From Novel to Film pt. 29: The Last Unicorn


When I mentioned to a friend I was thinking of reading The Last Unicorn, he responded: "Beagle's prose is stunning - ethereal, profound, a physical pleasure to read. I've read it a couple of times, and upon each revisit have found glittering shards of truth." I've heard similar - though not as well-put (and in the final analysis, spot-on) sentiments over the years from a cross-section of people. I've been eager to see for myself but wary of clearing the high bar surrounding it.

I'm happy to report, though, like Dune earlier in this FNTF series, that the praise heaped on the quality and breadth of the writing was not hyperbole. It was perhaps even understated; The Last Unicorn is a masterpiece. It's a mix of humor, romance, philosophical insight, high fantasy (with spells and prophecies and castles and magical creatures) and deconstruction of the fantasy genre, with a post-modern sheen, much like the later genre-work of Neil Gaiman or Clive Barker. The butterfly whose stream-of-conscious ramblings introduce the idea of the Red Bull (who (it sings) chased all of the unicorns of the world out of history on behalf of the remote King Haggard) does so amidst a blizzard of old campfire songs and commercial ad-jingle; one of the forest thieves admonishes another to relax and "have a taco," etc.

For a plot overview, here's Sara Polsky's from her review at Strange Horizons, along with some screencaps from the 1982 animated feature. (Italicized quotations from the novel itself.)

"The basic plot is probably familiar to fantasy fans: a unicorn, living at peace in her forest, overhears a human conversation about the fact that there are no unicorns left in the world." 

"Determined to find the rest of her kind, she sets out into the world. Most of the humans she meets fail to recognize her for what she is, looking at her and seeing only a white mare. She is imprisoned in a carnival cage with other mythical and extraordinary creatures, and even there, a witch must still enchant her to convince the carnival's visitors they see a unicorn."

Mommy Fortuna's carnival is a real treat. Among the other exhibits is a manticore and the Midgard Serpent - just an old lion and a snake, but charmed so those with the will to see them are bedazzled. But she's also captured a real harpy, which glowers at her (and everyone gawking at it) with horror. Mommy's carnival is (according to the author) a statement on 20th century show business vanities, as well as about the menagerie we gawkers co-author with the silly old witches who nonetheless know something of glamour.

Even if they can't truly see her, so pure and powerful is her presence that people can't help but react to her as she really is.

"The only rope that could hold her would be the cord with which the old gods bound the Fenris wolf. That one was made of fishes' breath, bird spittle, a woman's beard, the meowing of a cat, the sinews of a bear, (and) mountain roots. Having none of these elements, nor dwarfs to weave them for us, we'll have to do the best we can with iron bars."

The harpy, once free, quickly enacts her revenge.

The unicorn escapes with the help of her newfound companion, Schmendrick the Magician, whose incompetence is legendary. At one point he recalls the words of his former mentor:

"My son, your ineptitude is so vast, your incompetence so profound, that I am certain you are inhabited by greater power than I have ever known. Unfortunately it seems to be working backward at the moment, and even I can find no way to set it right. It must be that you are meant to find your own way to reach your power in time; but frankly, you should live so long as that will take you. Therefore I grant it that you shall not age from this day forth, but will travel the world round and round, eternally inefficient, until at last you come to yourself and know what you are. Don't thank me - I tremble at your doom." 

Nevertheless, when confronted with the Red Bull and urged on by Mollie (he and the unicorn's other companion on their quest to find King Haggard), he is able to harness "the magic" (a somewhat independent source of energy, difficult to harness and not always predictable, in the world of The Last Unicorn) to change the unicorn into a human woman in order to save her. Once human, the Red Bull loses interest in the chase.

This section amused me because Schmendrick is reluctant to intervene even as the unicorn proves no match for the Bull because (as he makes clear) he simply can't guarantee what will happen. But Mollie keeps screaming at him to "do something! DO SOMETHING!" When he does, she's horrified and just keeps repeating "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!" And once the unicorn realizes she is now in human form, she joins in the chorus. Sheesh, ladies! Choose a goddamn lane.

Anyway, on to King Haggard's castle, a remote outpost ("Its skinny spires looked nothing like a bull's horns, but rather like those on a jester's cap. Or like the horns of a dilemma, Schmendrick thought: they never have just two") on the edge of the sea.

"When the three companions arrive at the castle, Lady Amalthea quickly catches the attention of Prince Lir, Haggard's adopted son, who busies himself with quests meant to win her favor and, in the process, becomes a hero. Schmendrick serves as magician to King Haggard, who has spent his life trying and failing to figure out what makes him happy, and Molly serves as cook."

A quick word on Haggard and Lir. Haggard's unhappiness and almost Vulcan attitude about it is as well-realized as Lir's somewhat humorous fumbling at being the valiant hero. ("As a hero, he understood weeping women and knew how to make them stop crying - generally you killed something - but her calm terror confused and unmanned him, while the shape of her face crumbled the distant dignity he had been so pleased at maintaining.") I gave up on dog-earing every page that had a quoteworthy line from either of these two; each is individuated exceptionally well.

Haggard reveals that the Red Bull - which serves him only because he doesn't fear it - has driven all of the unicorns into the sea so that he can watch them in the tide and try to regain a feeling of happiness he experienced when first he espied a unicorn in his youth. He knows the unicorn (now called Lady Amalthea in her human form) is not who or what she says she is, but he allows the charade to continue. 

Lir and Lady Amalthea fall in love, but when she begs Schmendrick to allow her to remain a human, Lir intervenes. He tells her he knows about quests, and they don't end like this. She must do what she came to the castle to do and find (and free) her kind.

