“Stardust (Widescreen Edition)” (Paramount)
This was one of the most disappointing movies I’ve watched in a long, long time. Despite the fact quite a few people seemed to enjoy it, Stardust was a mediocre movie at best, and a huge let-down for me after listening to Neil Gaiman’s reading of his book for Audible.com. I want to be clear here: I am not suggesting that anyone’s enjoyment of this movie is wrong per se. What I hope these 10 items demonstrate is that the movie lacks the narrative and character elements that make Gaiman’s work such a joy to read and, especially when he is doing the reading, to hear.
Note: When referring to the movie I will use the name Tristan and when referring to the book I will use the name Tristran. I guess the movie-makers felt that the extra “r” was too hard for the movie-going audience and renamed the character.
Also ——–SPOILERS MOST DEFINITELY AHEAD!——–
In the real Stardust, Victoria is significantly more of a person as compared to Hollywood’s ersatz Stardust. More to the point, she is not in love with the town asshole and undergoes her own transformation during the months that Tristran is gone. In fact, Gaiman makes it obvious that 1) She never expected Tristran to do anything foolish like go and look for a star, 2) Is terribly sorry about her flippant comments to Tristan, and 3) Is willing to give up her true love in order to fulfill her promise to Tristran. Both Victoria and Tristran are children at the beginning of the story, and both have paid a price in the course of their growing up but, and this is key to Gaiman’s version they both grow up. By removing all of Victoria’s humanity and turning her into a convenient and lazy plot point, her character is erased from the story and she becomes that tired and vaguely sexist version of the “girl who thinks she’s just too good for our hero but will get her comeuppance in the end.” What could have been an interesting, subtle, and challenging role for a young actress has been turned into nothing more than a stereotype. How typically Hollywood.
2. Lack of Imagination
The following excerpts are from Gaiman’s book and describes the fairie market that occurs every nine years next to the town of Wall:
“Eyes, eyes! New eyes for old!” shouted a tiny woman in front of a table covered with bottles and jars filled with eyes of every kind and color.
“Instruments of music from a hundred lands!”
“Penny whistles! Tuppeny hums! Threepenny choral anthems!”
“Try your luck! Step right up! Answer a simple riddle and win a wind-flower!”
“Everlasting lavender! Bluebell cloth!”
“Bottled dreams, a shilling a bottle!”
“Coats of Night! Coats of twilight! Coats of dusk!”
He goes on to write that:
There were wonders for sale, and marvels, and miracles; there were things undreamed-of and objects unimagined (what need, Dunstan wondered, could someone have of the storm-filled eggshells?) . . . He passed a stall in which five huge men were dancing to the music of a lugubrious hurdy-gurdy being played by a mournful-looking black bear; he passed a stall where a balding man in a brightly colored kimono was smashing china plates and tossing them into a burning bowl from which colored smoke was pouring.
How do you show a bottled dream or a coat of dusk I haven’t the foggiest, but if I were directing a movie with this kind of source material I would sure as hell try. The movie takes absolutely no time at all to give us the ambience, the magic of the market, to really take the time to bring the audience into another realm, another reality. The omission of these kinds of details demonstrates a lack of imagination and vision that is apparent throughout the movie.
3. Gender stereotypes on board the flying ship
I’m not going to even get into the whole drag/gender/gay thing that was going on with Robert DeNiro’s character–although I found it narratively unnecessary at best and, at worst, it perpetuated a whole matrix of stereotypes with the flimsy excuse of “well we always new you were a fag but we accept you anyway,” despite the fact that most cross dressers are straight and most gay men do not cross dress so the movie continues the delusion that deviant gender behavior = “deviant” sexual preference. I’m not going to bring up the fact that whenever straight male actors play “flaming” gay characters they tend to be applauded but if actors who take a chance and play fully dimensional gay characters and who are shown sharing intimate moments with another man, then a) a lot of people see that as “risky” in terms of career and b) a lot of people would find their narrow notions of sexuality challenged, so the lesson that Stardust the movie further perpetuates is: its ok to have representations of gay men as long as we are making fun of them in some way and keeping them from being completely human. In fact, I’m equally irritated by the sequences where Tristan gets to learn sword fighting and pits himself against the elements while Yvaine gets piano lessons and learns how to dance. Give me a break! This is not only offensive, but incredible lazy. There is a passage in the book about Tristran being allowed to help out with the ship’s chores, but absolutely no reason to draw such stereotypical gender lines and especially for no good reason. Instead of taking the screen time to develop characters or add in some of the things that filmmaker’s cut from the book, they simply wasted my time with a dumb-ass, sexist montage. Way to go, I’m so impressed.
