to play it.

Fortunately, the things they added to beef up his part, like the lengthening of Michelle Pfeiffer's part, were all to the good. De Niro was given a chance to do comedy, and it created the space in which the movie could do what the book didn't do: Show a gradual transformation in the feelings of the main characters toward each other.

On the other hand, I thought it was a mistake that where the book has Tristran voluntarily, if foolishly, free the fallen star, Yvaine (Claire Danes), the movie has him leave her imprisoned so that the unicorn frees her. The book also makes Tristran the agent of the unicorn's survival, so he's part of that subplot; the movie leaves him out of the unicorn business entirely.

At the end, I was satisfied that talented people had done a good job of adapting a good story with only a few mistakes, none of them fatal.

The problem was that they did not do a great job of adapting a great story -- because the original was not a fully developed Neil Gaiman story, and the adaptation did not transcend the vague slightness of the book.

So when I look at the box office figures for the movie, I could not help but think that the numbers were not inappropriate. This was not a transformative, unforgettable fantasy like, say, The Thirteenth Tale or The Name of the Wind or Inda. It was "merely" a really good story that's a pleasure to read. But that's rare enough to find, isn't it?

And the movie is not a must-see film. It's the kind of love story that will be a deep favorite with a relatively small portion of the movie-going public -- but that audience will be fiercely loyal and will keep this movie alive forever on DVD. Nobody's going to lose any money from this film, even if it started slow at the box office.

If you love love stories or delight in fantasy films, you would be foolish to miss this one. Many of the performances are extraordinarily good. David Kelly, for instance, is a delight as the guard at the gate; Michelle Pfeiffer gets to mug shamelessly but she does it with such brio that you don't want to miss it. The comic relief of the ghost brothers is a pleasure without quite going too far.

Above all, Claire Daynes is luminous, and not because they kept lighting her up like a Christmas tree. Without any special effects, she radiates love and joy, with a kind of natural, voluptuous, homespun beauty that takes your breath away. Charlie Cox is a terrific discovery -- he is a fine actor whose face can be heroic or naive, full of love and hurt by turns.

Ben Barnes as young Dunstan (Tristran's father) is also memorable in a tiny part. I'm glad he's playing Prince Caspian in the Narnia films so we can see more of him.

It is always a pleasure to see somebody silence and then kill Ricky Gervais's character on screen. It really should happen more often in more shows.

I have been too analytical. Perhaps the problem is that I read the book and saw the movie during the first couple of days of teaching my annual writing workshop, so I was in hyper-critical mode.

We really enjoyed this movie. Forget my analysis and go see it. I'd hate to think I talked the movie to death. There's nothing wrong with creating a lighthearted love story in which dark and terrible things happen but it all turns out OK. My week was better for having both the book and the movie in it.

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