I had a long flight to China a few months ago (pre-pandemic), and of course had plenty of movies on my to-watch list. I’ve been back and forth from China many times, so I have the 11 hour flight down to a science, from my seated yoga to memorizing the lighting patterns.
I started my trip with a fancy, critically-acclaimed film with lots of depth and complex themes (The Favourite, reviewed here). But as we all know, by the end of any long flight your brain is pretty much mush, and only comfort movies will do. Luckily, they had Stardust as an option.
Stardust is not a guilty pleasure, but it is cheerful, clever, pretty, and includes a happy ending, so it is just the ticket for the last few hours of travel. This trip it was even more fitting, because I had just finished the book Stardust, by Neil Gaiman. While I’ve seen the movie more than once, this year was the first time I read the book. I was surprised by the differences between movie and book. The novel stands on its own, evoking the atmosphere of the fairy tales it seeks to emulate. Meanwhile the movie did an excellent job of creating cinematic moments out of the source material. Let’s compare them here:
Not offensive to women = 1/1 pt
Features a woman as the main protagonist and/or supporting character = 2/2 pts
Passes the Bechdel-Wallace test = 3/3 pts
Both movie and book pass the Bechdel-Wallace test, and both feature the same female characters, most importantly Yvaine, a star, and Lamia, the story’s villainess.
Both are great characters and I really liked their representations. Yvaine is not a damsel or a Strong Female Character trope. In the movie particularly, she plays to her strengths to win the day.
Recommended: Fairy tale princesses become the evil queens they sought to escape in Anita Valle’s Dark Fairy Tale Queens series.
Artistic and/or Entertaining = 4/4 pts
If you haven’t read the book but you’ve seen the movie, I recommend the book just because it’s an enjoyable read. The ending is different from the movie, so the story stands on its own. Neil Gaiman is famous for a reason! He builds compelling worlds and as usual, the book has more time than movie to reveal details about that world. I liked that the ending is different than the book. It works for a book but wouldn’t work for a movie.
The movie foregoes the book’s light touch but in the new medium it really works. The addition of Robert De Niro’s Captain Shakespeare is funny and unexpected. (I’ll talk about his portrayal below). The nature of film means there are more funny visuals and that the battle at the end, which doesn’t exist in the book, is fun to watch. So too are the spells and the aging/de-aging of the witch Lamia. I liked the book but I really like the movie. I’m a sucker for fun magic worlds, especially ones that don’t take magical rules so seriously.
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Above and Beyond General Media = 5/5 pts
One thing about the movie is that it simplified things and made them more mainstream-friendly. As anyone who has had a favorite book made into a film has complained, this can mean losing out on a lot of depth. One thing I liked that the movie kept was Yvaine’s personality. She is a star who gets knocked from the sky and is rightfully ornery about it! Yvaine has a temper the whole film, and the book makes note that she’s known for it for all her days. Neither book or movie judges her for this, or claims that she should be mellow or grateful toward the men around her. She’s also not portrayed as a shrew. When she’s angry, it feels like a normal human reaction.
The villainous witch-sisters I argue are a positive representation of older women on screen. (Yes, Lamia’s a witch hunting for eternal youth, I know! I still want to be her when I grow up.) Michelle Pfeiffer craving youth feels less like desiring beauty (and therefore self-worth) but immortality and power. And she’s willing too be ruthless to get it, which I respect. There’s also the way the book and movie portray her to consider. The movie never looks down on her, and she’s just as dangerous as any male villain.
Another potentially controversial portrayal is Captain Shakespeare. In the book, the character doesn’t have a huge role, but in the movie he is played as a flamboyant….crossdresser? The movie isn’t clear what he is, though his crew labels him “a twink”, which seems to point out he is a gay man.
When the movie came out, this was probably an offensive, stereotype-ridden portrayal. But with age, I kind of think it’s only improved. Again, we have to take the movie’s perspective into consideration. The movie never asks us to laugh at the captain. There is one funny scene with him dressed in a skirt and dancing ridiculously, but it is at that moment that the villain enters and threatens to ruin Captain Shakespeare’s livelihood by revealing his secret, and we are meant to feel worried about him. The character is smart and refined, and undoubtedly a positive take. So while the trappings might be worn, especially to people who have seen it over and over, I think the character ages well, particularly because the movie was able to see that there is nothing wrong with people acting, dressing, or feeling how the captain feels.
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