Once upon a time is a phrase that conjures images of epic quests, fearsome monsters and courageous heroes and heroines. Fairytale films have been a staple of the industry since its conception all the way back to the early silent films of Méliès. These days, after the rise of Disney’s animations (and now their live-action reimaginings), we’ve come to think of them as child’s play; few stand out as being taken seriously (wrongly, in my opinion).
But, regardless of your preference of genres, some fairytale films appeal pretty much unanimously for wider audiences. One of which being Stardust, the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s graphic-novel turned novel-novel. Gaiman has a reputation for his darkness and whimsy, and while the film is definitely more tame in shadow and sexiness than its written counterpart there’s still the same charm, and a fair amount of purpose at its centre.
What I think cinematic adaptations really come down to is more about the heart of the story than obsessive ‘faithfulness’ to an original text. If you capture the soul of the characters, the feel of the world, and the tone of the message, the audience should be able to connect in the same way as they did the first time, and things will fall into place. Vaughn and Goldman weren’t afraid to make changes that worked better for a moving image format, and the result is a filmic fairytale that won’t behave itself; and here’s why…
We follow Tristan Thorn, a young Englishman who works in a shop, daydreams, and wonders what the fuss is about a wall that is rumoured to hide another world behind it. The story is literally kicked into action when a star gets knocked out of the heavens by a magic necklace that will determine the next heir to Stormhold, the fantastical kingdom hidden behind the aforementioned wall.
Tristan sees the falling star as a chance to prove himself to the girl he fawns over, but it soon becomes apparent that a fallen star isn’t the hunk of rock expected but a woman who isn’t too pleased to have been rudely knocked out of the sky. And Tristan isn’t the only person to have seen her plummet to the earth. Just about everyone you meet is after her too. While Tristan wants it to win the favour of a girl, three witches want to eat her heart to become young again, and the princes of Stormhold need the necklace she now holds to choose who will take the throne.
Sky pirates, wicked witches and (literally) blue-blooded royalty make for a pretty standard fantasy adventure, so why does Stardust resonate with a contemporary audience where many don’t? I think it’s because the hero has a rather modern awkwardness about him, and Yvaine the star speaks plainly in what you can only call post-feminist terms. It’s the fantastic but accessible to a whole spread of viewers by using little present day twists. The England we see is located somewhere in the mid 1800s, but there’s no pressure to fit into the painstaking accuracy of the period in what is undeniably a fantasy film.
It’s both a stylistic choice and a freedom of the genre, where our disbelief is already suspended. We’re grounded by the familiarity of the character’s wants and desires; the society echoes our own, and many of us have historical codes of folklore internalised from childhood. There’s a comfort in falling into the fantastical when it doesn’t feel so unknown. For example, ‘the impossible task’ – so typical of traditional fairytales and perhaps predictable at first – is what kicks Tristan out of his small-town life in his search for the fallen star.
A great deal of spectator pleasure comes from seeing the impossible happen before our eyes. The crossing of the wall itself to enter the magical land seems an impossible task in itself at first. The gap is under constant guard by an old man who dismisses any suggestion that his job is not of the upmost importance; it’s not merely another field, but another world out there. But the moment when Tristan’s father tricks him and makes the leap across the gap, what he (and we) thought was ‘impossible’ starts to come true.
Voyeuristic pleasure also comes from seeing reality proven wrong, as it were. Fairytales depend on the rules they set up for themselves to tell their message, but modern retellings can play on the expectations the originals have given us. They can break the rules. The old man at the wall may have let his father past, but he’s since learn some crazy judo-karate moves to prevent Tristan from doing the same. The evil witch peeks as she and her sisters blindly choose a ferret’s internal organs to determine who will hunt the star; poison poured into a goblet is useless when the prince refuses to drink it; and, as Yvaine points out, ‘nothing says romance like the gift of a kidnapped, injured woman’.
It plays with the age-old ‘all is not what it seems,’ and there’s no better example than the leader of the sky pirates. Captain Shakespeare first appears on the storm-torn deck of his flying ship, menacingly threatening Tristan and Yvaine. Minutes later, he’s throwing Tristan overboard to plummet to his death. Only, the falling Tristan isn’t what it seems, but a mannequin; the real Tristan magically appears in Shakespeare’s cabin a few seconds later. His fearsome reputation isn’t what it seems: he has a fondness for cross-dressing, which he fears would sully his name – but his crew don’t care, he’s still their captain. Seeing someone accepted for who they are isn’t a trope exclusive to fantasy, but it has more effect in an example with such a contemporary feel.
So if we think about stories misbehaving, then surely the hero is the one to set it on the right path again. Well, yes and no. Because Stardust’s hero, bless, isn’t the untouchable prince our expectations of fairytales would suggest – and the story is better for it. In his epic chase up to a carriage to find his way back to Yvaine he makes a leap of faith to catch onto it, but falls right off instead. If that isn’t poking fun at the knight in shining armour trope I don’t know what is.
Thanks to Disney, we’ve come to think of fairy tale film as stories of high-class individuals, lost royalty, girls dreaming of being princesses, and boys trying to win the hearts of their true love. And yeah, Stardust follows some of those tropes, but Tristan, having started out on that path, learns that he doesn’t actually want to win Victoria, the prim girl back home. And his quest isn’t to become royalty – which is purposefully paralleled in the subplot of the princes trying to locate the necklace. In fact, the royals that are seeking their heirloom are pretty twisted people once you take the comedic dialogue out of it, butchering each other in a rather creative game of fratricide.
In true quest fashion, the film is more about Tristan’s internal arc than any outward gain. Tristan is realising that love isn’t something that you have to prove by going hunting for fallen stars, but something uncontrollable and unchoosable. Clichéd, but I will, grudgingly, admit that the Hollywood format has its moments if it’s built up properly. Just before the climax of the film, we have a moment where we think that maybe Tristan hasn’t learnt this lesson. He leaves Yvaine sleeping in a tavern and crosses back over the wall to complete his impossible task by meeting Victoria, only to give her a metaphorical middle finger by turning her proposal down.
Perhaps the most gratifying thing here is that he doesn’t have to be spiteful about it; there’s no punishment for Victoria and Humphrey – her other, and previously ‘superior’, admirer. After showing off his newfound sword skills, Tristan wishes them both a happy life, his only revenge being that he is no longer there for them to mock. The fairytale isn’t raising him societally above those who he doesn’t wish to be (even if he does end up the King of Stormhold), like in an old Disney film. Instead, it’s pointing out the morality and letting him have the high ground instead. It’s not what we often expect, but I told you the fairytale was disobedient.
The film ends on a much happier note than its written counterpart, but there’s still that slight bittersweetness that firmly sets it in the British culture canon: our heroes grow old and go to live among the stars. Fairytale retellings aren’t as frozen in time as the originals seem to be, and so the acknowledgement that lives end is more applicable. ‘No man can live forever,’ as they say. It’s a happy ending not just because the characters are happy, but because they reached the places they deserved with their quirks still in tact. What Stardust tries to say isn’t so much about fighting your way to superiority, but letting your whimsy lead you to where you should be. ‘Why fight to be accepted by people you don’t actually want to be like?’
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy is studying film production at Arts University Bournemouth with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. If you can’t find her lost between the shelves of a bookshop you might be able to see her in a dark cinema if you squint hard enough. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on thedaisydeer.wordpress.com, and find her general ramblings as @thedaisydeer at Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.
Categories: Anything and Everything