Thursday, July 1, 2010

On Neil Gaiman vs Neil Gaiman

The movie Stardust came out three years ago. I was hesitant at first, being a natural born skeptic towards fantasy. Sure, I’d read all the Harry Potter books multiple times. I had also forced myself through Lord of the Rings, though I prefer the movies (shame on me). I might even have read a few more fantasy books and certainly watched several other fantasy movies, and it is safe to say that I enjoyed both. But I was nevertheless convinced that fantasy wasn’t my thing. So Neil Gaiman shouldn’t be either.

Stardust @ IMDb
I went to see the movie anyway, and I loved it. Of course. I have yet to hear someone who has seen that movie claim that they didn’t enjoy at least one aspect of it – Robert De Niro’s part. I’ll get back to that in a bit. But Stardust has more than Oscar winning actors going for it – it is a fairytale adventure with love, sword fights, fantastic creatures, magic… Basically, it has all the splendor it takes to make an epic movie.

Since I loved the movie so much, I was definitely hesitant to read the book. I almost always love the book better than the movie whenever I get the chance to compare, and I didn’t want what I assumed would be an awesome book to ruin what was soon becoming my favourite “feel good” movie. Thus I avoided the book for a long time, even though several of my friends read it and loved it.

Stardust @ AmazonI had come to the conclusion, however, that I might not be as opposed to fantasy literature as I had led myself to believe. Thus I asked a good friend of mine (who is an avid fantasy fan) to recommend a book within the genre. Her suggestion was Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Now,  American Gods may not be your typical fantasy novel, but it sure is a very good novel. After having read it, I was convinced that I wanted to read more of Gaiman’s books, and so I read The Graveyard Book (which I loved), and Fragile Things (which was okay, but I have never been fond of short stories). I still avoided Stardust. The book, that is. The movie I’ve seen a number of times.


Then, a few weeks ago I was in the market for a nice and friendly read. I went to a bookshop and the book that stood out from all the rest I looked at, was, indeed Stardust. I decided to give it a chance after all, hoping that I wasn’t ruining one of my favourite movies. As it turns out, I wasn’t.

Neil Gaiman did not write the script for Stardust the movie, but he was involved in the process. The movie still has Gaiman’s fingerprints all over it, but there were made certain changes both in plot, structure and characters. Being so familiar with the adaption I had a hard time not comparing the book with the movie when reading. Usually it goes the other way around. You watch a movie after having read the book, and you flinch at every detail the movie makers changed. This time I flinched whenever there were details in the original book that mismatched with the movie adaption.

One thing that threw me off was the ending. I knew that the book had a different conclusion than the movie, but it was different different. That's all. I'm not going to say what made it different, or why this made me unhappy (I'm going to allow you the courtesy of watching the movie and read the book yourself, and then figure out which ending you preferred. See how nice I am?).

Stardust @ AmazonAnother thing that bothered me with the book was the action sequences. Or lack thereof. Now, I know this is a format thing. It is WAY easier to make a great action scene in a movie where you have all sorts of fancy effects (including sound), than it is in a book. It might even be argued that the failure here is my ability to picture what I read and not Neil Gaiman's lack of action writing skills. My guess, though, is that it is neither. I don't think Gaiman incapable of writing a good action scene, but I think he deliberately chose not to. Stardust the book is not packed with action. The movie is. Both are results of conscious decisions. Gaiman deliberately made the book a little less packed with action, a little more filled with philosophy. However, to me it worked better in the movie. As shallow as that may sound, I missed the swordplay and explosions when reading the book. It was simply too slow-paced for my liking. I don't have a general grudge against slow-paced books, but in this case I knew what the alternative could (should?) have been.

The final point I will adress which separates the book from the adaptation, and which is another major reason why I prefer the movie, has to do with one of the characters. According to the "Making of" video on the DVD, Captain Shakespeare is an invention of Neil Gaiman's. But he is not in the book. Robert De Niro's performance as the pirat captain makes it worth watching the movie alone. Stardust without Captain Shakespeare is like Harry Potter without Dumbledore. Just. Not. The. Same! I realize that Captain Shakespeare without Robert De Niro would not have been the same either, so in this instance the book was bound to loose even if this character had been included.

The bottom line is that I preferred the movie to the book. Partly because I saw the movie first, but probably even more because there were elements in this story that made it better told in the medium of a movie and not in a book. My verdict, then, is that if you are looking for a feel good love story, you should watch Stardust. If you are looking for a great book, you should read American Gods.

21 comments:

welcome to my world of poetry said...

An exxcellent read which I found very interesring.

Yvonne,

Nicole MacDonald said...

I really enjoyed the movie :) I might have to read the book now *grin*

Cruella Collett said...

Yvonne - you should check out Neil Gaiman's books, then :)

Nicole - at your own risk, that is all...

stu said...

I much prefer the book. I agree that the action sequences are fun in the film, but their lack in the book is mostly down to things being solved through a sort of relentless fairytale logic.

Have you read Neverwhere and Anansi Boys yet?

Summer said...

I liked the book better, but then I read it long before the movie came out. I didn't like American Gods--moved far too slow for me; however, I love Neverwhere and Anansi Boys, plus his children's books, Coraline, and the Sandman series. Pretty much everything except AG. :-)

ViolaNut said...

Well, remember when we watched Coraline and they'd inserted the character of Wybie so you're not watching Coraline talking to herself all the time? I think Neil Gaiman, more than many other authors (actually, let's say storytellers), just really understands the differences inherent in the formats and is more willing than most to optimize the story for the medium. Also, I have what is possibly the weirdest word verification I've ever seen: suadoogr Reminds me of Lockhart rabbiting on about Ouagadougou or something like that...

Jan Morrison said...

I have neither seen the movie or read the book which is weird because I adore Neil Gaiman. Hmmmm...OK - so much to do, so little time.

Jemi Fraser said...

I haven't seen the movie yet - because I want to read the book first. It's on my wishlist, but I haven't got to it yet. Maybe in the summer.

Katie Rob said...

I LOVED the movie, too! I've watched it about 10 times. Captain Shakespeare is one of my favorite De Niro characters in a long, long time. Thanks for the heads up on the book recommendation. I really want to read American Gods now.

Hart Johnson said...

Neil Gaiman is RIGHT AT THE TOP of my list of authors to get to next... Interesting, because I've tried a dozen times to get my kids to let me rent Stardust, but they never want to... I think I'm going to go see what the library has of his...

You've reinforced my belief that it is nearly always the one you are exposed to FIRST that you prefer... in the case of books versus movies. (LotR being my only personaly exception)--then again I USUALLY wait to see movies until I read the book...

Melody said...

That's kind of how I feel about Ella Enchanted. I saw the movie first (shame on me), loved it - the humor, the romance, etc... Then I read the book and was a bit stunned at how...shallow...it felt. I felt really bad about it, but I'll still say the book is better any day.

Faith E. Hough said...

I adored both the book and the movie. I think that Neil Gaiman understands what makes a book great as well as what makes a movie great, and these can be different things.
Have you ever felt so annoyed by a movie that followed a book so closely it just...didn't work? (For me, some of the Harry Potter films tread this line...) Or read a book that was so action packed it lost its literary value?
I think Gaiman just wanted to keep the best of both worlds. (Though for the record, I liked the middle of the movie a teency bit better and the end of the book a teency bit better. ;)
Thanks for posting this! I love talking about my favorite books/movies/authors. :)

Cruella Collett said...

stu - I have not read those (yet). I've looked at the a number of times in the bookshop, but for some reason always put them back down. I expect one day I won't, though, so I'll get to them eventually.

I like your comparison with fairytales - I noticed that too - but perhaps this is partly why I didn't fall for it like I did with the movie. The fairytale logic works in fairytales because they are short, but to it seemed too dense for the format of a novel.

Summer - interestingly I didn't mind the slow pace at all in American Gods!

Leanne - exactly. This is why I have no doubt that the lack of action scenes has nothing to do with his writing abilities. It was a conscious decision (only one that didn't suit my taste). I'm suadoogrly not letting that cloud my opninion of Gaiman's work in general, though.

Jan - you're in for a(t least one) treat, then! :)

Jemi - I agree that book first and then movie generally is the way to go, and with my experience of Stardust I think it might be particularly important in this instance.

Katie - I imagine you'd really enjoy American Gods, with your appreciation for culture, arts and all things awesome ;)

Tami - interesting that your kids won't see it, as it is one of the movies I can think of that should be as funny for both boys, girls and their nineteen and a half-year old mom...

I think you have a point that the order in which you see a movie/read the book matter - BUT there are some exceptions. Like how I just got around to reading Percy Jackson # 1 (even if you guys have been recommending it for YEARS). I already saw the movie, and really liked it, but there is no doubt in my mind that the book is way, way better.

Melody - yeah, I can relate to that. I'm not actually saying that Stardust the movie is better than the book, but I enjoyed it more.

This turned into quite an interesting discussion, I think! :)

Cruella Collett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cruella Collett said...

Faith - absolutely, I know exactly what you mean. I think at some point I felt that way about the detail level in the LOTR movies (but in hindsight I can't think of anything that needed to go - it was more the result of the midway-second-movie-frustration that made me wish they hadn't made a trilogy of them).

For the HP movies, however, I feel the exact opposite. They are not close enough to the books!

In the end it is a matter of format - it must be tricky to know what to include and what to leave out to make the most of a movie adaptation. Ideally every movie should get to stand on its own feet regardless of whether it is made from a book or not, but of course that will not happen as long as there are people (like me) more than willing to compare the movie and the book...

Amanda Sablan said...

Can you keep a secret? The only fantasy series I really like is Harry Potter; other than that, I don't care for the genre. Yet my book has fantastical elements in it all the same...

I actually have not seen Stardust, though I'm sure I'd like it. There's just so many other films I want to see too, and so little time. xD

Nice post!

Cruella Collett said...

Amanda - your secret's safe with me (and, you know, anyone else reading this public blog..)! It sounds like you are where I was a few years ago - I firmly believed I didn't like fantasy, and that Harry Potter only was the exception. After I have worked my way through some excellent fantasy or fantasy-ish books (and movies), though, I suspect that I was wrong all along. I think one problem is that in many ways fantasy has been marginalized for many years, and this have resulted in some strange publishing decisions. The fantasy books I think are good, though, are often really good. And when I think about it, a lot of the books I read growing up would qualify as fantasy.

In the end I think it's mostly a matter of finding the right books to learn how to appreciate a genre (though I also believe there are genres that just aren't made for me, so I can understand it if you still don't like fantasy after reading Gaiman, for instance).

Palindrome said...

I love Neil Gaiman and all of his books. I learned a long time ago though to keep my love for books and movies separate. I am only dooming myself for disappointment so I stopped.

Cruella Collett said...

P - yeah, I had to do that with the Harry Potter movies. In the beginning I was just so disappointed, but then I learned to appreciate the movies as a separate thing. It always surprises me when I come to the conclusion that I like a movie version better than the book, though!

Palindrome said...

oh I totally hear you. I thought I would love the Lord of the Rings books, I. Did. Not.

Cruella Collett said...

*phew* So glad it's not just me! I don't think I would have even finished them had it not been for the fact that I was borderline Obsessive Compulsive Stubborn when I was 14. I'm still stubborn, but I'm slightly less concerned with being struck by lightning for not finishing the Great Classics...

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