Small wonder that Hollywood was interested in adapting Stardust into a film. In its native, prose medium, it represented a confluence of “hot” niches to try and exploit.
While not a graphic novel per se, Stardust was first published as a series of illustrated prose books in the size and shape of graphic novels, by graphic novel publisher Vertigo/DC Comics. Its writer, Neil Gaiman, is at this point equally famous as a prose writer (Coraline, Anansi Boys, American Gods) as a comics writer (The Sandman), and he’s long contributed to film fantasy (Having co-wrote 2005’s MirrorMask and wrote the English script for 1997’s Princess Mononoke).
Later published as a book-book, Stardust has a Harry Potter-esque pedigree of being an English fantasy novel about an English youth journeying to a magic world. Thus, it’s been thoroughly vetted by two rather picky built-in audiences, and it manages to hit on two current successful trends.
Nor is it terribly surprising that Hollywood, here represented by first-time screenwriter Jane Goldman and co-writer/director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake), would think they know better than the author who’s already successfully told and sold the story, and fiddle judiciously with the plot.
What is surprising is how little relative damage Vaughan and company managed to do to the story. It’s still a fairly engaging fantasy, with a compelling (if here undersold) romance and enough original imagery and action to prove entertaining, and the original’s greatest strength–Gaiman’s slow pulling together of diverse plot elements into an “Aha!” ending–is wholly intact.
The major change is in tone, as Stardust loses its modern fairytale feel (And I mean “modern” in the artistic period way, as the story is set in the mid-19th century) by downplaying the matter-of-fact co-existence of a fantasy world alongside a rural English village in favor of a more modern fantasy movie vibe (and here “modern” means “like other movies you’ve seen this summer”).
Most gratingly, Vaughn and Goldman add a lot of comedy, some of which works just fine, and some of which sticks out hideously, threatening to drag the whole film down.
The story is a rather simple one. A star falls to earth, eliciting a three-way chase to recover it. Those seeking it include our hero Tristan (Charlie Cox, playing an off-brand Orlando Bloom), an English shop boy who promised to retrieve the star in order to impress town beauty Sienna Miller; vicious witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), who needs the star’s heart to restore the youth and beauty of she and her sisters; and Septimus (Mark Strong), the most sinister of twelve princes who need the star to secure the throne vacated by their father Peter O’ Toole. Complicating matters is the fact that the star isn’t a giant ball of gas, but a pretty young woman by the name of Yvaine (Claire Danes). Tristan must safely escort the star back to England, while defending her from the more wicked participants in the chase.
For such a simple story, it sure does go on a long time, though.
Vaughan breaks the two-hour mark, in part by introducing comedic characters original to the film. These include Ricky Gervais, essentially playing David Brent from The Office (even repeating whole lines from the show), and Robert De Niro as a deeply-closeted, cross-dressing sky pirate named Captain Shakespeare. He serves as a sort of fairy godfather to our hero, teaching him how to duel and who his true love is in a few montages, before swishing around in dresses in scenes that I can’t interpret in any way other than horribly offensive. He even gets a punchline wink at our hero’s romantic rival at the end, letting us know that, unlike Tristan, that dude isn’t all-man. Pretty sad commentary for an otherwise pleasingly romantic diversion.