Go, And Catch a Falling Star…
If you like fantasy stories filled with magic, adventure and romance, but are getting sick and tired of boring, long-winded fantasy epics, then look no further than Stardust. There are no long histories, family trees or endless descriptions of culture, landscapes and back-story. This is just a sweet, simple fairytale told by a great storyteller. Though be warned — the original fairytales were not written for children, and Stardust follows in their literary footsteps, by including several violent, sensual and bittersweet scenes. It might be tempting to read this book aloud to children (particularly if you’ve seen the recent movie adaptation), but this is something I would strongly advise against!
Set in the Victorian Era out in the English countryside, the town of Wall is named so because of the simple-looking wall that divides our world from the realm of Faerie. The two worlds are kept strictly separate (or so the town officials would like to believe) except for a few days every nine years when a faerie marketplace crosses the wall, and Wall itself is turned into a bustling metropolis as travelers from around the world arrive to consort with the fey-folk. Neil Gaiman pours delicious detail into this mingling of two worlds, describing the fairy markets with such obvious relish that you’ll be surprised how long the book takes to get to the “meat” of the story in the quest narrative (not that this is a bad thing).
It is at one such meeting of worlds that young Tristian Thorn is conceived. Eighteen years later (and unaware of his faerie-heritage) Tristian has been raised by his father Dunstan Thorn and fallen in love with Victoria Forester, a girl hopelessly out of his league. However, he manages to wrangle an agreement with her: for her hand in marriage, he will fetch her the falling star that they’ve both just seen fall from the sky.
Little does he know, that the falling star has been witnessed by several others in Faerie: a witch that desires the star to rejuvenate her and her sisters to their youth, and the princely sons of the realm of Stormhold, who are after a gemstone to solidify their claim to the throne, which is currently worn around the star’s neck. These various story threads gradually converge as the story goes on, though the tale mainly focuses on the tempestuous relationship that forms between Tristian and Yvaine the star (who naturally takes the form of a beautiful young woman).
There are little subplots and threads of other stories strewn throughout the book, quite reminiscent of Michael Ende‘s use of the phrase: “that is another story and shall be told another time,” in The Neverending Story, or of the collected fairytales of the Brothers Grimm, whose stories have a variety of characters who pop in and out of their tales, seemingly at random. But Gaiman’s range of characters and little “plot tangents” serve to give one the sense that there is more going on in the world than the trials and tribulations of our two main characters.
If anything, the ending is a little anti-climactic (especially when compared to the aforementioned movie version) and the final line of the book doesn’t pack quite the bittersweet punch that I think Gaiman intended, but ultimately this is a lovely little story that wouldn’t feel out of place next to Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Other Poems or the works of Lord Dunsany. If you’ve read anything by Lord Dunsany (a forerunner to Tolkien himself) then there’s no reason not to enjoy Stardust — in fact Neil Gaiman himself pays homage to this early fantasy author by quoting his famous “beyond the fields we know” phrase from The King of Elfland’s Daughter (and mentions the author in his dedication).
Stardust has recently been adapted into a movie, which in many ways improves on several aspects of its source material, particularly in a more climactic finish and the fleshing out of minor characters (although others suffer, such as Victoria, who really isn’t such a bad sort in the book, but is portrayed as a spoilt little snot in the film). But Stardust was filmed with a more tongue-in-cheek air, in the tradition of The Princess Bride, and looses some of the mystery and delicacy that Gaiman infuses his story with: let’s call it the “fey quality.” And though the ending of the film was more satisfying, it’s not quite as poignant or thought-provoking. In any case, I recommend both book and movie, and can attest that I own and enjoy both!
Neil Gaiman’s Stardust chronicles the origin and life of the young Englishman Tristran Thorn, in particular his quest to retrieve, for the woman he fancies, a star that has fallen in the land of Faerie, which begins just beyond his village of Wall. But Tristran isn’t the only one who seeks the star, and the star itself is much more than he imagined … Gaiman weaves a quickly paced, beautifully structured adult fairy tale — ‘adult’ because it doesn’t neglect the human experiences of sex, death and time. His language is that of the gifted storyteller — clear, concise and lyrical, resonant with mythic lore and archetypes. I highly recommend this book for fans of fantasy, fairy tales, mythology, and/or romance, as well as for those who simply enjoy a well-told tale.
