NEW YORK — In the world of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, the storied comic-book series he wrote from 1988 to 1996, there lies a library filled with books their authors only dreamed of writing. If Gaiman were crafting the dream king's domain today, he might well add a multiplex to show all the movies he's never made.
In the last 16 years, Gaiman has watched more than a dozen of his comics, stories and novels languish in Hollywood's often dark maze of development without a single one making its way to the screen. The list of unrealized projects includes "Chivalry," a short-story adaptation that Harvey Weinstein once hoped to direct; an animated version of the ancient Sanskrit epic "The Ramayana" for DreamWorks; and "Good Omens," based on Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's comic novel, which Terry Gilliam has been trying to make since the turn of the century.
Lately, though, the tide has turned in Gaiman's favor. "Stardust," adapted from Gaiman's illustrated novel, hits theaters on Friday. Robert Zemeckis' motion-capture "Beowulf," drawn from a 10-year-old script by Gaiman and Roger Avary, arrives in November. And the fall of 2008 will bring "Coraline," a stop-motion version of Gaiman's eerie children's book, directed by "The Nightmare Before Christmas' " Henry Selick.
After years of waiting, the arrival of three long-simmering projects within months of one another marks a noticeable change. Neil Gaiman's dreams are beginning to come true.
Perched sideways in an armchair at Manhattan's Waldorf Towers, the black-clad Gaiman is philosophical about the sudden spate of films actually coming to fruition. "It seems like everything's happening at the same time, but you've got all sorts of gestation periods," he says. "In 15 years of mucking around on the edges of Hollywood, and sometimes right in the middle of Hollywood, the only thing I've now learned is that nothing ever happens in the way you expected it to."
Gaiman's knack for rewriting myths in modern terms has made him perennially appealing to the movie industry, but his subversive approach to genre films has often gotten lost in translation. Avary, Gaiman's "Beowulf" collaborator, worked on a Sandman adaptation for Warner Bros. in the mid-'90s, where, Avary says, the assumption was that since Sandman "looked like Batman, it must be Batman. The basic argument was like, 'We want Sandman to be fighting so-and-so.' I was like, 'The Sandman doesn't fight.' "
"His work can be dark and complex," says Claire Danes, who plays one of "Stardust's" leads and penned the introduction to a Sandman collection when she was 18. "It's not obvious in a way that excites a lot of studio executives. It's subversive and ironic, and it's got a bit of a cocked eyebrow to it."
Gaiman's novel unfolds in a style he calls "wry, slightly knowing and supremely antiquated," so much so that its archaic cadences had to be written with a fountain pen specially purchased for the task.
The story of a star who falls to earth in human form and is pursued by evil witches, dueling princes and a love-struck small-town boy, the novel tweaks the conventions of fantasy without poking the reader in the ribs.
Matthew Vaughn, who directed and co-wrote the screen adaptation with novelist Jane Goldman, ably navigates the novel's shifts from romance to slapstick to the outright macabre, and Ian McKellen's narration is the next best thing to an antique nib. Michelle Pfeiffer's imperious sorceress is deliciously nasty, and as the short-tempered star, Danes hurls insults with the lethal accuracy of a screwball heroine.
But in its broader stretches, the movie is less reminiscent of Gaiman's dry wit than it is the nudging self-consciousness of "The Princess Bride," an influence Vaughn acknowledges. Ricky Gervais makes a garrulous cameo, and an ill-fated interlude features Robert De Niro as a pirate, a character who appears nowhere in Gaiman's text.
Vaughn, who turned to direction with the glossy gangster movie "Layer Cake" after producing several of Guy Ritchie's steroidal shoot-'em-ups, would seem an odd fit for this droll fairy tale. But the director had championed the movie for years as a producer, and in May 2005, when he walked off the "X-Men 3" project two months before shooting began, he had a flash of insight. "I suddenly realized 'Stardust' was the movie I wanted to make next," he says. "Neil had been told it was unfilmable. I love hearing things like that."
Biding his time
Past experience had soured Gaiman on the art of the deal. He first sold the rights to "Stardust" in 1999, but after a two-year option with Dimension Films went nowhere, he spent years declining offers. "I decided I wasn't going to sell it again," he says. "I was done with 'Here, give me the check and it's out of my control.' "