Director: Jules Bass; Arthur Rankin, Jr.
Writers: Peter S. Beagle
Upon learning that she is the last of her kind, a unicorn sets forth on a quest to find the others. Joined by the inept magician Schmendrick and a woman named Molly Grue, the unicorn enters the halls of King Haggard, where lurks the fearsome Red Bull who once drove the other unicorns away. But the longer she stays, the more the unicorn forgets who she is and what she seeks.
The Last Unicorn follows the plot and dialogue of the Peter S. Beagle’s original novel fairly closely, the largest changes merely streamlining the action. This can make watching the film seem a little odd–what does translating the story to a different medium do for the story, if so little changes? And does the story work better on paper or on screen? These types of questions hovered in the back of my mind during the entire viewing, detaching me somewhat from the story itself. Even so, the film remains a moving and a poignant work.
Normally I prefer to think of the book and the film as separate entities–what works for one medium will not work for another, and I try to accept changes made from page to screen as long as the spirit of the work remains intact. In this case, Beagle wrote the screenplay for the film based on his own book, so one feels fairly certain that everything the author thought essential to the story remains. Still, one also wonders if time constraints may not have necessitated certain changes that were not particularly desirable.
For instance, the largest deviation from book to film that I noted (having read the book some months ago), was the deletion of the side adventure that enables Schmendrick and the unicorn to learn about the history of Haggard’s rule and the changes it has wrought upon the people and the land. Arguably Haggard’s background story does little to further the plot and, if something had to go, it was a logical decision to choose that. However, the loss of background information means also a loss of power for the emotional punch at the end. Audiences have little idea just how sorry they should feel for Haggard, or how repulsed they should be at the lengths he has been willing to go. They know only the small details he mentions in passing and the rumors that Schmendrick repeats–rumors they do not know whether or not to believe. Not knowing about Haggard means, to some extent, not caring.
I also could not help but think that the book really does convey the heartbreak and the emotion of the story much more poignantly than the film. The film gives us glimpses of the lives of the characters, but never delves into the hardships the characters have experienced or the pain. Schmendrick, in this version, seems simply a kind fellow who wishes he had some more magic. The audience never learns about all the years he’s spent searching. And Molly Grue is almost more of an enigma. The film shows a glimpse of her life, but a glimpse that is sanitized (for the children?). Viewers may extrapolate from the little they see that Molly has had a wretched, hard, and dirty life all while longing for beauty–but the film simply doesn’t show how dirty her life must have really been.
The visuals, however, are quite striking, and I often caught myself thinking about how interesting they were, if not always beautiful. If The Last Unicorn does not capture the ethereal beauty of a unicorn the way I imagined, at least it expresses a certain joy in the process of animation and experimentation.
But therein lies the real problem–the inability of the film to convey the indescribable beauty and presence of unicorns. Drawing a white horse with a horn, even one that is graceful and somewhat dainty, simply doesn’t live up to the idea of a unicorn as presented in the book. And hearing Mia Farrow’s voice issue from the unicorn isn’t my idea of how a unicorn sounds, either. Some things perhaps simply cannot be convincingly depicted–and unicorns may be one of them.
If I ignore the book, however, The Last Unicorn stands solidly on its own as a beautiful and poignant film, a classic fantasy that blends sorrow and joy, life and loss, hope and defeat. It never pretends that goodness comes without a cost, but it also never pretends that not doing the right thing is ever an option. It is a solemn sort of story, but one that feels cathartic.