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cic2007-08-27-01.jpgHere’s yet another marker of how much popular culture is changing. Sir Ian McKellen has a large repertory of roles that ranges from Richard III and King Lear to Gandalf and, of all people, Magneto in the X-Men movies. And now, as the narrator of the film adaptation of the fantasy novel Stardust, he has taken on the part of the voice of Neil Gaiman. Or, rather, the authorial voice that Gaiman adopted as the narrator of Stardust the novel.

This week I am continuing my comparison between Stardust the novel and Stardust the motion picture, which I began in last week’s column. As usual, I alert those who have not experienced them to go no further if they don’t want to encounter spoilers.

Before seeing the movie, I was wary about the reports at the 2006 San Diego Comic Con (see “Comics in Context” #144) and in the press about changes to the novel, notably the conversion of Gaiman’s Captain Alberic, a minor character who hunts and captures lightning from his flying ship, into Captain Shakespeare, a pirate captain with a fondness for dressing in drag. Upon seeing the movie, I rather enjoyed Robert DeNiro’s performance as the captain, with the comedic contrast between his threatening macho swagger when he is commanding his crew to his gentler, courteous manner talking with hero Tristan (Tristran in the book) and heroine Yvaine when they are alone in his cabin. In an August 5, 2007 article in The New York Times, Stardust director Matthew Vaughn compares the film to DeNiro’s 1988 comedy adventure film Midnight Run, so no wonder he cast DeNiro as the Captain.

I found Captain Shakespeare amusing, but only mildly so. For me his entertainment value is outweighed by the problems his presence creates for the movie. Stardust presents a world in which supernatural elements like magic and witches and a fallen star in human form (Yvaine) exist, but the book aims at giving the characters psychological credibility. To my mind, Captain Shakespeare just doesn’t fit.

If Captain Shakespeare is so thoroughly in the closet, why does he make Tristan and Yvaine his confidantes? I suppose that anyone who has kept a big secret for so long feels an urge to confess it to somebody. Moreover, the Captain just saved Tristan and Yvaine’s lives, so they owe him the obligation to keep his secret. But still, how can the Captain be sure that he can trust these two individuals whom he just met?

The Captain Shakespeare storyline strikes me as an example of anachronistically projecting contemporary attitudes into the past. Stardust is set in Victorian times, a period not generally associated with tolerance towards homosexuality. Moreover, Tristan is a youth from a small town, not from London, so his openmindedness on the subject seems more surprising. As for Yvaine, she presumably would not share any cultural prejudices towards sexual orientation. Here I again recall Cloud, the nebula who took the form of a teenage girl in Marvel’s Defenders series, who later shifted into male form, to her teammates’ surprise.

Later in the film Captain Shakespeare dances about in his cabin, wearing a tutu, while playing a recording of Jacques Offenbach’s music. I found myself wondering, if he’s trying to keep his sexual orientation secret from his macho pirate crew, why is he playing this music–the 19th century counterpart to Broadway show tunes–so loudly that the crew cannot help hearing it? Then I began wondering, if the Captain is unable to fulfill his wish of crossing over into the “real” world and visiting England, how did he get hold of a recording of French music? And why does the recording sound so good? Have you ever heard, say, the tinny sound of one of Enrico Caruso’s early recordings? Why does the Captain’s Offenbach recording sound as perfect as a 21st century CD? If this scene were actually as funny as it was surely intended to be, I wouldn’t be speculating about such matters while I was watching it.

Soon afterwards, when the Captain’s crew of macho pirates finally find the Captain wearing a tutu, it turns out to be no big deal. One of them tells the Captain that they always knew he was a “whoopsie.” Here I recalled the outing of the gay mobster Vito Spatafore in the first half of the final season of The Sopranos. Although Tony Soprano considers taking a tolerant attitude, since Vito is his best “earner,” the other mobsters’ reactions range from disgust to intense hatred, Tony gives in, and Vito is ultimately brutally beaten to death by other gangsters. So is it credible that a crew of pirates, who were perfectly willing to make Tristan and Yvaine walk the plank, would accept a “whoopsie” as their leader?

