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Stardust Is Still One of the Best Neil Gaiman Adaptations Out There

Gaiman’s work makes crossing mediums look easy, but the 2007 Stardust film remains one of the best adaptations of his work…


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Kayti Burt

Aug 3, 2017

Matthew Vaughn’s film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is officially a decade old, but it hasn’t lost any of its magic. With an all-star cast that included Daredevil‘s Charlie Cox and Homeland’s Claire Danes, a director who would go onto make X-Men: First Class and Kingsman: The Secret Service, and a story from the mind of Neil Gaiman, Stardust is a funny, clever, and heartfelt fairy tale of a movie that happens to be criminally underrated by most mainstream movie audiences.

On the tenth anniversary of its release, we’re taking the time to talk about the reasons why Stardust remains one of the best Gaiman adaptations out there, even if the box office numbers didn’t reflect that or if the story didn’t remain faithful to the book…

The history of the book.

Stardust originally began publication life as a comic book — specifically a prestige-format, four-issue miniseries. With the story by Gaiman and the illustrations by Charles Vess, Stardust began life as an inherently visual tale, which is perhaps one of the reasons why it works so well as a film. 

However, in 1999, Stardust was released as a more traditional novel by Gaiman without the illustrations from Hess. For me, this edition loses much of the story and magic of the original illustrated, comics-based version, which is perhaps why — when comparing the illustrations-less novel version of Stardust to the film version of Stardust  the former is left slightly wanting. 

Luckily for all fans of the original Stardust comic-based storybook, Vertigo released a new hardcover edition in 2007 (to roughly coincide with the release of the movie) with 50 new pages of material, including some new artwork. Thus far, the Matthew Vaughn film is the only screen adaptation of Stardust

The story of Stardust.

Stardust is a surprisingly complex story for a fairy tale adventure film that was also marketing as a family-friendly movie. The heart of the story comes in the quest of young Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox), who ventures out of his small town of Wall into the magical kingdom of Stormhold that lies just next door, on the otherside of a wall.

Tristan is on the search for a star that has fallen from the sky, a gift for his lady crush Victoria. Things get complicated, however, when he discovers the star is not a piece of celestial rock, as he assumed, but rather a living, breathing woman in the form of Claire Danes’ Yvaine. 

Elsewhere in Stormhold, others are searching for the star. Michelle Pheiffer’s witch Lamia wants to cut out the star’s heart and eat it so she and her sisters can continue to enjoy immortal life. The kingdom’s royalty — a gaggle of cutthrout princes — are also on the hunt, as their dying father made a proclamation that whoever retrieved the stone around the star’s neck would ascend to the throne.

Stardust juggles these multiple, interweaving storylines beautifully through imaginative, kinetic editing (one of Vaughn’s hallmarks as a director). And, though many people point to the changing of the story’s ending in the film, I find the movie’s ending much better-paced and complementary to the other subtle (and not so subtle) changes the film makes to the book’s worldscape.

Stardust‘s specialty lies in upending tropes in unexpected ways, while also celebrating them. It reminds me a lot of Hot Fuzz in that way. It is a great example of the Have Its Cake and Eat It Too mode of self-aware storytelling. In a rather cynical age, it manages to give us a satisfying fairy tale by subverting enough of its tropes to lure us hypnotically into embracing other ones. It doesn’t always succeed — there a few too many damsel-in-distress moments for my liking — but, for the most part, its few flaws are overshadowed by its innumberable charms.

A great cast, led by Claire Danes & Charlie Cox.

Many of Stardust‘s aforementioned charms come in the quality of its expansive cast. Seriously, everyone is in this movie and they are giving it their all, making the script come to life with complexity, humor, and heart. In the central love story, we have Charlie Cox and Claire Danes as Tristan and Yvaine. Past that, highlights include Michelle Pheiffer’s Lamia, Robert De Niro as Captain Shakespeare, and Mark Strong’s Prince Septimus. (Strong would also go on to star in Vaughn’s Kingsman as Merlin.)

Past that, we get some fun, memorable performances from Rupert Evertt as Prince Secundus, Peter O’Toole as the King of Stormhold, Henry Cavill as the prissy Humphrey, Ricky Gervais as the comedic Ferdy the Fence, and Sienna Miller as the haughty Victoria. And have I mentioned that it is all narrated by Ian McKellen? Yeah, the extras are basically all played by Oscar-winners in this movie.

For me, one of the chief strengths of the film over the book lies with the realness and development of the characters. That is in no small part to the impressiveness of this cast, but it also has something to do with the screenplay. While Gaiman tends to be more interested in archeypes, themes and prose, the film — perhaps by necessity, as a product of Hollywood — has much more interest in making these characters three-dimensional and relatable.

Which emphasis you prefer all depends on what kind of story-consumer you are, but, for me, Gaiman’s archetypal characters tend to be the least interesting part of his imaginative works.

The changes from the book.

Anyone who has read both the book and seen the movie will know that the Stardust film, co-written by Vaughn and frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, changes quite a bit from its source material. As is common with adaptations, a lot is simplified — on both sides of the wall.

Tristan’s home community is much less vast and complex. Likewise, the world of Stormhold is less strange and magical. In the book, there are all manner of magical creatures. For the sake of narrative simplicity or perhaps for budgetary concerns, that same scope of magical-kind is much more limited in the film.

