Welcome to the third week of the read-along! This week we’re talking about the movie adaptation, the novelette Two Hearts, the short story The Woman who Married the Man in the Moon, and touch briefly upon the graphic novel adaptation of The Last Unicorn just to round things off. This part discusses only the movie. It’s the last part of the read-along to feature discussion questions too.
The movie, while I love it, also casts a bit of darkness on my love of The Last Unicorn. It’s not the movie itself, but the legal dispute that has since been resolved. I’m afraid I didn’t really keep up with it at the time and I don’t have that much information to give you. I understand it was messy and stressful and it makes me sad.
But, yes. That casts a bit of shadow on my enjoyment of the movie nowadays, even knowing it’s been resolved. And to understand my love for this movie… I need to tell you a little about myself. I must have been around four or five when I first saw the movie. We taped it and we only caught part of the opening sequence. I rotated it regularly with my taped versions of Labyrinth and The Lord of the Rings (this one, which coincidentally Beagle also wrote the screenplay for and which, well read here. T_T) every morning.
So I know this movie very well. I was heart-broken when we lost our copy and grateful when I managed to replace it with a new one. (A dvd this time, though.) Even now, years and years later, the movie managed to surprise and delight me. I should know it inside and out – I do know it inside and out, certainly when I’m watching it – but it still catches me by surprise. I love the story so much and it’s a delight to be able to work out some of my thoughts. I hope you’ll enjoy them!
The movie is very faithful to the book in a lot of ways, but one of the most noticeable changes to me has always been that it moves the unicorn’s encounter with the butterfly forward. What do you think this does for the narrative? Does it work better or worse for you?
It actually works a lot better for me as a narrative this way. Meeting the butterfly before she leaves the forest, gives the unicorn a much stronger impetus to leave (in my opinion). Either way she has a reason to leave, but with the butterfly telling her about the Red Bull, she’s got a stronger reason to keep going. That’s something I really miss from the book. I always feel like she’s travelled a long time before meeting the butterfly, far longer than she’d intended, and we’re never really told why she doesn’t turn around long before that point.
Another one of the changes is that it alters the way in which the unicorn and Schmendrick meet the outlaws. The changes quite alter the tone of the encounter, so which do you prefer? Why?
One of the troubles in talking about the encounter with Captain Cully’s band is because it’s truncated and changed quite a lot. In the movie, we’re not quite sure why Jack Jingly is taking Schmendrick to see Captain Cully, though their introduction is certainly a lot fiercer and intimidating than in the book. It makes meeting Captain Cully a bit jarring because he’s not at all what you expect and, of course, because the scene is so truncated, you’re never really given a great feel for them. (Not just that but the way the scene is set up, I spent years of my life thinking that it was the unicorn summoning Robin Hood rather than Schmendrick.)
One of the biggest differences between the novel and the movie is that the movie cuts out the storyline of Hagsgate almost entirely. What do you think it does for the plot? Do you think it’s something that the adaptation should have kept or does it work without Hagsgate’s tale?
I think it works remarkably well without Hagsgate. You don’t get the same sense of doom and prophecy, but the story of Hagsgate is very much a B-plot. Cutting it out makes sense if you’re dealing with time restraints. It helps set up Haggard and Lír’s personalities as well as add more familiar aspects to the quest narrative, but it’s not necessary to the unicorn’s quest. Rewatching it now I didn’t really feel it was missing until the very end when the castle collapses and, even then, it’s not so much Hagsgate’s story that I’m missing, but the one about the witch cursing the castle. Hagsgate is important to that curse because someone from the town is destined to bring it down, but it’s not really important for its own sake.
A small change between the book and the movie is the mark that’s left on the unicorn’s forehead when she becomes human. It’s a flower in the book, but a star in the movie. Which of these two do you find fits the tale best?
It’s also a flame in the graphic novel, for the curious. I vastly prefer the star-shape, but that’s because if we’re talking silhouettes I find it an aesthetically more pleasing shape rather than any other reason. I also like how it seems to fade over time. This is something that emphatically doesn’t happen in the book. In fact, it bothers Amalthea that the mark on her forehead doesn’t fade, but I think that, visually, it’s a very strong (if subtle) way to indicate how much she’s changed. It’s quite easy to write it off as something that was just forgotten (such as that bit of Schmendrick’s hair waaaaay at the beginning somewhere), but it happens in too many scenes where it should be visible to be an accident.
In the book, the line that Mabruk does not make Haggard happy is spoken by Schmendrick, but in the movie the line is given to Molly. How do you think this alters your perception of their characters?
I admit, that scene in the book always throws me a little. To me, it’s the scene where we get the strongest sense of what kind of a person Molly is: compassionate but outspoken. Also, fearless and able to stand up for herself. I probably wouldn’t get tripped up so much if it weren’t that I’d encountered the movie before the book. It feels like Molly’s line has been given to Schmendrick and her agency’s been weakened. Intellectually I can (and just did) say that it’s actually the other way around: we get this stronger sense of Molly precisely because this line is given to her and because Schmendrick is trying (and failing) to shush her. It’s Molly who convinces Haggard to let them stay.