Besides, what is so funny in 2007 about a pirate captain in drag? For one thing, by the time the Stardust movie came out, there had already been three Pirates of the Caribbean movies centered on Johnny Depp’s sexually ambiguous pirate Captain Jack Sparrow. (In these films, furthermore, the suggestions of Jack’s bisexuality are less important than his ironic, antiheroic attitude towards the genre in which he finds himself.) Moreover, the basic joke of a figure of macho power and masculine authority turning out to be gay goes back at least thirty-eight years to the debut of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Pythons were continually revealing characters who were judges, policemen, or who held similar traditionally “masculine” roles as gay. Back in the 1970s, when Python arrived on American television, this sort of gag was groundbreaking in American popular culture. Now the joke seems predictable and tired. Instead of being subversive, Stardust’s Captain Shakespeare seems all too conventional a comedic figure. In 2007 the idea of a gay pirate even seems rather old-fashioned as a comic conceit.

Then there’s a character who was invented for the movie, Ferdy the Fence, who is played by Ricky Gervais, co-creator of the original BBC version of The Office and of the BBC series Extras, which is seen in the United States on HBO. I’m always glad to see–or hear–Gervais doing comedy; his vocal performance was what I liked best about the animated film Valiant (see “Comics in Context” #144). In Stardust Gervais performs a variation of his familiar comic persona, attempting to hold his own (in negotiations with Captain Shakespeare) but unable to conceal that he is in way over his head. This is entertaining.

But I wish that the filmmakers had realized that just casting Gervais and having him play this sort of role already served as an allusion to The Office and Extras. Instead, they gild the lily by showing us a sign reading “Ferdy’s Office” (get it?), and having Gervais utter a variation on his “Are you having a laugh?” catchphrase from Extras. This blatant sort of winking to the audience seems to me to be inappropriate to Stardust. According to the August 8, 2007 article in The New York Times, the novel “Stardust is also written in a consciously old-fashioned manner. [Gaiman’s] aim was to evoke the manner of early-20th-century writers like Lord Dunsany and Hope Mirrlees, who wrote fantasy stories of a sort that was sometimes called ‘faerie’. Hence, Stardust the novel should convey the impression to the reader that it could have been written in the 19th century, and ideally the movie would seem to be adapted from a Victorian work. Explicit references to 21st century pop culture break the illusion.

Ferdy eventually gets killed onscreen when the evil Prince Septimus thrusts his sword into his gut. This sequence was shown during the Stardust preview panel at the 2006 Comic-Con in San Diego (also in “Comics in Context” #144), and I still do not understand why. Why would seeing a popular comedy actor, playing a variation on his usual comedy persona, getting brutally slaughtered onscreen want to make us go see the movie? This scene was a downer when I saw it in San Diego, and it was a downer when I saw it in the complete movie. It’s a miscalculation on the filmmakers’ part.

To digress for a moment, this reminds me of the promo on Warner Home Video’s great new Popeye DVD set for its forthcoming direct-to-video animated film Superman: Doomsday, based on the 1990s “Death of Superman” storyline in the comics. The promo tells us that in the story Superman will be beaten to death onscreen. Now, I expect that this is partly intended as a warning to parents that this film is not intended for small children. On the other hand, it also seems intended as a come-on: watch Superman get beaten to death! (And in animation, which will make it seem more real than it did in static panels on the comics page. The promo makes no mention of any triumphant resurrection for Superman; perhaps that is not considered a selling point.) So I ask myself, why would I want to see this? Why should I find the film’s logo–a Superman emblem dripping blood–appealing? I suppose I’m just not sadistic enough to be part of contemporary superhero comics’ intended demographic.

What I find intriguing about Stardust the book is Neil Gaiman’s unusual approaches to familiar elements of fairy tales and fantasy stories. What bothers me about Stardust the movie is that although it is admirably faithful to the novel in many respects, it makes changes that make the story feel much more conventional and ordinary. Even such seemingly eccentric personalities as Captain Shakespeare and Ferdy the Fence really embody conventional comedy ideas–the macho figure in drag and the TV character doing a walk-on–that one might expect to see in any standard issue comedy movie nowadays.

