Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor
The fantasy genre has benefited greatly from the Harry Potter phenomenon. Just looking at the previews and posters in the theatre today shows the scramble movie production companies made to option every possible fantasy novel property. The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper will be hitting theatres this fall, although the sweet British boy hero has somehow been cast as a whining American teenager and the trailer bears little resemblance to the dark and fantastical world Cooper envisioned. Later this year sees the release of the Spiderwick Chronicles, another series that sits on the shelves at the bookstore marked “What to read after Harry Potter” centered around a fairy world that waits to be unlocked through—what else?—a book. The recent film Stardust is adapted from what is essentially a comic book, though of course purists know the appropriately respectful term these days for such works is a “graphic novel.” Most of the comic adaptations to see mainstream film release have been derived from the more popular superhero series that span the decades, but a few great adaptations have been made of more artistically driven graphic novels—for instance, the character study of Ghost World and the ultra-violent Sin City.
The particular graphic novel was written first by Neil Gaiman, who himself a strange institution both in the world of graphic novels and in the world of literature, best known for sweeping and dark epics driven by characters that are part myth, part fantasy, and altogether too human for their own good. His recent involvement with film produced the fantasy of Mirrormask. What he creates in Stardust is more than anything else a fairy-tale. Set in a timeless quaint village with nothing much going on, Stardust is the story of a shop-boy who is only a shop-boy for the time being. Stardust relies on the familiar contrivance of a portal to another world. Whether it’s the wardrobe in Chronicles of Narnia, the bricks in the wall of the Leaky Cauldron, or the tesseracts of A Wrinkle in Time, the conceit of moving through hidden ways from the mundane to the fantastical is a well-explored tradition. In this case, travel is generally expedited through the simple crossing of a hole in the wall which links a plain town with a fairy-tale kingdom.
When the King of a fairy-tale realm is dying, the question of succession can never be solved simply. It is a well understood fact of magical realms that heirs can never simply accede to the throne: take, for instance, poor would-be King Arthur and his struggles or the cursed frog prince. Noble heirs are always getting themselves into trouble or fighting to prove their worth. The Kingdom of Stormhold is no exception to this rule, but the princes’ troubles have been brought upon by themselves. The dying King boasts proudly of his own triumph over all of his brothers—they were all dead before his father passed, so the decision of who took the throne next was clearly decided. The newest generation is sloppy—there are several of them left standing. Thus, the decision of accession is relegated to a magical device not unlike the sword in the stone. The necklace of kingship is thrown into the sky, and whichever brother lives to claim it will be recognized as king.
Unfortunately, the necklace makes a super-powered rise up to the heavens themselves, and knocks down a star along the way. The star—played by Claire Danes—is sought by practically everybody with the same viciousness that the necklace of the kingdom is being sought by the princes. Possessing the heart of a star apparently grants immortality for as long as the heart lasts [when consumed slowly, apparently, it lasts for quite a while.] Three witches lead the search for the heart of the star, as they know the rituals necessary to possess it. The witches, the head sister brought to life by Michelle Pfieffer, are perfect realizations of the tradition of Hectate. Their natural form is as elderly crones, and only with a new star heart can they be young and beautiful again. The use of their power brings them closer and closer to death (illustrated in what is no doubt intended to be amusing references to the development of wrinkled skin and sagging breast as Michelle Pfieffer expends her powers).
Perhaps the most underused and brilliant element of Stardust is the set of dead princes, each named for the order of their birth. The princes are fated to hang around as ghosts until someone rightfully takes the throne. As the various quests converge and the fate of kingdoms, stars, and one single-minded shop-boy are decided, the princes provide a chorus and peanut-gallery. One beautifully framed scene poises the dead princes outside the “Slaughtered Prince” tavern—apparently, fratricide is a well-established tradition in this kingdom. The violent deaths of each prince at the hands, usually, of one of their brothers, is all put aside rather lightly in favor of general bickering and discussion of the possible outcomes as the princes await the quest’s end. They remain in the state of the moment of their death, even the unfortunate man who dies rather lacking in wardrobe.
These princes are a rather strange choice for comic relief. Each one of them is a murderer or occasionally would-be murder, some many times over. All are burdened with great thwarted ambitions. None of them valued their lives over their claim to the throne, or considered retreating to a quiet life or making alliances with their brothers instead of mortal enemies. The princes’ ghosts are on-screen so little, however, it is difficult to get a read on their motivations beyond power-hungriness. This could leave them without depth; they are almost as black and white as their color-drained images but for a bit of brotherly companionship that seems to be revealed only once death takes them—they can only be human once their quest for power has been fully thwarted. [At the Slaughtered Prince, one of them even indulges in a bit of undead voyeurism.]
Similarly, there is only a little room to interpret much death to the three witch sisters. The leader of the witch sisters, Lamia, calls upon her sisters often after she leaves them to quest for the star. She seems to rely upon their counsel and their presence, even if it is only to have someone who will listen to her complaints and struggles. Yet as the movie nears its end, there is a moment where Lamia almost has the star in her clutches, at the expense of her sisters—Lamia alone would continue to immortality. As she comes to that realization, at first she tells the star to leave: everything of value to her is gone, so she has no more desire for the star. Moments later, Lamia’s magic bars the door as the star turns to go and Lamia announces them as fools for believing her. But there is almost a moment of sincerity in the witch, even if it is for a heartbeat’s space before she resumes her quest for the heart. One wonders if the three sisters are cursed in the same way as the princes: they only have time for humanity once the quest has been won.
Thus here is darkness in the fairy-tale world of Stardust, but it is a childish darkness. These are the exaggerated witches and ghouls that are replaced by far more sinister and less obvious evils as we age from childhood to adulthood. Stardust itself could be seen as a coming of age story: a young man is drawn into a magic quest and discovers both his own strength and the value of requited love. But I would hesitate to call the story one of coming of age. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy enters Oz and finds a mystical world where she can be hailed as a savior and live comfortably forever. But she chooses to leave it behind, giving up the fairy-tale ending. And for what? The cornfields of Kansas? A hard decision to come to. Yet Dorothy’s coming of age isn’t in her quest through Oz—it’s in her decision to leave the fantasy behind and return to the family that needs her.
The move from the mundane world to the fairy-tale kingdom becomes the quest of Stardust. Each of the characters is seeking their fairy-tale ending, and most of them will never find it. But instead of learning to face ordinary life and dealing with the mundane, those lucky few characters known as the “good guys” get their fairy-tale finale. They escape to a fantasy realm that becomes a paradise. The destination is almost a Never-Never Land for adults: a world where love is eternal, power is in the hands of those who will treat it responsibly, and a fallen star can always return to the heavens.