And, really, since I’ve been harping about how important illusions and pretensions are to this story for the past few weeks, let’s consider, for a moment, what that shift means. Because Schmendrick is all about pretences and Molly is all about the truth. Schmendrick is about the illusions and Molly is all about honesty. She calls people out on their pretences all the time. There are two times in the book (and one) in the movie where Molly pretends. The one the book and the movie share is the time Molly spends at Haggard’s castle, pretending the unicorn is human. The one that’s not in the movie is a change from the book. It’s the scene where Cully calls to Willie to sing them a song. In the movie, Molly speaks up and calls for Willie to sing a song of Robin Hood. In the book, though, we don’t know who makes the request. Molly claims it, true, but we’re also immediately told that she didn’t make it. She’s just claiming it, presumably to keep the peace between Cully and the outlaws, but we’re outright told that she never said it.
Molly is also the only human (sort of) who sees the unicorn for what she really is. Schmendrick does, but he’s a magician. Mabruk does, but he’s a magician. Haggard does, but he’s, well, Haggard. (Even assuming he’s wholly human – and we have no reason not to – he’s so obsessed with unicorns and seen so many for so long he does have an advantage.) Mommy Fortuna recognises the unicorn, but again she’s got magic of her own. Lír can tell something isn’t quite right, but he doesn’t figure it out on his own. Molly, though, can see through people’s illusions and pretences to what’s really there. Most of the time, anyway. See her argument with Schmendrick about what’s important to him when they’re in the Red Bull’s cave. (And look that brings me to a scene where I go “But I prefer the book!” I find the dialogue between them in the book far more touching and it sets up their ending far better.)
The movie as a whole makes far less use of the themes of illusion and pretence than the book does. There just isn’t enough room. It makes a pretty decent stab at it when the unicorn becomes human and Haggard starts to puzzle her out/she gets all identity-confused, but that’s not quite the same thing.
The movie has a tendency to condense the passing of time into a song sequence. Do you feel that the songs enhance the storyline or that they don’t fit the narrative?
I love the songs. I may (or may not) be in the minority here. I love Man’s Road especially. I struggle with gauging the passage of time in general, so having it condensed this way works really nicely for me. (Even so, it took me forever and a day – or just until I read the book – to realise how much time had passed between the group’s arrival at Haggard’s castle and their trip down the Red Bull’s passage.) It’s been a while since I rewatched the movie too, so it was really, really neat to pay some extra attention to how the songs incorporate the passing of time. Most all of them do to some extent.
The movie ends far more quickly than the book does and has a completely different focus. What do you make of the final song sequence?
Honestly? I like that the focus is on the unicorn going home and on her forest. It circles back to the beginning of the movie nicely. That said I do think that the movie ending has a very different feel. It’s not as bittersweet because we don’t get to see as much of Lír’s loss or his first steps as a king (and a hero). It’s also easier to believe that the unicorn hasn’t become a wanderer because we don’t get the lingering sense of her affection. In the book, she touches Lír twice with her horn and she says goodbye to him in his dream by… not saying a word. The movie has none of that and, of course, the lyrics end on a more joyous note: “I’m alive”.
Some people, like me, are introduced to the book through the movie. If you’d never read the book before but have seen the movie, what did you make of the original? Does it live up to your expectations? How about the other way around? If you’ve read the book and hadn’t seen the movie before, what did you make of the adaptation as a whole?
At the risk of starting to repeat myself ad nauseam, I was introduced to the book through the movie. It should be noted here that the screenplay was written by Beagle himself, so it’s no surprise that the movie follows the book as closely as it does. (And it brings up some interesting questions about why he made some of the changes he made.) The original book definitely lived up to my expectations. It surpassed them, actually, by quite a way. Apart from the anachronisms (and no don’t ask me why the butterfly works perfectly when the others don’t), which I may just dislike on principle, I adore the book every bit as much.
What were your favourite moments of the movie? Did the movie leave out any of your favourite bits of the story?
I’m… still going to refrain from answering the first question because I’ll still quote you all the things. Instead, I shall tell you all about how the movie kept all my favourite bits and added one. (Hi, Molly pointing out the obvious to Haggard! That scene will never not be awesome.) And just little touches here and there. Like… In the book, when Rukh is telling people about the dragon there’s this little throwaway line to a boy and nothing much is made of it in the book. It’s just there and visually-inclined readers will probably picture what the movie shows: a boy poking at the dragon, but I’m not a visually-inclined reader, so having that scene in the movie, while tiny, is very significant for me. It’s just filled with so much detail that the book scene doesn’t (and can’t) have for me.
And the tricks Schmendrick does for Haggard, notably the disappearing act where the cat knocks down one of the balls. I love that scene. It’s just such a cat-like thing to do and Schmendrick’s so sneakily hiding behind the throne watching it all…
And Schmendrick going “There are no happy endings because nothing ends” at Molly which isn’t in the book (as far as I know; I checked several times, but I worry I keep reading over it) and which. Just. It suits so beautifully, though, especially with the book ending. But then I don’t like how truncated that scene is. I mean, Lír’s speech in the book is so powerful partly because of how much use it makes of heroic narratives and we don’t really get that sense from the movie. And it gives some of Lír’s lines to Molly near the end and I vastly prefer them to be Lír’s, but really all the things I don’t quite like to see missing pale when I remember that the movie doesn’t have the magazine scene. Yes, it bothers me that ridiculously much. And the movie doesn’t have it. HUZZAH!
Also, on an entirely different tangent, notice how the movie is missing that little domestic scene between the birds? You know, the one where Mr Bird comes home going “I saw a unicorn!” and his wife is all “Uh-huh. You’ve been spending time with your mistress again, haven’t you?” and he’s all “I so was not!” and all that? More ways in which our perceptions shape our view of reality and how we can’t always see the truth. Just thought I’d throw that thought out there for people’s consideration.