What happens when two fads converge on Hollywood and form an unholy union? What sort of devilry is spawned, and is it bliss, or is it a crime against the universe? I think there's a test case running right now, and I've damn excited to see where it goes.
The test subjects?
First, a recent preoccupation with comic book movies, leading from the first X-Men and Spiderman movies, through Sin City and Hellboy (the comic book heavyweights) to The Fantastic Four, The Punisher, two adjacent Hulk movies, 300, some more existential entries like A History of Violence, and various millions of secondary adaptations.
Second, a sudden interest in adaptations of traditional fantasy novels, starting with Lord of the Rings and continuing ad nauseam: Eragon (not a personal favorite), Narnia, The Golden Compass (forthcoming), Troy, and the whole massive run of Harry Potter adaptations. Some of these adaptations are impressive; some are inexcusable. I won't spend too much time passing judgment on them.
At last united, in the glorious manifestation of... what what? Neil Gaiman becoming a Hollywood personality.
He wasn't entirely off the radar before his recent Hollywood offerings... Gaiman was behind Mirrormask, which I have yet to see, and he was instrumental in creating one of the most well-endowed mythological anime films ever to hit the big screen. However, it's Stardust and Beowulf that will prove Gaiman's worth on the big screen. The first was just recently released... the second is lingering on deck, with trailers sneaking into public consciousness.
Gaiman is a brilliant storyteller, worthy of his fans' reverence. He's a novelist who has made his name in graphic novels. He did honor to the role of the traditional novelist in American Gods, Anansi Boys, and Neverwhere, and he gained his renown with Sandman, a graphic novel cycle that proved the medium could be beautiful and epic. Stardust was a novel that was published in an illustrated edition... almost a graphic novel, but not quite. It provided a space for the collision of the graphic novel and the traditional fantasy story, and now, it's provided a space for the collision of popular fantasy and comic book movies.
As such, I'm surprised at how little press the movie got, and I'm thoroughly impressed with how well-done it was. There's always a lingering fear about adaptations... will it honor the original, or will it take a good seed and bear an ugly, mushy, decrepit harvest of fruit? Here, I'm going to articulate a mini-review of Stardust, just as a way of backing up my opinion that the movie was worthy of the storyteller's name.
Stardust isn't an epic of war and romance... it had no pretension to being another Lord of the Rings or Matrix. It has less in common with high fantasy than it does with the fairy tale -- a focus on characters playing out personal adventures within a larger speculative and moral space. The film continued in this tradition, which was so immanent in the novel. The dialogue was smart, but not cumbersome, and no over-the-top drama was forced upon the story to make it marketable. Even the high-minded themes... fratricide in pursuit of kingship, the struggle to fit a role where you don't feel at home... were rendered personal and sympathetic. Thus, the actual fantasy drama, with its requisite love, evil, and violence, was palatable, even as a normal-length movie.
Thus, a successful experiment. Neil Gaiman wins round one.
The next round is going to be Beowulf, for which Gaiman wrote the screenplay, and it'll be more tricky. The story of Beowulf is difficult to adapt, because it's such an historical landmark in literature. It's a tale rooted in poetic language and a lost culture, so the acceptance rate for a visualization is going to be low. Both Beowulf and Grendel are such icons that any depiction of them may strike an audience as anti-climactic.
I was thoroughly skeptical when I saw the trailer, but I've gained some enthusiasm. I think that casting Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother is an excellent decision, and it shows Gaiman's skill in handling heavy material. He uses his power as a storyteller, and he refashions a few specific ideas in order to make it his own, turning Grendel's mother temporarily from a rampaging beast into a beautiful temptress. This is something that Peter Jackson never really did with Lord of the Rings -- his Lord of the Rings was obsessively oriented around reproducing Tolkien's vision as faithfully as possible. He did an amazing job. I think the story of Beowulf is so big, however, that Gaiman can never hope to do what Jackson did with Middle-Earth. Instead, he has to do what he's already started to do: he has to personalize the story, and in a sense, distance himself from it.
Despite my best intentions, I am in fact looking forward to Beowulf. Gaiman is a powerful force, a champion of literature in both its historical and its emergent incarnations. He's already proven that his storytelling skills work across media... now I want to see what he can do with Beowulf, an almost impossible adaptation.
By the way, for the other brilliant reconstruction of the Beowulf myth, read Gardner's Grendel. It's quite an experience.