Last year I saw the movie Stardust, and I can't emphasise too much how awesome it was. The film was adapted from a book of the same name by Neil Gaiman, though the scripting was done by the movie director. How disappointing, then, after my enjoying the film of the book so much, to pick up the novel and find it was just the book of the film.
I checked on Wikipedia last night (as I was halfway through the book) and found that it was originally written as an illustrated novel. My copy doesn't have the illustrations, but is otherwise the same. The chapters are made up, not so much of words and paragraphs, as of images and jump cuts. Gaiman will set the scene up for one character, jump to another scene in which an event is taking place for another character, jump to a third place to introduce a third character, before maybe returning to one of his two previously introduced characters. Anybody's whose read a popular novelisation of a film or a television series will recognise this technique - it's interesting, although the great trouble with it is that it lacks the precise timing of film.
As for the images, Gaiman sets them up brilliantly. The trouble is that he doesn't often describe them, which you have to do in a novel - it can't just show them like a film or a comic book. He ends chapters with cliffhangers, but the cliffhangers are almost entirely visual - for instance, in one chapter ending he plonks two of his characters in the middle of the sky. But his description is almost pointless, a mere succession of words - 'looking down on the hills and trees and rivers far below them.' There's nothing there to tell us what it feels like, and he doesn't have his characters show any signs of fear. It's a great scenario for artists or actors to flesh out; but as a novelist, Gaiman has only done half the work.
All of which is to say that as a novelist Gaiman seems to suffer from a surfeit of show and not tell. You have to tell in a novel; it's all you've got. Novelists spend a lot of time explaining to, and even arguing with, the characters and the audience - that's part of the fun. It also lets them get away with lots of things that film or comic writers are not able to get away with - to both reflect on events from a distance, and to enter into the heads of their characters and let them explain and debate about their own life. In this book, at least, Gaiman doesn't do any of that.
And there's very little wit, either, which most novelists should have to some degree. The set ups are brilliantly dramatic, but the dialogue is never very interesting in itself. Even those situations where the use of word play is obvious, Gaiman avoids it. The closest he gets to it is the scene where Yvaine (a main character, originally a star (don't ask)) falls to earth and swears, which is kind of cute, but not particularly witty. You can almost see the speech bubble forming out of Yvaine's mouth as she says the words.
Is Gaiman always this bad? Is he only good as a comic-book author or scriptwriter? I'd be interested in hearing from readers who've looked through his other books.
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