I can see why the fates of Stardust’s two major villains, Septimus and the ancient witch, known as Lamia in the film, get changed in the movie. In the book Septimus sets fire to the witch’s hut and plans to beat her to death with a club; instead a small venomous snake bites Septimus’s heel, causing him to die in terrible pain. Since Septimus had posed such a formidable threat through the narrative, it is ironic that he should prove to have a proverbial Achilles’ heel and be brought down not by the sort of brute force he wields but by such a tiny foe.

As for the witch, she was rejuvenated by magic, but every expenditure of magic by her ages her until by the book’s end she has become more ancient than she was at the start. Having cast Michelle Pfeiffer as Lamia, the filmmakers are understandably averse to having her spend most of the movie in old age makeup. At one point she creates an entire inn and transforms a goat into a human being, with seemingly little or no physical effect on herself.

The witch is determined to find the star and cut out her heart in order to rejuvenate herself and her sisters. Towards the end of the book, the witch, having “shrunk by age and time to little bigger than a child” (p. 239), confronts Yvaine, who “realized that she felt nothing but pity for the creature who had wanted her dead” (p. 240). Yvaine explains to the witch that she cannot steal her heart because “I have given my heart to another” (p. 240), namely Tristran.

This is solving a problem through the manipulation of language. The witch intended literally to take Yvaine’s heart, by killing her and physically carving it out of her corpse. Yvaine is pointing out that she has figuratively given her heart to the young man she loves. Metaphor is treated as reality: the witch reluctantly accepts the defeat of her scheme.

I suppose there is a psychological subtext here. The witch may represent a Bad Mother figure, both for Yvaine and for Tristran. Recall that in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the Wicked Queen (who also ages into an ancient crone) initially not only orders the death of the younger Snow White but demands that her heart be removed from her body as proof that she has been slain. Stardust’s old witch, as Bad Mother, proves unable to deprive Yvaine of her heart and thereby figuratively prevent Yvaine and Tristran from maturing and falling in love with each other.

The ending of Stardust the novel uses the manipulation of language to bring about other resolutions. Victoria had promised Tristran that if he brought back the fallen star she would give him “whatever I [Tristran] desire.” For most of the book, Tristran interpreted this as meaning Victoria’s hand in marriage. But upon realizing that Victoria loves someone else, Robert Monday, Tristran chooses to interpret the phrase differently: “Then I desire that you should marry Mister Monday” (Harper Perennial edition p. 226). It’s as if Tristran was a lawyer (or a critic), who carefully examines statements for alternate interpretations, as if looking for loopholes.

Similarly, Princess Una of Stormhold, Tristran’s mother, is bound to serve the old woman Madame Semele “until the day that the moon lost her daughter, if it occurred in a week when two Mondays came together” (p. 229). Yvaine is the lost daughter, and when Robert Monday marries Victoria, “there will be two Mondays together!” (p. 231). This is a typical fairy tale trope: the prophecy of a seemingly impossible event which nonetheless comes true. The key is to find the proper interpretation of the impossible-sounding prophecy. This is a lesson that Macbeth learns too late about the three witches’ prophecies about the seeming impossibility of his own downfall.

These examples of manipulating language to resolve plotlines reminds me of the denouements of various Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. At the end of The Mikado, the Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko concocts a justification for claiming he had executed the young hero Nanki-Poo when he hadn’t: “It’s like this: when your Majesty says, ‘Let a thing be done,’ it’s as good as done–practically, it is done–because your Majesty’s will is law. Your Majesty says, ‘Kill a gentleman,’ and a gentleman is told off to be killed. Consequently, that gentleman is as good as dead–practically, he is dead–and if he is dead, why not say so?”. Once sentenced, Nanki-Poo is figuratively dead, and Ko-Ko argues that for legal purposes, that’s the same as being literally dead. This logic doesn’t seem that much different from claiming that a witch can’t physically steal Yvaine’s heart because she has figuratively given it to someone else.

Moreover, Stardust the novel ends with a sense of forgiveness, even towards its principal villainess. The novel seems to argue that being reduced to a decrepit state of extreme old age is sufficient punishment for the old witch. It demonstrates how far Yvaine has evolved as a character that, although she was so consumed by ire against the comparatively inoffensive Tristran for much of the story, by the book’s end she feels only “pity” for the woman who sought to kill her, and even kisses her goodbye.

This fits with the way that Tristran saves the unicorn from the lion earlier in the book not through intervening with physical force but by simply offering the lion the crown for which the two beasts were fighting. Stardust the book seems to advocate nonviolent means of coping with potential danger.

This is an unusually merciful ending for the villain’s storyline in a fairy tale, and I don’t think it works. It’s a sweet idea that Yvaine has “given her heart” to Tristan, but I don’t find it psychologically credible that the witch would give up her quest so easily, when she was willing to murder to achieve her goal. I can certainly see how the witch’s simply abandoning her quest would seem anticlimactic in a dramatic medium like film.

Moreover, in both the book and the film Tristran/Tristan spends the last portion of his journey back to the town of Wall in an unusually passive state for a hero of a tale of adventure: Madame Semele transforms him into a dormouse. (This is yet another example of the manipulation of language: Tristran did not realize that his agreement with Madame Semele to guarantee his safety left a large loophole enabling her to turn him into an animal, as long as she turned him back at the end of their trip.) This provides Yvaine with further opportunity to show her growing affection for Tristran, since she watches over him in his dormouse form.

So it is no surprise that the filmmakers radically revised the ending of Stardust. In the movie Lamia captures Yvaine, a sword-wielding Tristan joins forces with Septimus to invade the witches’ lair, and there is a climactic battle in which Lamia hurls bolts of magical energy, Septimus and the other witches are killed, and Lamia even resurrects Septimus as a kind of zombie to do battle with Tristan the newly trained swordsman. Ultimately Yvaine defeats Lamia by embracing Tristan and glowing with bright starlight, which destroys the witch.

Well, light is certainly a familiar ploy to use against evil: sunlight disintegrates vampires, bright light would defeat the DC Silver Age villain Eclipso, Doctor Strange uses the light of his Eye of Agamotto to overcome his enemy Nightmare, and then there’s the effect that dawn has on the gargantuan devil Chernobog in the “Night of Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia (1940). But it seems rather unfair to use light to destroy Lamia when it hadn’t been established as her vulnerability earlier in the movie. I preferred it when Tristan hurled lightning at Lamia during the battle. Captain Alberic/Shakespeare used his skyship to capture lightning (presumably by magic), so it was reasonable to have Tristan carrying lightning that he had acquired on the ship, and anyone, witch or not, would be vulnerable to a ball of lightning; that was playing fair with the audience.

But Yvaine’s luminescence in the battle scene isn’t merely starlight: it is explicitly shown to be the expression of her love for Tristan. So it’s the power of love that destroys Lamia. But that strikes me as a sentimental notion, and the movie doesn’t come up with a sufficiently clever way of making it work for me. (Note that in the Harry Potter mythos, Harry’s mother’s love provides him with a measure of protection from Voldemort, but J. K. Rowling never contends that the power of love could utterly obliterate Voldemort or evil.)

But my biggest problem with this climactic action scene is that it seems–again–so conventional. Here’s Tristan, finally wielding a sword, just like so many other fantasy heroes, and there’s the witch, shooting her FX bolts of magic, and look, it’s a walking corpse, as if we’ve never seen that in a movie before. The only moment in this scene that surprised me was when Lamia abruptly claimed that the battle wasn’t worth it and called it off. I momentarily found myself astonished, wondering if the movie was going to echo the novel in letting the witch go free, and whether that would work dramatically. And then Lamia said, in effect, she was just playing a mind game with her opponents, and enthusiastically reentered the fray. The key to making these obligatory climactic battle scenes work is to find ways of making the audience forget that they’ve seen variations on this scene in every other action-adventure movie. Stardust the book simply omits the climactic battle in order to focus instead on the way that various leading characters–Tristran, Yvaine, and even the witch and Victoria–have changed over the course of the story. Stardust the movie only finds that one moment in the final combat when I didn’t think: been there, done that.

