Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2067
Author: Neil Gaiman (b. 1960)
First published: 1998
Director: Matthew Vaughn (b. 1971)
Screenplay by: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, a surge in popularity of film adaptations of fantasy novels brought numerous works to the screen. This trend was spurred on by the success of films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001–3), based on the classic novels by J. R. R. Tolkien. Adaptations of fantasy novels for young adult readers were especially common, in large part due the success of the Harry Potter series, based on the young adult novels by British writer J. K. Rowling. In an attempt to duplicate that success, film studios adapted numerous novels for the screen, among them the novel Stardust.
Written by noted fantasy and comic book writer Neil Gaiman, Stardust was originally designed as an illustrated novel featuring text by Gaiman and illustrations by Charles Vess. The novel was initially released in 1997 in a four-part format similar to that of comic books and was collected in book form the following year. In 1999 Gaiman published a more traditional edition of the novel that consisted of the text without the illustrations. Stardust tells the story of a young man named Tristran who, in an attempt to win the heart of a young woman in his village, vows to bring her a star that has fallen from the sky. He crosses the wall at the edge of his village and enters the realm of Faerie to find the fallen star, which, to his surprise, has taken the form of a young woman, Yvaine. The two gradually fall in love as they travel across the magical realm, pursued by the sons of the ruler of the country of Stormhold, who seek a gem Yvaine carries, as well as an evil witch-queen who hopes to capture Yvaine and eat her heart.
Gaiman first sold the film rights to Stardust in 1998, shortly after its publication. However, initial attempts at finding a writer, director, and stars for the film were unsuccessful, and the film did not truly begin production until 2006. The adaptation of the novel was ultimately directed by British filmmaker Matthew Vaughn, who had previously produced a short film written and directed by Gaiman, A Short Film about John Bolton (2003). The director of the 2004 crime film Layer Cake, Vaughn would go on to direct several film adaptations of comic book properties, including X-Men: First Class (2011) and Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015). Cowritten by Vaughn and frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, Stardust debuted in US theaters in the summer of 2007.
The film adaptation of Stardust begins with an opening voice-over by a narrator (Ian McKellen) that sets the stage for the story to come. The narrator initially delves into philosophy, asking whether stars gaze back at the humans who look up at them, but quickly switches to the topic at hand, the events leading up to the film's core story. “Our story really begins here,” the narrator explains, “150 years ago at the Royal Academy of Science in London, England.” The camera lingers on a shot of the night sky before moving down the tube of a telescope and into a room at the academy, in which men in nineteenth-century dress conduct various scientific pursuits. One of the men is writing a letter in response to young Dunstan Thorn (Ben Barnes; played as an adult by Nathaniel Parker), who had sent a letter asking a question that the scientist found quite peculiar; in his response, the man explains that the existence of a separate world beyond the wall at the edge of Dunstan's village is just “rural folklore.” To the members of the Royal Academy of Science, firmly rooted in the real world, that answer seems to be the only possible one. To the people of the village of Wall, however, reality and the world of Faerie are not mutually exclusive.
This opening scene not only sets in motion the events of the film's plot and introduces the central concept of the world beyond the wall but also establishes that despite the existence of that magical realm, the world of the film is essentially the real world, rather than the sort of secondary world featured in many fantasy narratives. While the novel does not begin with a scene in the Royal Academy of Science, it likewise calls attention to the narrative's connection to the real world through a series of historical references. Early in the book, Gaiman writes,
Queen Victoria was on the throne of England, but she was not yet the black-clad widow of Windsor. … Mr. Charles Dickens was serializing his novel Oliver Twist; Mr. Draper had just taken his first photograph of the moon, freezing her pale face on cold paper; Mr. Morse had recently announced a way of transmitting messages down metal wires. (5)
These references firmly locate the beginning of the narrative in the England of the 1830s. In interviews, Gaiman has explained that he wanted to write a novel reminiscent of the fantasy works that were prevalent prior to the surge in popularity of secondary world stories, which was in large part brought about by the publication of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy in the mid-twentieth century. Rather than take place in a secondary world populated by beings such as elves and dwarves, such novels frequently took place in the real world and dealt with the intrusion of magic into it. As Gaiman intended, his original novel falls within that narrative tradition, and the film adaptation reinforces this intent as well.
From there, the film generally follows the basic plot of the novel, with some differences. Despite the Royal Academy of Science's official ruling that the realm beyond the wall is mere folklore, Dunstan crosses through a gap in the wall and finds himself in a world of magic. There, before returning to Wall he encounters a young woman (Kate Magowan) who has been enslaved by a witch. After nine months pass, a baby named Tristan (Tristran in the novel), the son of Dunstan and the slave woman, is delivered to the village. Eighteen years later, Tristan (Charlie Cox), now a young man, is in love with Victoria (Sienna Miller), a beautiful young woman who does not see him as a potential suitor. When the two see a shooting star that seems to land in the realm beyond the wall, Tristan tells Victoria that he will find the star and bring it back to her in exchange for her hand in marriage. Using a magical candle left to him by his mother, Tristan travels instantly to where the star has fallen, but upon arriving there, he finds that the star has taken the form of a young woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes). Accompanied by a highly reluctant Yvaine, Tristan sets out for home on foot, a journey far more difficult than his initial journey into the realm beyond the wall. In this way, the film presents an intriguing inversion of the typical quest narrative, in which the protagonist faces numerous challenges throughout his or her journey toward a particular objective. In Stardust, the return portion of the journey is far more difficult than the initial quest.
