“Writing a novel is a voyage of discovery,” says Neil Gaiman, who has written piles of them (including “American Gods,” “Anansi Boys” and “Neverwhere”) and sold millions.
But turning a novel into a film is like “running a very sharp-edged maze leading through a minefield, with people shooting at you, in a freezing downpour, having no sense of where the exit might be, pursued by hounds, while blindfolded.”
For all that, Gaiman is doing quite a lot of it. “Stardust,” an adaptation of his best-selling romantic fantasy, opened Friday with a cast including Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Claire Danes, Ricky Gervais and Peter O’Toole. This fall brings “Beowulf,” an animated adaptation of the 11th-century epic co-written with “Pulp Fiction’s” Roger Avary. And next year, Gaiman’s spooky children’s book “Coraline” arrives as a stopmotion feature from Henry Selick (Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas”).
In each case, he’s relieved to have dodged the bullet, the dogs and the explosives.
“Stardust,” a fairy tale set both in Victorian England and a more colorful, exciting magical realm some distance outside everyday reality, follows a lovestruck young man who hopes to win the heart of a cold beauty by bringing her the fallen star that lands near their village. He’s surprised to find that the star is a lovely young woman with a spiky temper who strongly objects to becoming a gift. Because a witch and several unscrupulous noblemen are also seeking the star, our hero’s mission becomes a dangerous sequence of chases, escapes, sword fights and magic spells.
At a time when most films are familiar and formulaic, Gaiman is pleased that his project, while compressed and fitted with new characters for the screen, has retained its originality.
“People have to work a bit to describe it,” he says. “ ‘The Princess Bride’ is the comparison we’re beginning to hear, because they fit in roughly comparable categories. It’s like describing ‘Dracula’ as being similar to ‘Frankenstein,’ though they’re really quite unlike one another.”
Gaiman, who regained the film rights to the novel after years of studio options expired, hand-picked Matthew Vaughn as writer-director and Jane Goldman as his screenplay collaborator. Vaughn, producer of two of the most financially successful films in British history, “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch,” had directed just one film, the toughas-nails crime thriller “Layer Cake,” starring pre-James Bond Daniel Craig. Goldman, a children’s novelist and journalist, had never written a screenplay. But Gaiman thought they were the ideal team to entrust his beloved novel to.
“I prefer to look not at what people have done, but what they can do,” he says. “If I choose an artist who is famous for animal pictures to illustrate a historical graphic novel, people may ask why. But if those animal images demonstrate that this is someone who observes his subjects intently and recreates them carefully, I’m inclined to believe he can translate those abilities to historical subjects. In the end it usually works out.”
The collaboration worked well, if not entirely as expected. “Matthew said he was confident of the action but felt he needed help with the romance. As it turned out, Jane wound up writing a lot of the action and Matthew added much more than expected to the love story,” Gaiman says.
Vaughn also used his clout as a producer to raise a substantial amount of seed money, recruit the talent and bring the project to Hollywood “to see which studio liked it best.” Paramount won the bidding war, and with its financial exposure hedged, offered fewer unhelpful suggestions than it would have for a project it owned outright.
“The people in those offices are not inventive and creative minds. They didn’t get their jobs by being original. Their role is to suggest ways in which something novel can be made more like something we’ve seen before,” Gaiman says with a sigh. “New ideas frighten them.”