The film also adds in an entire sequence around De Niro’s Captain Shakespeare that is barely present in the book. For me, this is actually an important decision. Brushing past the potentially reductive depiction of Shakespeare’s marginalized identity, for me, this is where the film makes one of its smartest decisions: the montage. I am a big proponent of the montage in Hollywood blockbusters that have any interest in building a believable, meaningful relationship for two characters who have just met.

A montage gives us the illusion that an indefinable amount of time has passed and (more importantly) that, in that time, a whole manner of significant interaction could have and probably has occurred. In a two-hour film, the montage can cover all manner of underdeveloped character and character dynamic sins, and more Hollywood blockbusters should take advantage of it.

In Stardust, there’s no way the Captain Shakespeare montage could have lasted more than a few days at most, given that only a week passes over the course of Tristan’s journey in Stormhold. However, this is where Tristan and Yvaine fall in love, this is where Tristan makes his transition from gawky shopboy to more confident man, this is where Stardust makes us believe in the true love it must to pull off its fairy tale ending.

The ending.

There is also the matter of the book vs. film’s endings. In the book ending, Lamia finds Yvaine in the market town near the wall, but — when she tries to take Yvaine’s heart — Yvaine explains that she can’t because she has already given it to Tristan. This is different from the film’s more action-geared ending, which includes a fight between the reanimated corpse of Septimus and Tristan, as well as some rather extensive glass-smashing.

Ultimately, it is Yvaine who saves the day by using her love for Tristan to let out a burst of starshine, killing Lamia. Perhaps the larger change to the book’s story is found in the epilogue. In the book, Tristan and Yvaine leave Stormhold for a time, leaving Una (Tristan’s mother in charge). They eventually return, Tristan lives out his life as ruler, and then dies, leaving a heartbroken Yvaine to return to the sky alone.

In the film, the two live into their old age together as rulers of Stormhold, then — when they are very old — ascend to the sky to live as stars together. It is a thoroughly happy ending, one that doesn’t make Tristan give up his ties to his family and friends in Wall, and one some Gaiman fans have problems with. For me, it is a minor point that has less to do with the story than the ending that occurs in the more immediate sense, completing Tristan’s quest and Tristan and Yvaine’s love story. And that ending is much better-paced and climactic than the one we get in the book.

Of course, the book is interested in much different things than the movie, and the less climactic, quieter ending reflects that. While the Stardust book is much more interested in engaging with and challenging pre-Tolkien English fantasy at a novelistic and prose level, the film doesn’t even try to do the same. It would be a foolish attempt, after all, to try to mimick and subvert a style that lives so entirely in the pre-cinematic world. Instead, the Stardust film sets its sights on subverting and celebrating the three-act Hollywood blockbuster.

Gaiman’s role in the movie.

Montages and ending specifics aside, all of the changes from the book to the film were made with the blessing of Gaiman, who also acted as a producer on the film and had some say in creative decisions. Speaking on the changes made for the Stardust film to MTV, Gaiman said:

What I did with Matthew was this thing you must never do. Don’t do this; it is very, very wrong: I gave him the option for nothing. I phoned him up and said, ‘OK, Stardust is yours; I really trusted him, and you don’t run into that very often. He offered me the script, but I said, ‘No, I wrote the novel, but this is your film, your vision. But I will help you.’

The first thing I did was find him a writer, Jane Goldman, who hadn’t written a script before but I loved her novels, I loved her journalism, and she got the book. I was involved with the casting and set locations too.

For me, Stardust is one of the few examples of a film adaptation that aren’t afraid to make changes that work much better for the format. Personally, I like the Stardust film more than the Stardust novel — though both contain their own, separate joys. In an era of remakes and adaptations, more filmmakers and writers of adapted screenplays could learn from Matthew Vaughn’s and Jane Goldman’s example. 

What would a Stardust sequel have looked like?

Den of Geek chatted with Matthew Vaughn in 2015 about what a Stardust sequel would have looked like. The director already had a rough idea in place, if the movie had made enough money to warrant moving forward on another one — which, sadly, it did not.

Here’s what Vaughn said:

I had a really crazy fun idea for a Stardust 2. The opening scene was Charlie Cox’s character, being the king and throwing out the necklace. This time the necklace goes over the wall and bounces off Big Ben, and you’re suddenly in London in the early 1960s, with these mad kings and princes and princesses running around London. All on the quest for the stone.

What sets Stardust apart.

Despite its status as both an adaptation of existing material and an interest in commenting on so many of the genre tropes that have come before, Stardust still feels like a wholly original work. It also manages to do the fairy tale genre with a commitment to whimsical sincerity that is rarely seen in today’s media climate — especially for adults.

One needs look no further than the ridiculously popular Game of Thrones to see what kind of fantasy drama is valued in today’s pop culture climate. It’s downright refreshing to revisit a fantasy that doesn’t let its use of irony ever endanger its commitment to comforting fairy tale values that are all-to-often dismissed as unimportant or childish.

No, Stardust manages to capture some of the silly self-awareness and unabashed sentimentalism of Princess Bride in a contemporary movie-making era where only one of those things is truly valued. For that — and for so much else — Stardust remains one of the best Neil Gaiman adaptations out there, even (and perhaps especially) when it’s not particularly Gaiman-like at all.

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