Adapted From: Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Starring: Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Sienna Miller, Mark Strong, Michelle Pfeiffer, Peter O'Toole, Jason Flemying and Robert De Niro
Screenplay: Jane Goldmand and Matthew Vaughn
Directed By: Matthew Vaughn
As I discuss all elements of both the book and the film, please be advised that there are major spoilers ahead.
A beloved fairytale in its own right, Neil Gaiman's Stardust had long been gestating in the hands of Miramax before the author himself decided to award Matthew Vaughn the rights for free after the options ran out. Matching Vaughn with Jane Goldman (and in doing so, producing one of the most successful writer/director teams of recent years), Gaiman's novel and the subsequent adaptation is one of those seemingly rare occurences; it is an adaptation which both complements and expands upon its source material without a crippling fidelity to it. Gaiman purists might be upset with the changes wrought upon the novel, but the changes made for the film work to streamline the narrative for the new medium, playing up the adventure fantasy elements whilst also hueing fairytale conventions.
The gentler, Disneyfied versions of fairytales and fantasy often have protagonists on a journey of self-discovery, travelling from humble beginnings into an adventure that allows them to discover who they truly are and what they are worth. It appears in everything from the recent film Jack the Giant Slayer to Tolkien's literary masterpiece Lord of the Rings and it appears once again in Stardust. Tristran in the book, changed to Tristan for easier pronunciation in the film, begins his story as a humble shop boy and over the course of his quest to retrieve a fallen star becomes someone far greater as a result of his adventures. It is something that both the film and the book promote actively, following Tristan/Tristran on his journey of self-discovery.
One of the key themes across both the novel and the film is that these are characters who are trapped in a form that isn't right for them. Una, the Stormhold princess, is kept as a slave by Madame Semele/Ditchwater Sal and is usually trapped in the form of a bird, Yvaine is in human form when she should be a star and Captain Shakespeare (a departure from the Captain Alberic of the book and Robert de Niro playing wonderfully against type - he's a serious highlight of the film) would much rather be cross-dressing and reading poetry than portraying the uber-masculine lightning pirate that he must be for his crew. The Captain Shakespeare scene in which he fears for his reputation in front of his crew and they say "you'll always be our captain, Captain" is a clear example of the film's themes of acceptance over hiding your true self and is a truly heartwarming moment to boot.
There are also those attempting to steal something that isn't rightfully theirs to take, refusing to accept what or who they are in the process. Septimus is the seventh son, but has murdered the vast majority of his siblings in order to get to the throne as well as, towards the end of the film, attempting to take the heart of Yvaine in order to rule forever. Lamia, the witch-queen of the books, wanting to steal Yvaine's heart to regain her youth and for her sisters too. Initially, theft is Tristan/Tristran's ultimate goal too, kidnapping the star to take back to Victoria in order to win her love. Falling in love with Yvaine soon teaches Tristan the error of his ways and, unlike Septimus or Lamia/the witch-queen who are punished for their transgressions, Tristan is rewarded for not succumbing. He gets to have the happily ever after. Charlie Cox (now playing Daredevil to rapturous acclaim) is perfect in the part, beginning as an absolute dweeb, complete with appropriate haircut, and growing with confidence and becoming steadily more debonair as the film goes on.
Gaiman's book adopts the simple, almost childlike prose of the fairytales, weaving together Tristran's meandering travels through the land of Faerie. Vaughn and Goldman's screenplay adopts a more present sense of urgency, allowing Victoria to give Tristan a deadline of a week in order to streamline events and give the story a faster pace. It's one of several changes made from the book; Faerie becomes Stormhold (only a part of Faerie) and isn't known about it in the human world and Captain Alberic's scenes in the book become expanded for Robert de Niro as the fabulous Captain Shakespeare. Without that change, we wouldn't have been treated to one of the finest choreographed and edited fighting/dancing renditions of the can-can in cinema.
Like that setpiece, these changes work to the film's advantage, allowing Vaughn to establish this fantasy world with the minimum amount of effort in order to get to the main bulk of the story. Gaiman has more freedom to describe Faerie and its foibles, but the film uses its prologue with a pre-Narnia Ben Barnes as the younger version of Tristan's father, Dunstan, as our eyes into this world of magic. Therefore, when Tristan travels on his quest, we already have some idea of the quirks to expect when he gets there and the star becomes the connecting point between the various plot strands that emerge; Tristan and Yvaine, the witches' pursuit of the star and Septimus versus Primus in the battle for the throne of Stormhold.
Many comparisons between The Princess Bride and Stardust were somewhat inevitable given that both were posited as twists on the traditional fairytale. The poster tagline for Stardust was "The Fairytale That Won't Behave" which is somewhat misleading, given that it doesn't really do anything you wouldn't expect a fairytale to do. Whilst The Princess Bride manages the enviable task of remaining both true to its origins and gently mocking of its fairytale roots (more on that in this blog's future), Stardust ends up becoming a bit more conventional in its transferrence to film. The streamlining of Gaiman's narrative into something more akin to an adventure story drops the more subversive elements of the novel, but finds a balance that perfectly suits the needs of a cinematic audience.
This is none more apparent than in the climax of the film, perhaps the biggest change from the book aside from the introduction of Captain Shakespeare and Ferdy the Fence. In the book, the witch-queen does defeat Septimus but instead of resurrecting him for the big final battle with Tristran, the confrontation is a mere conversation between the witch-queen and Yvaine when the star states that she has given her heart to Tristran and as such, isn't something that the witch-queen can take. They part with a kiss on the cheek. It is in this moment that Gaiman most undermines fairytale tradition, allowing the old witch to return to her family without visiting any punishment on her for her behaviour. If this had been a fairytale in the Grimm tradition, she would have been lucky to escape with only a bit of mild dancing in iron clogs (see Snow White for more disturbing details).
The film, given that it is more skewed towards the adventure genre, takes things down a more violent path. Thanks to the presence of Michelle Pfeiffer, the witches get a bumped up role in the film from the nameless ageing villains of Gaiman's book. They are named after ancient female baddies too; there's Lamia, Mormo (Joanna Scanlan) and Empusa (Sarah Alexander) and though they form the main forces attempting to capture Yvaine in the book as well, they are largely anonymous except for motive. A big benefit of the film is that we get to see more of the other two sisters as they get their own action sequences versus Septimus and Tristan respectively. Lamia is the main antagonist throughout and she battles with both Septimus and Tristan for Yvaine at the end of the film.
Lamia captures Yvaine and the chase is on for everyone to get to the witches' lair before they can cut out her heart. Making the star the focus of the three separate narratives (Tristan's, the witches and the Stormhold heir) pays off here as it brings all three to a head at once. It's a stunning sequence that utilises some excellent fight choreography with the Septimus zombie versus Tristan battle as well as taking advantage of the gorgeous set used to house the witches. It does take away from the subversive notes of Gaiman's novel, nodding to it in Lamia's emotional feint of letting Tristan and Yvaine go, but it works much better cinematically, bringing everyone together for a climactic battle that resolves all three narrative strands at once and with ease.
Vaughn and Goldman's adaptation of Stardust may not be the most faithful of adaptations, but it is a worthy rendering of the novel, one which keeps its quirky atmosphere, if not its more subversive elements. What the film does do is take the basic aspects of the novel and weave it into an adventure story that retains the complexity of Gaiman's themes whilst making it more cinematic for film audiences. The cast brings it to life superbly, wholly buying into the fantasy world of Stormhold and creating memorable characters that all but leap off the page.