As Tristan and Yvaine travel toward the wall, they are pursued by various individuals with their own objectives: the sons of the king of Stormhold (Peter O'Toole) seek a gem Yvaine carries that will determine who will succeed their father as king, while the witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) hopes to capture Yvaine and eat her heart, as a star's heart will grant her strong magical power as well as youth and beauty. After various adventures, in which they are assisted by the airship pirate Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro), they defeat the witch in a climactic confrontation. Tristan is reunited with his mother, the missing princess of Stormhold, and, with all his uncles now dead, learns that he is heir to the throne. He and Yvaine rule the land for many years and at the end of their reign travel into the sky, where they live forever as stars. This ending differs significantly from the conclusion of the novel, being both more upbeat in tone and more suited to the medium of film. In the novel, the conflict with the witch ends not with a battle but with a peaceful conversation: Yvaine tells her that she has given her heart to Tristran, and the witch is thus unable to claim it. In the film, however, Lamia captures Yvaine and attempts to kill Tristan when he tries to rescue her. In keeping with the visual nature of film, the conflict resolves with a visually engaging action sequence, and Lamia is eventually defeated by a blast of blinding starlight that emanates from Yvaine and ultimately fills the entire frame. Similarly, the novel's epilogue differs somewhat from the film in plot and tone: Tristran and Yvaine reign together for many years, but in a melancholy yet more realistic ending, he eventually dies, leaving her to rule over her land alone. The ending of the film, in which Tristan and Yvaine live happily ever after in the sky, seems designed to meet moviegoers' expectations of an upbeat ending and aptly demonstrates one of the major ways in which narratives are often adapted to suit the medium of film.
Stardust proved to be a modest financial success after debuting in theaters in August of 2007, ultimately grossing more than $38 million in the United States and nearly $97 million internationally, according to the website Box Office Mojo. Nearly one-third of its international earnings came from the United Kingdom alone; this is unsurprising, as the film is set in England and based on the writing of Gaiman, a respected British novelist. As the film's production budget was estimated at $70 million, Stardust was generally considered moderately profitable.
Critical response to the film was mixed but trended toward the positive. Many critics found it entertaining and enjoyed the performances of the film's ensemble cast, particularly Pfeiffer's scene-stealing performance as Lamia and De Niro's campy appearance as Captain Shakespeare. However, some reviewers found the film cluttered and unfocused, with the more comedic and action-focused moments overshadowing the love story and the coming-of-age journey of its protagonist. As is often the case with film adaptations of novels, some fans of the original book were dissatisfied with the changes the filmmakers made in adapting the novel. Gaiman, however, was pleased with the final product despite its differences from his original work; in a question-and-answer session on the website Reddit, he likened the film incarnation of Stardust to an alternate-universe version of the original novel. Generally well received within the speculative fiction community, Stardust was nominated for various awards and in 2008 won the Hugo Award for best dramatic presentation, long form.
- Gaiman, Neil. “Happily Ever After.” Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 12 Oct. 2007. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/oct/13/film.fiction>.
- Maio, Kathi. “Films: How I Wonder What You Are.” Rev. of Stardust, dir. Matthew Vaughn. Fantasy & Science Fiction 114.1 (2008): 110–15. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Dec. 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=27746911&site=eds-live>.
- Ebert, Roger. Rev. of Stardust, dir. Matthew Vaughn. RogerEbert.com. Ebert Digital, 9 Aug. 2007. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/stardust-2007>.
- Gaiman, Neil. “Quint Has a Long Chat with Neil Gaiman about Stardust, Beowulf, Coraline, Sandman, Death, and Comic-Con!!!” Interview by Eric Vespe. Ain't It Cool News. Ain't It Cool News, 14 June 2007. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <http://www.aintitcool.com/node/33002>.
- Gaiman, Neil, and Amanda Palmer. “An Evening with Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer: Ask Us Anything. Go On. You Know You Want To.” Reddit. Reddit, 19 Nov. 2013. Web. 3 Dec. 2015. <https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/1qzpe3/an_evening_with_neil_gaiman_and_amanda_palmer_ask>.
- Holden, Stephen. “When Stars (Celestial) Fall, and Stars (Hollywood) Fly.” Rev. of Stardust, dir. Matthew Vaughn. New York Times. New York Times, 10 Aug. 2007. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/10/movies/10star.html?_r=2&>.
- Robinson, Tasha. Rev. of Stardust, dir. Matthew Vaughn. A. V. Club. Onion, 10 Aug. 2007. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <http://www.avclub.com/review/stardust-3346>.
- “Stardust.” Box Office Mojo. IMDB.com, 2015. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=main&id=stardust.htm>.