I saw the film of Stardust not long after it came out in 2007, and loved it. A grown-up (but not especially "adult") fairy story, it was exciting, magical, beautiful and funny. I was aware that it was based on a book by Neil Gaiman, but for some reason it's taken me till now to get around to reading it.
I often approach film adaptation of books with some dread, although it's by no means always justified, but it's a much rarer experience to do it backwards. I read Iain Banks's The Crow Road after seeing the TV serial (a well-adapted version). Much longer ago, as a young child, I recall reading Dodie Smith's The One Hundred and One Dalmatians after watching the Disney animated version and being highly confused about the differences.
Whether it's due to the order of exposure, or simply because it works, I found that the considerable changes made for the film version of Stardust didn't bother me. I suspect it's the latter reason. Books and films are very different media, and as long as changes have a good reason, they're sometimes necessary1.
In any case, a bit of variation somehow works better in this case than most. The story of Stardust has so much the feeling of an old folk-tale that it's almost as if, rather than the film being based on the book, both are retellings of an older story, and have chosen to interpret its core events in slightly different ways.
The story tells how a young man, Tristran Thorn (Tristan in the film, but I'll refer to him throughout by his original name, to avoid confusion) lives in an ordinary 19th century English village that just happens to be a short stroll from the wall that divides the mundane world from the world of Faerie2. Desperate to win the love of the village beauty Victoria, he vows to bring her back a star that's fallen far beyond the Wall.
Tristran isn't an ordinary young man, since his mother belonged to the magical realm, and he finds no shortage of friends there. However, when he reaches the place where the star has fallen (by instantaneous travel using a "Babylon candle"), he finds something he hasn't expected. Far from being a lifeless lump of rock, this star proves to be a young woman called Yvaine.
Their return journey to the Wall is marked by encounters with a unicorn and a flying ship, among other things, but also by pursuit from a powerful witch and several ruthless princes, each of whom wants the magic of the star for their own ends.
The book and the film follow similar plots, but the film cuts out a good deal of the travelling (Tristran and Yvaine's journey back to the Wall is reduced from months to a week) and substitutes several more visual and dramatic sequences.
That's perfectly reasonable. The book is very much about the journey, a relatively calm affair (with a few notable exceptions) in which Tristran and Yvaine's enemies essentially neutralise one another, and it works beautifully that way. A film, on the other hand, needs focus, action and spectacle, and this is achieved by additions like a climactic action scene that has no parallel in the book. It's also achieved through Robert De Niro.
The book features a very brief sequence in which Tristran and Yvaine are rescued from the cloud where they happen to have become stranded by a flying ship on a lightning-gathering voyage. It's under the command of a fairly unremarkable character called Captain Alberich, who gives them passage for a while.
In the film, this has changed to a larger-than-life pirate vessel under the command of a transvestite pirate captain (De Niro) called Captain Shakespeare. Their time on board is now full of events, and the captain and crew end up playing a major part in the story.
This may have no sanction in the book, but it works spectacularly, with De Niro really hamming it up (in the best possible sense of the phrase). Similarly, the big fight near the end in the castle of the three witches, to save Yvaine from having her heart cut out, is a fitting climax to the film.
In general (apart from the flying ship) the various elements are explored more thoroughly in the book than the film. The central plot, of Tristran and Yvaine's relationship mutating from enmity to love, works in both, although it's perhaps a little more hurried in the film. Still, having to pack it in more tightly leads to some great one-liners from Yvaine, who's splendidly played by Claire Danes.
The book explores the village and explains its relationship with Faerie quite extensively, whereas it's glossed over in the film. We also learn a lot more in the book about the enemy princes, although the film versions still work well on their own terms. Coming from a kingdom where succession conventionally goes to the last prince standing, the seven brothers are down to three by the start of the story, with two eliminated along the way, leaving only the most ruthless to pursue Yvaine — though constantly accompanied by the ghosts of his dead brothers.
The three witches who seek the star's heart to restore their youth are more straightforwardly presented in the film, without the tantalising hints at their bizarre nature that we get in the book. Nevertheless, the chief of them (unnamed in the book, Lamia in the film) is played with huge gusto by Michelle Pfeiffer, both as stately beauty and old hag. The climactic scene, as Tristran tries desperately to save Yvaine before the witches cut out her heart, is very effective, even if it's a far cry from the witch's final, rather pathetic scene in the book.
So which is better, the book or the film? To be honest, I don't think I could answer that. If the film had been more of a straight adaptation of the book, it probably wouldn't live up to the original. As it is, what we have is a superb book and a superb film, telling different versions of the same tale. And that, I think, makes a perfect adaptation.
1 That doesn't mean all changes are forgivable, of course. See my recent rant on the subject.
2 There's a very obvious parallel here with Lord Dunsany's classic novel The King of Elfland's Daughter, which is probably not accidental. Gaiman is well versed in the classics of fantasy, and the fact that he uses Dunsany's favourite phrase, "the fields we know", to refer to the mundane world is a bit of a giveaway.