Despite only being a modest 50 000 words, Stardust sure packs one hell of a punch. Originally published as a comic, Stardust tells the story of the village of Wall. In Wall there is a wall, and behind this wall is Faerie. Every nine years a Faerie market is held, and it is the only time that gap in the wall is left unguarded for villagers of Wall and Faerie alike to come and go as they please. Full of magic and whimsy, Stardust will transport readers into a magical wonderland spawned from the genius of Neil Gaiman.
Dunstan Thorn is a resident of Wall when the Faerie market is about to take place. An influx of visitors, weird and wonderful, have borne down on the village of Wall in anticipation, for the boundary between the worlds is about to be opened, an event that occurs only once every nine years. He offers a visiting stranger a room to stay in, in exchange for his heart’s desire (a pretty beneficial bargain for all parties involved). The next day, Dunstan visits the Faerie market, where he finds a stall selling glass flowers. There he meets an enchanting young woman, who tells him to return at nightfall and hoot like a small owl. He does this, and the two proceed to sleep together under the light of the moon.
Eighteen years later, and Tristran Thorn (the illegitimate son of Dunstan and the market woman, pushed through the gap in the wall in a basket after his birth) is in love. He is in love with a girl called Victoria Forester, which is a shame, because Victoria is rather unpleasant. She is not interested in Tristran whatsoever (despite kissing him a few years earlier, the hussy) but tells him that she’ll marry him if he fetches her the fallen star that just fell across the sky. Tristran promises her he’ll return with the star in exchange for her hand in marriage. And so begins his journey into Faerie.
Tristran manages to find the star, who turns out to be a beautiful maiden with the temper of…someone really, really angry. And with good reason: she’s been knocked out of the sky, destined never to glow amongst her sister-stars again. To make matters worse, Tristran has bound her to him with a magical chain and insists on bringing her back to wall, despite the fact that she can hardly walk for falling on her leg and must instead limp painfully beside him.
Unbeknownst to him, Tristran is not the only one looking for the star, whose name is Yvaine. Also after her is a witch, or, more specifically, after Yvaine’s heart, for it will return the witch’s youth. There is also the matter of the heirs of Stormhold, a bunch of ruthless brothers who are all vying for the throne and attempting to murder one another off. Yvaine holds the power of Stormhold, which is what knocked her out of the sky in the first place.
Gaiman’s imagination is awe-inspiring (for lack of a more awe-inspiring word), and our journey into Faerie is wonder after wonder. It’s not the usual Urban Fantasy that the majority of his oeuvre comprises of, and it’s refreshing to read a fantasy novel that’s written in the pre-Tolkein English style.
Tristran’s development from naïve villager to worldly traveller is a satisfying transformation to behold — as is true of all Gaiman’s characters, who tend to make a significant internal journey, as well as the traditional external one. Gaiman’s fanbase is vast and dedicated, and with books like these, it’s not difficult to see why. A short read, yes, but the journey you take with Stardust will stay with you for much longer than the last page.
I listened to Stardust in audiobook format, which I highly recommend because Neil Gaiman himself is the reader, and he does an excellent job. His voice is smooth and pleasant and there are none of those little problems where the reader stresses the wrong word or uses the wrong tone because (s)he didn’t realize exactly what the author was trying to get across. I really enjoyed hearing the author read this charming and beautifully written story and there was an interesting interview with Gaiman at the end.
Stardust book vs. movie: Both charming, but film shines with supporting cast
Here at Fantasy Literature we have a lot of Neil Gaiman fans, and no shortage of reviews of his books and graphic novels. In fact, there are four reviews of Stardust, so I won’t rehash the plot details. Rather, I’d like to compare the book with the movie, and canvas our readers’ opinions.
Stardust (Novel): Stardust began as a graphic novel illustrated by Charles Vess in 1997. It was then published as a standard book without illustrations in 1999. The novel is a charming fairytale about a young man who ventures into the land of Faerie beyond the Wall to fetch a shooting star to impress a girl. He has many adventures on the way, as it turns out the shooting star takes the form of a woman, and there is a coven of witches after the star’s heart. In addition, the surviving heirs of Stormhold are also hunting for the gem that belongs to the rightful ruler of the kingdom, which they do not realize has knocked the star out of the sky and is now in her possession. So all the main characters converge on Tristan and the star, both of whom don’t realize the situation and are simply trying to make their way back to Wall.