In the movie, before he embarks on his quest, Tristan knows that he has a rival for the affections of Victoria, the young woman he idolizes: a standard issue bully with a superior attitude. As soon as I saw this man appear onscreen, I sensed the presence of the all too familiar. So Tristan pledges to find the fallen star for Victoria in order to compete with this other man. In the novel Tristran is more naive and innocent, and makes grandiose offers to Victoria to perform extraordinary feats to win her love, out of an excess of romantic sensibility (which would fit the period in which the book is set, as well as the adolescent mindset). It comes as a surprise to both Tristran and the reader when towards the end of the book Victoria informs him that she had already fallen in love with his employer, Mr. Monday, when he offered to fetch her the fallen star. (Since Mr. Monday is a man in his forties, as well as an authority figure, I wonder if there is an Oedipal subtext here: Tristran could never marry Victoria because she is bonded to a father figure.) Is it possible that Tristran, had he been more emotionally and psychologically mature, might have figured this out before embarking on his romantic quest?

Stardust is about a quest that takes its protagonist from one place to another geographically, but it is also about a quest of the spirit, whereby Tristran matures from callow youth to responsible adult. Part of that quest entails learning how to see other people (figuratively speaking) clearly, and Yvaine and Victoria make this quest as well.

One aspect of the book that the movie entirely omits is the evolution of Victoria’s personality. During the months of Tristran’s absence, Victoria is tormented by guilt over “my foolishness, my idiocy, that sent you off on your journeyings,” in which she feared that he might lose his life (p. 223). Having developed a sense of obligation, Victoria pledges to keep her word and marry Tristran. This parallels Yvaine’s own sense of obligation to Tristran. After he saved her life, she is willing to journey with him out of Faerie into the normal world, even though she knows she will transform into an unliving meteorite in this world without magic. Although the film retains Yvaine’s decision to give up her life thus (though in neither book nor film does she have to go through with it), the movie never moves Victoria beyond her initial shallowness.

Just as Tristran is initially blind to Victoria’s true feelings towards him, he is at first blind to Yvaine’s worth as an individual person. Having realized that she is the fallen star in human form, Tristran makes her his prisoner, against her will, and intends to present her to Victoria as a gift. In effect, in the book Tristran makes Yvaine his slave, treating her as property.

In reading the book, I found it hard to sympathize with Tristran on this point. How could he treat someone who (apart from glowing) looked, talked and behaved like a human being like himself as if she were his pet or possession? I can understand why the filmmakers tweaked this plot point: in the movie Tristan tells Yvaine that he will use a magic candle to transport her back to the heavens once he has shown her to Victoria. (This doesn’t seem like a bad deal, making Yvaine’s initial resentment towards Tristan in the movie more difficult to understand.)

But Tristran’s enslavement of Yvaine in the book is probably necessary to making the story work. It’s a metaphor for Tristran’s immature attitude towards women. He idealizes and virtually worships Victoria, blind to the evidence that we readers see, that she is merely toying with his emotions. Obsessed with Victoria, Tristran ignores the good qualities of other women, and, through a kind of metaphorical hyperbole, even ignores the personhood of Yvaine. (As noted last time, Tristran is not cruel, and begins to develop a growing sympathy for Yvaine soon after making her his captive.) Tristran regards Victoria as if she were a goddess, whereas Yvaine, as a living star, is a true “goddess” whom he initially treats as if she were merely his prize.

In Stardust, Gaiman’s novel Anansi Boys (see “Comics in Context” #105, 106, 107 and 108) and his television series Neverwhere (see “Comics in Context” #18), the male protagonist starts out on the wrong part in life, having become involved with the wrong woman. A number of Gaiman’s protagonists find themselves confronting the choice of changing their life’s path or suffering death (like Morpheus in Sandman) or a kind of psychological stasis. Look at the contrast in Gaiman’s 1602 between Captain America, who remains set in his ways, and Nick Fury, who undergoes change and thus brings about redemption (see “Comics in Context” #35 and 36).

Stardust the novel isn’t about Tristran becoming a warrior (although he does so in its Epilogue). It is about Tristran becoming more mature emotionally and psychologically, outgrowing naive romantic fantasies and developing empathy for others. Before visiting Victoria on his return, Tristran realizes that “he could no longer reconcile his old idea of giving the star to Victoria Forester with his current notion that the star was not a thing to be passed from hand to hand, but a true person in all respects and no kind of a thing at all. And yet, Victoria Forester was the woman he loved” (p. 208). Tristan does not prove his heroism through physical combat but through his generous, mature response when Victoria confesses her love for Mr. Monday but nonetheless offers Tristran her hand in marriage. Rising above what was once his ruling obsession, Tristran releases her from her obligation to him and gives his “blessing” to her marriage to Mr. Monday (thereby, without realizing it, bringing about his mother’s release from her own enslavement).
Shortly thereafter, Tristran confesses to Yvaine that “Everything I ever thought about myself–who I was, what I am–was a lie, Or sort of. You have no idea how astonishingly liberating that feels” (p. 234).