4. Conflation of violence as manliness
The movie explicitly states that it is about seeing Tristan go from being a boy to being a man. How does he do this? He learns to fight. In one early scene, he is handily beat down by the town asshole and then toward the end we see him beating, not only the asshole, but by killing the three bitches . . . I mean witches as well. The book is about growing to manhood as well – only Tristran learns to be a man by coming face to face with the consequences of his actions, with the realization that the journey is the destination, that love is not like it is in the storybooks. The scriptwriters and director of the movie seem to have no sense of imagination, no really love of story because the best they can come up with is to rewrite the end of the story so that we can watch a tedious action sequence that teaches us nothing about ourselves. A sequence that is wholly designed to feed the stultified imaginations of several generations grown up on the sickly-sweet pap of Hollywood stories instead of stories that mean something.
5. Lack of chemistry between actors
There’s not much to say about this except that Charlie Cox and Claire Danes have as much chemistry as an acting student is taught in a BFA Acting program. If you listen to Gaiman’s audiobook of Stardust, you’ll get more chemistry between the two different intonations he uses than between Cox and Danes.
6. No Costs
Look, Tristran’s hand is burned. And not just burned like you burn it on a saucepan while cooking, his whole hand was immersed in flames and burned really badly. We are talking scarring, 3rd degree type burns. Gaiman describes Tristran’s hand: “The skin was shiny and scarred and he had little feeling in the fingers.” Growing up, completing a quest, saving a star . . . all of these have consequences. Fairy tales are, often, about the consequences we face for our actions and somehow the movie just skips this whole element of the story. Yvaine’s leg isn’t broken upon falling to earth, Tristan’s hand is miraculously and completely cured, we don’t see the Unicorn killed, beheaded and used by the Witch Queen to bolster her failing magic powers. A story in which the “good guys” don’t pay any kind of price the worst kind of pandering to an audience because it is simply unnecessary and makes the story less compelling. If Tristan had to deal with the fact that he bore permanent scars and damage to his hand, if Victoria saw his damaged hand when he returned to Wall, if Yvaine had to struggle with the pain of a broken leg in addition to the harsh reality of being brought down and out of the sky, then the audience would feel even more more invested in the characters. We would have more to root for, more to sympathize with and the filmmakers would have more, and more interesting, moments to dramatize.
Additionally, and this is an even more important point, life doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Good stories, magic stories, true stories, no matter their genre, reflect what it means to be human. And to be human is to experience, among other things, pain and loss. When you take those away from a story, as this movie took them away from Gaiman’s story, you are left with a husk of a narrative, devoid of a center. Devoid of a heart.
7. Time frame
The film crams all of the adventures into a week while the book occurs over months. The choice to abbreviate the time-frame is related to the “no costs” problem and contributes to the fact that the character’s don’t really seem to actually grow and mature over time. Oh sure, they tell us that they have grown up, fallen in love, etc., but the movie spends absolutely no time showing us organic and true relationships. One week does not a quest make. This time frame also makes the world of the movie small and insignificant if you can journey all those leagues in a handful of days – we should feel like the world beyond the Wall is vast, varied and impossibly beautiful and dangerous. Instead, aside from the antagonists of the movie, the world beyond wall is more like spending your holiday in a well preserved, pretty but tame National Park.
