A star falls from the sky; a young man searches for love. A prince seeks his crown, and a witch chases after her youth. All these things and more converge in Stardust, a fantasy-romance-adventure of swashbuckling proportions. Does this movie adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess’ illustrated novel shine – or does it bite the dust?
Described by its creators as a “fairy tale for adults”, Stardust – Being a Romance Within the Realms of Faerie was the fruit of a collaboration by Gaiman – perhaps best known for his award-winning work on DC Vertigo’s Sandman series – and Charles Vess, renowned comic book and fantasy artist.
Stardust is the story of a young man named Tristan (Tristran, in the book) Thorn who lives in the village of Wall. This quiet little English town with its backwater air is encircled (appropriately) by a stone wall through which no one is allowed to pass.
Tristan falls head over heels for Victoria Foster, a fair young lady of a more upper echelon who already has an established paramour. In desperation, our lovelorn hero ends up promising Victoria the sun, moon and stars – or to be exact, a specific falling star they happen to see one night.
Things get complicated when Tristan actually manages to circumvent the wall and find the star. The fallen testament to his devotion is revealed to be a bright-eyed and pale-skinned sylph of a girl named Yvaine. Having been knocked out of the sky by a jewel, she is in a terrible temper and only too happy to hurl insults his way as he tries to take her home.
But of course, things can only get more complicated. There's the little fact that Yvaine, as the first fallen star in centuries, is being chased by the Lilim, a trio of haggard witch-queens who desire her glowing heart to return them youth and beauty. And there's also Prince Septimus, the final canny survivor of a gang of fratricidal brothers all vying for the throne of Stormhold, the magical world beyond the Wall. Seems that the jewel that knocked Yvaine out of the sky will seal Septimus' position as ruling King of all the lands.
When it comes to movie adaptations, it’s always interesting to see the difference in opinions between fans of the original source material versus those who have never encountered it before. And when it comes to adaptations of works by comic book/fantasy juggernauts like Gaiman … things can sometimes get pretty touchy. Does the end result water things down and pander to the masses too much? Or does it end up being something accessible only to a niche crowd, too saturated with inside references and jokes?
For comparison, our group of friends who attended a Sunday afternoon showing was comprised of a mixed lot. We had three people who had read Stardust, five who were familiar with Gaiman’s work, and two who had next to no experience with either.
The final verdict? All-round crowd pleaser.
And well-deservedly so. For sure, the movie moves (and it has to) at a snippy pace compared to the book. The story is streamlined, skipping over extraneous details and making it more comprehensive to (and suitable for) a general audience. Much of the traditional rhymes/folk tunes and references in Gaiman’s story, as well as the descriptives focusing on the world of the Faerie (the lands of Stormhold), have been sidelined to reduce confusion. And like every good modern fairy tale, it also skips over much of the sex and gore that was present in the original (hey, it WAS originally intended for adults!), enabling it to slide in at a PG-13 rating for mere “fantasy violence and risqué humour”.
What makes the editing work is that it is done with obvious respect for the source material. And in fact, some of the changes have probably made the movie more engaging (and enjoyable to those who can’t stand fluffy romances). For the most part, events actually remain quite true to the plot of the book, although a large portion of the second half has been given a facelift to ramp up the epic factor closer to those other fantasy-adventure films that have so dominated the screens lately (not that I’m naming any names or anything coughlotrcoughnarniacoughetc.). The visuals likewise lend a charming Old World atmosphere fused with the darker, more haunting environs of a world of magic, just what people are used to seeing now from such films.
Much of the witty dialogue is lifted right from the pages of the book. Although some of the more “English” language and conversation has been modernized, screenplay writers Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn (the latter also the movie director) have kept the spirit of Gaiman’s writing, as well as added lines that work quite well with the original material. Goldman and Vaughn appear to have worked hard to try to make Stardust the Princess Bride for a new generation; the sarcasm has also been amped up without going too overboard.
There is also definitely more closure in the individual storylines, as well as more satisfaction with the way things turn out. What is most impressive is that Stardust takes some great ideas from the book and makes them even more entertaining. Major case in point: as the Stormlord princes are assassinated, they join a ghostly peanut gallery of observers, following the still-living characters and lending highly amusing commentary to every scene. They really got the audience going, the two sides often having the same reactions.
The actors all did a fine job in bringing the story to life. Charlie Cox is highly believable as earnest Tristan Thorn, a boy learning and growing throughout his adventure and ultimately discovering incredible truths about himself. Meanwhile, Claire Danes is an excellent Yvaine. She finely balances the role of splendidly snarky star and wide-eyed, slightly awkward foreigner amongst the Earth-people she’s been watching at a distance for so long. The two characters share a great dynamic, especially in their entertaining back-and-forth arguments and conversations.
Michelle Pfeiffer turns in a wicked performance as Lamia, the eldest of the Lilim who searches for the star’s heart, while Mark Strong is a wonderfully villainous Septimus. The entire family of Stormlord royalty interacts hilariously with each other, if in a somewhat macabre way, rushing to send each other to his doom first, and continuing to make snide commentary in the afterlife.
But without a doubt it is Robert De Niro’s performance as Captain Shakespeare, head of a flying shipful of lightning-chasing pirates, that stole the most scenes and drew the most laughs. One particular sequence, a deathmatch between Shakespeare’s crew and Septimus’ men choreographed to Offenbach’s infamous “Can-Can” song from Orpheus in the Underworld, had everybody in stitches.
Our Sunday afternoon showing drew a surprisingly heavy crowd. But perhaps not so surprising – word must have gotten around. The film drew guffaws in all the right places, and the audience was completely engaged, ready and willing to whoop and cheer for the characters, even finishing with a final round of applause when the credits started to roll.
Overall the plot is probably somewhat predictable, but the journey there is loaded with highly entertaining characters and scenes, and the interactions are full of surprises. So whether you’re a big fan of all things Gaiman, taken with swashbucklers, enamoured of true love, or just enjoy fairy tales served with a side of snarky, Stardust is a good pick. It might be shiny, strange and sometimes silly, but in the end it’s simply a lot of fun to watch.