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Finally, a fantasy on big screen

The Baltimore Sun

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 past 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 his illustrated novel, hits theaters today. Robert Zemeckis' motion-capture Beowulf, drawn from a 10-year-old script by Gaiman and Roger Avary, arrives in November. And fall 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 so close together marks a noticeable change. 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 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 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.

Gaiman has won recognition by biding his time. In the 1990s, he says, "the executives had no clue who I was. They didn't read comics. They didn't read fantasy or didn't understand it. ... But the guys who brought you the bottle of still water and stayed over at the edge of the meeting, they knew who I was. They were the ones who in the corridor afterward would get me to sign their Sandmans. And they're now the ones running the studios."

If studios are more open to the otherworlds Gaiman creates, it's also because the price of creating them has dropped. "The technology has made fantasy shootable," director Matthew Vaughn says. "A lot of the fantasy movies in the '70s, and the '60s and even the '80s, there were some very good ideas, but the special effects are so bad it was hard to take them seriously."

Stardust's $70 million budget is still a hefty sum. But Gaiman says if it had "been a historical film with no fantasy elements made on the same scale, it would've been about the same budget."

Gaiman used to say that writing comics was like making a movie with an unlimited budget. Movies, it seems, are catching up.

Gaiman is now turning his attentions to directing a movie version of the Sandman offshoot, Death: The High Cost of Living. The movie, has been in the works since 1996, but Gaiman has a new ally in director Guillermo del Toro, who signed on as executive producer and gave Gaiman a master class during the making of Hellboy 2.

Now ensconced at Picturehouse, the Death movie seems to be moving closer to reality. But Gaiman has been here before. "There's an old country saying where I come from," he says. "'I've lived near the woods too long to be frightened by an owl.' I've seen the green light blinking too many times on 'Death.'"

Still, he is optimistic. "It looks like it will probably get made earlyish next year in the U.K.," he says. "Unless it doesn't."

Sam Adams writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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