Is it hard to really communicate the passage of time in a movie? Sure. And to do it in a non-cliched, non-cheesy montage is even harder. But the writer and director obviously didn’t even want to try, they simply avoided the whole issue by providing a quick fix and making sure, making crystal clear, that we were only watching a weeks worth of time. If the narrative happened over a longer period of time, the relationship between Yvaine and Tristan could have been better developed; the growth of Tristan from a boy to a man could have been given more attention; the scope and grandeur and just plain oddness of Fairie could have been shown. In short, we could have enjoyed a much more interesting movie if the filmmakers had taken the time to understand how quests work in stories. And by stories I mean good stories, not the pale, anorexic stories that Hollywood continually pawns off on an audience so hungry for magic and for stories that they’ll even accept these paltry scraps: small bits of moldy narratives that choke as they go down, but are enough, barely, to keep our imaginations from total death. Yes, I include Stardust amongst those barely edible scraps.
“She was one of the folk from Beyond the Wall, he could tell at once from her eyes, and her ears which were visible beneath her curly black hair. Her eyes were a deep violet, while her ears were the ears of a cat, perhaps, gently curved, and dusted with a fine, dark fur. She was quite beautiful.”
As with Victoria, the movie removes all that is interesting and powerful from the depiction of Una, casting her as a victim through-and-through. Yet in the book, she is shown to be responsible for gaining her own freedom and, after she is free, of becoming quite as willful and powerful as her brothers. In a sense, she actually seduces Dunstan and bears Tristran as part of an involved and subtle plan to achieve her freedom. This sense of agency is stripped from the character in the movie and she is left, like Victoria, with no sense of human (or Faerie) dimension. Just another disposable female character with no depth and no power. Although, I guess I should be grateful that the filmmaker’s even bothered to keep her in the story since they totally erased Dunstan’s human wife and the woman that Tristran thought of as Mother while growing up, as well as Tristran’s sister. Basically the movie strips the female characters down to the absolute minimum and then strips away most of what is interesting from the women left in the story. Let me be clear, you don’t have to spend a lot of screen time on these, admittedly secondary, characters to give them some kind of dimension and agency. All that is needed is a clear vision of the overall story and how all of the character’s fit together and a commitment, through both the writing and the direction, to making all of the people in your universe as rich and complex as possible. This movie does not make such a commitment.
Honestly, I think the writer and director were simply not up to the task of adapting such rich source material. While I’m focusing mostly on the representations of women, I don’t think any of the characters in this movie were very interesting.
10. The Ending
In the movie, Tristan and Yvaine gone on to rule Stormhold (with no mention that they go off for years having adventures alone and let Una rule the kingdom) then it’s off to the sky to be a pair of stars together. Oh how fucking sweet.
Give me a break. There is no power in this ending. No life. It is not fairy tale ending, its mere pablum, a sickly sweet ending that has all the narrative punch of an inch-worm going up against a heavyweight champion. The proper ending is the one given by Gaiman in his book: Yvaine lives a long, long, long time (she’s a Star, something the movie really doesn’t bother to incorporate into her character and merely uses the fact at convenient plot points) and people die much much sooner than a Star. So yes, Yvaine and Tristran go to Stormhold, they have a long and happy life together and rule well. But then he dies because that is the nature of being human. She lives on, alone because that is the nature of being a star brought down to the earth. The beauty of that ending is that we are giving both a happy and a human ending. Happy because they meet, have adventures, fall in love, have more adventures and live life together. Human because nothing lasts forever, and certainly not life. The movie is white chocolate (which has no chocolate in it, no soul) while the book is a bittersweet, dark chocolate that balances sweet and sugar with the complexity and depth of the bitter cacao bean. And let’s be honest, the book isn’t that bitter. It’s certainly nowhere near a 78% cacao chocolate bar and far closer to the semi-sweet chocolate that brings more to the table than milk chocolate but leaves you with a mostly sweet experience.
A movie that can’t even attempt to get to semi-sweet status, especially with such strong source material, is simply not trying. Shame on them.
I certainly wouldn’t recommend this movie to anyone who love Neil Gaiman’s work. Even for those unfamiliar with the source material, I would urge them to skip this movie. There is nothing there: no truth, no beauty, no magic. Just tired old cliches, one-dimensional characters and a story that sinks rather than soars.
For a story that soars: