Last week I read and adored Stardust by Neil Gaiman. Yesterday I watched and liked, but didn't love, the film of Stardust. It's easy to moan about how films never get books right and how they left all your favourite bits out and he just doesn't look like that. Films and books are different animals and there's no point expecting what you see on screen to be like the pictures in your head. Rather, I want to muse on the differences between the two Stardusts and the reasons for them.
Inevitably there are compressions of time. The book Tristran takes a year to wander Faerie and get back for the fair, where the film's Tristan has a week in which to bring back Victoria's birthday present. Characters and events are lost and the story becomes simplified to its essential details. We'll leave aside the silly camp pirates and the unnecessary Ricky Gervais cameo (the pirates were OK. There's a wonderful sword fight set to Offenbach's Can Can which is deliciously silly. Ricky Gervais I just don't like.)
One thing I did find interesting was that the film managed to be both less menacing and less innocent than the book. In Gaiman's Faerie, no-one is safe. People die, sometimes bloodily and it's a shock when they do. This creates a real tension and fear for the central characters. The usual fairytale guarantees that the good will end happily and the bad unhappily seem to be in doubt all the way through. The film puts back those conventions and there's no shock or real fear that the wrong person might die. Yet, there's a sort of innocence about the central pair of characters in the book that gets completely lost in the film. From the off, they're confidently exchanging insults and arguing and there's none of Tristran's tender standoffishness that I liked in the book. Inevitably, when they realise their love for one another, they fall into bed in a way which just wouldn't occur to their page-bound counterparts. Not that Gaiman's book is coy about sex, quite the opposite, but most of the earthier bits get cut out completely, which means in one case the death of one of the would-be Lords of Stormhold happens via a sub-Princess Bride scene of poisoned and switched goblets, rather than to the accompaniment of a barmaid's willing seduction.
The film's denouement is of course dramatic and full of explosions and swords and broken glass. The book's clever, but less dramatic end just wouldn't work for Hollywood, which is fair enough. And the good end happily and the bad, unhappily and all is well forever after, as you would expect. Still, on the whole, I think I prefer books to films of books, however good the latter are. There's always the shadow of 'The Book' hanging over a film of a book, which just isn't there with an original film. Unless the book is dreadful, in which case the film can only improve on it. Can you think of any examples where that is the case?