I find it appealing that the realization that he is in love with Yvaine seems to take Tristan by surprise once he has been disillusioned about Victoria’s true feelings towards him. Similarly, Yvaine’s growing love for Tristran seems to sneak up on her: she once again calls him “a ninny, a lackwit, and a. . .a clodpoll” (p. 233) just before they agree that they will not part again and walk “hand in hand.” Again, the movie takes a more conventional approach, and Tristran and Yvaine seem well aware of their love for each other before the climactic battle. The movie shows Tristran fall in love with Yvaine, but does not communicate the sense that he undergoes a complete change of perspective about “everything I ever thought about myself.”

I also like that the book indicates that this is only the first major step in Tristran’s psychological development. The movie shows Tristan and Yvonne, crowned as rulers, before a vast audience that includes townspeople of Wall such as Victoria as well as Captain Shakespeare and his pirates. (So now it’s no big deal to cross the barrier separating Wall from the realm of Faerie? What happened?) Weren’t they acting like self-centered adolescents only a week earlier? But in the book’s Epilogue, Tristran postpones assuming the throne, and instead leaves his mother, Una, as ruler. He tells Yvaine, “there are still so many places we have not seen. So many people still to meet. Not to mention all the wrongs to right, villains to vanquish, sights to see, all that. You know” (p. 245). Not until five years later do Tristran and Yvaine ascend the thrones, whereupon he rules with wisdom and finally becomes more like the warrior hero of fantasy adventure, leading his people to victory over the Northern Goblins. The implication is that Tristran and Yvaine learned more about the world, and perhaps themselves, during those five years of travels, finally becoming worthy of ruling their land of Stormhold.

Numerous critics and director Matthew Vaughn himself, in the Times article, have compared Stardust the movie to The Princess Bride, the novel and film written by William Goldman. Perhaps this accounts for some of the blatant comedy elements in the film, like Captain Shakespeare and the treatment of the ghosts of the sons of the Lord of Stormhold, who are a more somber presence in the Stardust book. The novel Stardust can be witty but it isn’t a comedy, except in the sense that it has a happy (though ultimately bittersweet) ending. Gaiman said in a July 26, 2007 article in Time magazine that “It’s not like a comedy like Shrek that’s making fun of the thing,” meaning the fantasy and fairy tale genres. “It’s the thing itself.” This is my main problem with the film’s comedy elements, even the more diva-ish moments in Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance: they come too close for my taste to subverting “the thing itself.”

But that wouldn’t bother me if what should be the heart of the film–the character arcs and love story of Tristan and Yvaine–came across more powerfully in dramatic terms. The key to The Princess Bride lies in the movie’s metafictional framing sequence: the old man telling the storybook tale t his cynical young grandson, who stands in for all the adults in the audience who consider themselves too mature and sophisticated for such stuff. Goldman uses his postmodern satire of fairy tale tropes to disarm the contemporary viewer, and make it look as if he is mocking the genre. But beneath all these seemingly subversive trappings, the supposedly old-fashioned story of true love and true heroism comes through with palpable dramatic power, surprising and winning over the young boy just as it does the movie’s adult audience.

I didn’t find the love story in Stardust the movie personally moving, and it should be. Whether because of the acting or writing or direction, It seemed to me too predictable, too conventional, too superficial to be truly affecting. And the theme of Tristan’s and Yvaine’s awakening to their true selves never truly registered. The love story doesn’t come across in the book as powerfully as I might like, either, but it is there, and I can imagine passages in the book, such as those I have quoted, being staged much more dramatically than in the current movie. Maybe one day Stardust will be dramatized again, on stage, or radio, or television, or movies, and more of its potential will be successfully tapped.

-Copyright 2007 Peter Sanderson


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