Okay, so this is sorted under my movies category, but I’m mostly going to be talking about the book, Stardust, by Neil Gaiman. Now, I’ve read very little Gaiman–I’ve read Stardust, American Gods, and his collaborative work with Terry Pratchett Good Omens–so I won’t claim to be a scholar of his particular narrative technique, but I do know good storytelling when I see it, and while Stardust the book is imaginative and describes a rich and interesting world, it forgot the part where things need to happen.
Now, Stardust the movie is about a boy and his oddly-old-looking love interest,
Claire Daines Yvaine, a literal star in woman form that fell from the sky due to the oddly energetic jewelry of a dying king. The boy, Tristan (Tristran in the book) sets out from his quaintly British hometown of Wall (named for the wall that separates our world from the fantasy world of falling stars and lightning miners) in order to cross the fantasy world and retrieve the star, thus winning the affections of his depressingly shallow crush. In the process he meets witches (one of which is played by Michelle Pfeiffer), sky pirates (their leader played by a wonderfully campy Robert de Niro), and goats who used to be people alongside people who used to be goats. Yvaine is much sought-after by the witches, who want to claim her heart to prolong their lives, and along the way she and Tristan fall in love, with Tristan overcoming his foreshadowed handicaps and outgrowing his original shallowness. In the end, Tristan kills the evil witch, saves the girl, and is crowned king for his trouble. There are other plotlines about princes and murder, all very well done, but those are not relevant to this post.
The book is much the same, except for the whole part at the end where things happen. Yes, Tristran is still crowned king, and yes, he still wins the girl, but the climactic battle with the witch doesn’t happen. Remember that the witch is one of the primary driving forces behind the story’s overt conflicts, and that even if the inner conflicts are resolved before the final battle, the outer conflicts still need to be wrapped up.
In the movie, this culminates in a battle, as I said. In the book…not so much. The witch, who has been chasing Yvaine for the entire book but never quite catching up to her, stumbles across her in the market town where the entire story really starts. She is bereft of her youth due to her overuse of what little magic she has remaining, and essentially says “Well, have fun with your boyfriend, men are pigs, he doesn’t love you.”
I’d be the first to tell you that the story isn’t about battles with witches or action scenes, but conflicts need to be resolved. Both the movie and the book depict the evolution of Tristan/Tristran’s character from a single-minded, halfway-capable young man to a fully-fledged, confident adult in much the same fashion, so that part of the story is preserved. However, while I appreciate both the irony and purpose in the anticlimax (after all, how many fairy tales end with a swordfight, and how many end with irony?), writing stories is all about expectations, and the expectation I had going into the book was not fulfilled. The witch is portrayed as a legitimate threat willing to kill to get what she wants, and thus it is satisfying to think she will be dealt with as such.
All of this being said, the vast majority of the book is richly detailed, and as I mentioned the ending is at least an interesting take on the traditional irony of the fairy tale/fantasy fable, but where a fairy tale or fable is usually short and allows the reader to digest a story without investing too much into it, Stardust requires you to develop and grow with characters as they face challenges, only to have one of their major challenges taken care of for them purely by chance. While this is realistic, it makes for a unsatisfying ending.
The point of this article is that Stardust is the rare example of the movie that is better than the book, and while I read the book second (and thus admit that my appreciation thereof might be affected) the sense of disappointment I felt colored my perceptions of the movie, retroactively. If you, the reader, take anything from this article, it is this: no matter how clever and ironic and trope-inverting you put into your ending, remember that a story is a story first. Make sure it works before you sacrifice plot satisfaction for showing off how clever you are. No author can cater to every reader’s expectations, but there are certain general rules that can be safely adhered to. Neil Gaiman knows the rules well enough to be able to break them, but sometimes the rules are there to make the game more interesting.