I really enjoyed the novel version. All the characters have different motivations that weave together in complex fashion, and the tone of the story is an interesting mix of whimsy, fairy-tale adventure and romance, and surprising moments of brutality, which is in-keeping with fairly tales like the original Brothers Grimm stories. Gaiman is a master storyteller, so he can take familiar fantasy elements and give them a different twist that makes them fresh. All in all, it was well done and I preferred it to The Graveyard Book.
Stardust (Film): The movie came out in 2007, directed by Matthew Vaughn. You wouldn’t expect him to be involved with a whimsical fairytale fantasy if you look at his filmography, as he produced a number of gritty but humorous British gangster films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000) with director Guy Ritchie. He later directed Layer Cake (2004), Kick-Ass (2010), and X-Men: First Class (2011). Just goes to show that you have to be pretty versatile in the film industry if you want steady work.
The screenplay, of course, had to make numerous changes to the novel, as even with a fairly short book like Stardust, there is simply too much material to fit into a 2-hour movie. So we see several characters cut from the novel (like the little hairy man Tristan meets when he first enters the land of Faerie), and much of the backstory of his life in Wall is removed. There are many small plot details that are also tweaked to make the film narrative more fluid, and none of these decisions seemed glaringly wrong.
In the end I liked the film more than the novel, but that is due largely to the differences between film and book mediums, and to the excellent casting choices made for the film. I’m a big fan of Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Claire Daines, Mark Strong, and Ricky Jervais, so any time they can all be in a fairytale fantasy movie I’m pretty happy, particularly since the first three tend to do more serious films
Director Vaughn said he was aiming “to do Princess Bride with a Midnight Run overtone,” and to a large extent he succeeded. The visuals and dialogue of the film are more overtly comical than the novel, especially the three witches led by Michelle Pfieffer, who revels in her young and beautiful body (granted by magic), but suffers immediate aging with each use of magic, so that she gradually reverts to her older and uglier self throughout the film. Another standout in the film was the farmboy Bernard, who is first changed into a goat and then a maid, and Billy, a real goat that gets changed into a man. The scenes in the inn with them are hilarious.
One of the best running jokes in the film is the dead sons of the Lord of Stormhold, who appear as ghosts next to the living heirs. They were all vying for control of the kingdom but have killed each other off in the process, and the ghosts show the actual ways in which they were dispatched, including an axe in the head. They all seem pretty rueful about the whole thing, and as each remaining heir gets knocked off, they join the rest of the ghosts in the loser group. This was a really fun addition that works better in film.
Another great character in the film is Captain Shakespeare (played by Robert De Niro), a pirate who captains an airship that hunts lightning in the clouds. This character wasn’t that important in the book, but in the film he gets an expanded role as a flamboyant guy who keeps up a gruff and ruthless character for his crew, but secretly has a wardrobe of frilly ladies’ dresses hidden in his quarters. This character works because infamous gangster and tough-guy De Niro plays against type so well.
Ricky Gervais also plays a short but brilliant cameo as Ferdy the Fence, a fast-talking broker who can’t say anything without being really funny. This role was very reminiscent to the Miracle Max character played by Billy Crystal in The Princess Bride, and I don’t remember the character being in the movie much.
Last but not least, the lead characters of Tristan and Yvaine, played by Charlie Cox and Claire Danes, have a lot of chemistry as they initially dislike each other, and it takes most of the film (and book) for Tristan to realize that the girl he’s trying to impress (Victoria Forrester, the local beauty, played by Sienna Miller) is not interested in him, and that the girl he’s destined to be with is right in front of him. It’s pretty surprising how dense the character of Tristan is, really. As for Claire Danes, she plays up the frustration of Yvaine well, as a star who is upset to be knocked out of the sky without warning, crashes to earth, hurts her leg, and is immediately captured by the love-struck but misguided young Tristan. Having recently watched Claire Danes play an extremely driven and neurotic CIA agent in Homeland, she does stressed-out, unstable characters quite well.
Overall, I think Gaiman was fortunate that his book was successfully adapted to film via a number of well-chosen supporting characters and good visual gags, and while the more serious and magical tone of the novel was sacrificed for more crowd-pleasing humor in the film, I thought this made good use of the inherent strengths of film.