This Week, I Read… (#17)

38 - The Last Unicorn

#38 – The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

  • Read: 4/18/16 – 4/23/16
  • Provenance: Library (another first edition!)
  • Challenge: BookRiot Read Harder 2016
  • Task: Read a book then watch the movie, debate which is better
  • Rating: 5/5 stars (book); 3/5 stars (movie)

Yeah, the book is better. Not that the movie doesn’t have its charms, but…

Okay. First, I cannot recommend this book enough. If you love fairy tales, you need to read this. If you love beautiful language and inventive, often surprising metaphor, you need to read this. If you love stories that take common tropes and pull them apart to piece them back together in beguiling ways, you need to read this.

But you don’t necessarily need to watch the movie.

I was pleased to see in the opening credits that Beagle adapted the novel for the screen himself, so I knew the story and the dialogue would stay true, and it did, for the most part. What was missing from the movie was that incredible turn of phrase Beagle put to use in describing things, like the introduction of the Red Bull:

He was the color of blood, not the springing blood of the heart but the blood that stirs under an old wound that never really healed. A terrible light poured from him like sweat, and his roar started landslides flowing into one another. His horns were as pale as scars.

Now, the movie has its gorgeous moments, but how can an artist really capture those words in an image? I liked the depiction of the Bull in the film, especially how he had pig-like aspects in addition to his bullishness, since in many ways the Bull is a representation of King Haggard’s greed. But no matter how good it was, it couldn’t convey the extra layers of meaning, of association that the text can with the power of simile and metaphor.

And about the film. Really, it’s a victim of its time. The art style remains beautiful, but boy howdy is the animation dated. And the music. I could have done without the cheesy ’80s rock ballads on the soundtrack. Honestly, I don’t see why Lady Amalthea needed a song, either. Prince Lir sings to her in the book, so that was fine (and it helps that Jeff Bridges can sing) but the rest of it I felt detracted from the quality of the film.

Caveat: Maybe if I had seen this first as a child, I wouldn’t mind so much. I adore Ladyhawke, for example, and the exact same criticism can be leveled at its cheesy ’80s soundtrack, but I love it anyway, because when I first saw it…well, it was still the ’80s! So because The Last Unicorn was not part of my childhood fantasy-movie canon, I may be more critical of its flaws than I am of say, Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal.

Another bone I have to pick with the movie was the voice acting. It’s got some stellar performances (Christopher Lee, of course, I don’t think he ever gave a less-than-stellar performance in anything; Angela Lansbury and Rene Auberjonois both made the most out of their bit parts) alongside some incredibly flat ones, one of which was, sadly, Alan Arkin as Schmendrick. He sounded as out-of-place in The Last Unicorn as, as…well, as Matthew Broderick in Ladyhawke. And he’s a principal character, so that got old, quick.

The last bone worth picking is perhaps the hardest to forgive. I know things need to get cut from books to make the movies work, but the removal of the entire Hagsgate curse storyline? Really? That takes all the punch out of the ending and eviscerates Prince Lir’s character arc. I was disappointed.

So, in the end, read the book, but maybe skip the movie. It isn’t terrible, but it’s not nearly as good.

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