Book Review – Stardust by Neil Gaiman

18280911Since the film came out, Stardust has been one of those movies I can’t pass up watching whenever I find it on television. I already knew I liked Neil Gaiman’s writing from having read American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, so it seemed inevitable that I would get around to reading Stardust at some point. The last time I caught the movie on SyFy, I went ahead and bought the ebook. Gaiman’s level of detail, even in so short a work as Stardust is, continues to amaze me and the places and ways the film and novel differ speak volumes of their own.

In England there is a town called Wall where the border of our world and Faerie meet. Once every nine years for one day, people are allowed to cross between the two. Tristran Thorn is unique being a child born of parents on either side of the Wall. When he and the girl he adores watch a star fall from the sky and land somewhere in Faerie, he promises her to fetch it for her, embarking on an adventure grander than any to be had in Wall. But he is not the only one searching for the star. A witch and her sisters want to claim the youth that can be found in the star’s heart while several fratricidal princes search for the jewel that knocked the star from the sky in the first place.

The tropes of fairy tales and the lines of nursery rhymes are woven beautifully into Tristran’s experience of Faerie so that it comes alive in unexpected ways. And while the plot is straightforward and simple, it still contains entertaining twists and a dark humor that is one of my favorite aspects of Gaiman’s work. He doesn’t back away from the Grimm traditions and origins of fairy tales, even when he’s working to create his own. So many of the grotesque elements of fairy tales have been glossed over, left out, or re-stylized to be “more appropriate” for children, but I can’t help feeling it’s those darker elements that keep fairy tales in touch with reality.

While there are aspects of the film adaptation that were altered for the book that succeed in making the film more entertaining, there are some changes that, having read the book now, I find almost disturbing. One thing about Gaiman’s writing is that he always writes his female characters beautifully. They are realistic, strong, deep, and more often than not, fiercely independent. The film does a great job of capturing the character and spirit of the star, Yvaine, even if they soften some of her harder edges in the process. Visually they departed from Gaiman’s depiction of the witch in pursuit of the star, but again, they keep quite close to the spirit and tenacity of the character (though I much prefer the way her story resolves itself in the book, the film could not have gotten away with it so I ultimately enjoy both).

It is in the character of Victoria, the girl to whom Tristran promises the star, that the greatest and most disturbing deviation was made. In the film Victoria is portrayed as nothing more than a horrible, spoiled brat who goes out of her way to play with Tristran’s emotions and tease him. That is not her character in the book at all and to change her seems, not only unnecessary, but specifically designed to reinforce certain negative stereotypes of women as manipulators of men, that it’s a woman’s fault when men do ridiculous things to “win” them. The resolution with Victoria and Tristran in the book is much more positive than the film. Similarly, the “happy ending” for Yvaine in the film is very much the glossed over Disney version; the novel’s epilogue is far more realistic and I think is much more positive for young girls than the one on the screen.

In short, I still love and enjoy the film adaptation of Stardust, but the novel is delightfully more feminist.

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