Original blog post here.
You may be wondering what a Greatest Living Author watches when he’s not writing. Well, how about The King of Elfland’s Daughter: The Movie?
Fundamentally, the 2007 movie and the 1999 novel that inspired it, Stardust tells a familiar story. And not just because it’s basically (and deliberately) The King of the Elfland’s Daughter for the 21st Century.
Novel re-imaginings of traditional stories and themes is basically Neil Gaiman’s entire business model.
Also, terrifying children.
[Full disclosure: the filename for that image is ‘neilcaiman.jpg.’]
For what it’s worth, I’ve read plenty of Gaiman’s stuff and probably enjoyed a good deal of it, but I don’t think I’ve ever got anything he’s ever written. He’s clearly a good writer, but none of his philosophical of thematic statements have ever landed with me.
Let me get this out of the way first, the original novel was essentially marketed as a fairy tale for grown-ups. And, all in all, the book itself is pretty adult. There’s definitely content that certain readers will inevitably find objectionable, and even thematically, it gets pretty mature and sombre.
Not necessarily traumatisingly so, but definitely enough to be surprising if you’re going in expecting a kids’ book. So, basically, what I’m saying is, just your judgement if you’re either a parent considering the book for your kids or the easily-offended sort.
A lot of this is mitigated in the movie, which is both more family-friendly and just less of a downer in general.
Fundamentally, the book is more thoughtful, intelligent and thematically powerful, and while the movie is comparatively dumbed-down, it’s probably also more purely and straightforwardly fun.
But, like, apples and oranges, and all…
The movie is rated PG-13 (PG in Canada; our rating system tends to be more lenient). The content descriptor identifies “some Fantasy violence and risque humour.”
And, yeah, there is that.
On the other hand, if you’ve seen basically any Fantasy movie ever, or even played any even Fantasy-adjacent video game, you’ve probably seen worse in terms of violence. And even the Marvel movies are probably worse in terms of raunchy jokes and mature themes.
Again, if you’re a parent worried about what your kids are laying eyes upon or an easily-scandalised adult, I’m sure you can make our own judgement calls about what you want or don’t want to watch.
Man. That was way too much pre-amble (though I am incredibly pleased with that ‘Gaiman’/’caiman’ joke). So, yeah, let’s get to the amble.
Our story beings in the town of Wall—
—so named for the wall dividing the town and thus our world from the mystical, magical Fairy-y kingdom of Stormhold, possibly also an even more meaningful name given that most English placenames containing “wall” ultimately derive it from the Old English word for stranger or foreigner. Fitting for a village on the edge of the Fairy world.
After a brief prologue detailing the circumstances of our protagonist Tristan’s (played by MCU, or at least MCU-adjacent, Daredevil Charlie Cox) birth — his dad’s from Wall, his mom’s from Stormhold — Tristan departs for Stormhold in pursuit of a fallen star to win the heart of the beautiful but rather stuck-up Victoria — whose boyfriend is played by Henry Cavill in a brief, but delightfully catty (and out–of–character) appearance.
Sidebar: in the book, our hero’s called Tristran; note the additional r.
Things are complicated for Tristan by several factors.
One, the star is neither a rock nor a ball of plasma creating heat and light via thermonuclear fusion, she’s Claire Danes (with a broken leg; a rather realistic outcome of falling from the sky, all things considered). And Yvaine, the star, is not exactly thrilled at the prospect of being dragged back to Wall and traded off for Victoria’s affections.
Two, an evil witch is also looking for Yvaine in order to eat her and magically restore herself to youth and power. It’s presented without comment that witches eating stars is a thing Stormhold, how or why it works is never really explained, though.
Magic, I guess.
Three, the prince of Stormhold, Septimus is on a concurrent quest to retrieve the kingdom’s royal ruby, flung into the sky by the dying king of Stormhold for the purposes of designating his rightful heir, setting into motion not only Septimus’ quest, but also knocking Yvaine out of the sky, thereby setting into motion basically everything else that happens.
Septimus is a pretty interesting character. Played by Mark Strong in yet another rare villainous role, he’s clearly a villain: murdering several of his brothers to remove his obstacles to the throne (played, by the way, for the highest level of black comedy possible), but his journey is separate from Tristan and Yvaine’s for most of the movie (they only directly cross paths at the climax). So he isn’t really the villain — that’s indisputably the witch’s role. He’s really more of a secondary (and not even really entirely) evil viewpoint character with a plotline of his own that eventually intersects with the heroes.
In fact, various tangentially-related characters with either the same or conflicting goals briefly and unknowingly crossing paths is a fairly frequent recurrence in Stardust and supplies a healthy dose of dramatic irony.
For the most part, Stardust is essentially a fairly traditional Fairy Tale sort of story. Or at least a modern, fairly self-ware spin of traditional Fairy Tale stories and it tells that story well. There’s humour, both the regular kind and the darkly hilarious kind. There’s enough Fantasy-y action that the film rises to epic grandeur in some scenes. There’s romance.
Also, there’s Robert De Niro playing a crossdressing sky pirate.
So, in conclusion, I give Stardust a rating of “8/10; would recommend going beyond the Fields We Know.”
Copyright 2022 J.B. Norman. Revised and updated 2023.
Adapted from an original post written 2021.
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