"A talking skull explains to them that the way to the bull is through a clock. But the path will only work if Schmendrick and Molly change their conceptions of time. 'When I was alive, I believed ... that time was at least as real and solid as myself, and probably more so,' the skull tells them. 'I lived in a house bricked up with seconds and minutes, weekends and New Year's Days, and I never went outside until I died, because there was no other door....(But) you can strike your own time, and start the count anywhere.' 

It is, Schmendrick says, the way the best magicians think of it, and the characters can only defeat the Red Bull when they start thinking that way too."

Eventually, motivated by Lir's sacrificing himself in the bull's path, the unicorn re-transforms and drives him into the sea, thus freeing the unicorns from the surf.
Resulting in the destruction of the castle and the re-blooming of the land.

"Although Schmendrick, Molly, Amalthea, and Lir ultimately defeat the Red Bull and King Haggard and free the unicorns, and although the secondary characters resolve their own quests, the story's ending is not entirely happy. Amalthea resumes her unicorn form and must part from Lir. Having once been human and in love, a new sadness hangs over her even after she returns to life as a unicorn. Still, Beagle convincingly makes the point that the unicorn's journey from her forest to mortality and back again was worth all the trouble because of the humanity it gave her."

"The prince is very brave to love a unicorn.  
A cat can appreciate valiant absurdity."

Quite a story. I hadn't realized until looking up stuff for this post that Peter Beagle was a fellow attendee of the same Stanford writing workshop class that produced Ken Kesey and Larry McMurtry. I learned that from the interview between the author and his former editor and business manager (whom he's presently suing for $52 million; you can read that story here) for the IDW adaptation. 



"I was utterly contemptuous of (Rankin-Bass). To me they were Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and they'd just done a godawful Return of the King and a Hobbit I didn't like at all. I actually snapped as straight as you could when sitting in a VW Bug, banging my head on the roof - Michael (the producer who arranged optioning the book) was driving me to the Burbank Airport at the time - and screamed at him: 'Rankin and Bass! Why the hell didn't you just go all the way and sell it to Hanna-Barbera?' And Michael just looked at me with immense sadness and said 'They were next.'
- Peter Beagle, interview from IDW adaptation.  

Despite his misgivings, Beagle has praised the finished product, mentioning that it brought him enduring friendships with Christopher Lee (who plays Haggard) and Rene Auberjonois (who plays the talking skull with a taste for wine) that he wouldn't have traded for anything. (Understandably). 

Myself I was less enthused about the movie. (Perhaps it's the lack of subsequent palling around with Odo and Christopher Lee.) I didn't dislike it, really, but it's a significant step down from the novel. Although it is remembered as childhood nightmare fuel by at least one reviewer, I watched it dozens of times before the age of 10 and don't recall being especially freaked out by it. I hadn't seen it probably since the mid-80s, so it was interesting to revisit earlier this week. I'd forgotten most everything about it, but a few visuals triggered memories of being nine years old and uncomfortably bewildered...

I mean sheesh. Or the three-boobed harpy, which while mythologically accurate was still kind of icky.

and the songs (performed by America, they of "Horse with No Name" and "Ventura Highway", and composed by Jimmy Webb) definitely kicked loose a few mental pebbles. Mia Farrow's and Jeff Bridges's overreaching duet on "Noob the Loser" is the sort of historical curiosity you want to keep at the ready to impress your pop-culture-referencing friends.

It's not a bad movie or anything, and it's a faithful rendition of the story. Beagle only excised two sizable portions of his original story - the town where Schmendrick is kidnapped by the forest marauders (where he meets Molly), and the town of Hagsgate, the first city Haggard conquered long ago and one whose own fate is tied to his. Portions of the book's last few pages are left out, as well, and these absences definitely undermine the painful learning curve of it all. These revisions aren't dealbreakers, though. Beagle got it right the first time: the production style of Rankin-Bass is just an uneasy fit for both the story and prose. It may be their finest effort, but something less Rankin-Bass-y would match the prose better. On paper, though, I can see how this idea would have seemed like the most natural pairing imaginable.

Topcroft Studio - Rankin-Bass's go-to for animation - later became Studio Ghibli.
There's an awful lot of design repetition in their work for Rankin-Bass.
But some of the landscapes are quite pretty; Henri Rousseau-esque, even.
The Red Bull and the unicorn look pretty cool, as does Haggard's castle.

The real coup is the voiceover casting. Although I wasn't overly thrilled with each of the performances - something I'll lay at the director's door - it's an undeniably impressive cast:

The In-Laws-era Alan Arkin as Schmendrick, Tammy Grimes as Molly, and A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy-era Mia Farrow as the unicorn/ Lady Amalthea. Mia's probably a weak link, here, of the three of them.
Tron-era Jeff Bridges as Prince Lir.
And of course Christopher Lee as a suitably grim King Haggard.
Brother Theo and Angela Landsbury deserve chapeaus for their spirited performances as Rukh and Mommy Fortuna.

There's even the always-outstanding Paul Frees as Mabruk, King Haggard's original magician whom Schmendrick supplants. The only misstep is the cat who befriends Molly (and gets that great line about Prince Lir, quote above) who is given a pirate's accent. It's only a small part and thus a small enough misstep, but the cat is a cool character and I did not picture any "Yaaaaar!"-ing while reading the book.

Arthur Rankin considered The Last Unicorn his finest work. Had I not just finished reading the book directly before watching it, maybe I'd have been more positive on it, since it is for the most part an extremely faithful transition from page to screen. And I was pleasantly surprised by some of the compositions: 

I trust you don't need me to caption any of these to tell you why they work.

Final Verdict: Awesome book. Its reputation has not been overstated. The movie fails to transcribe its lyrical power to the screen, but if you're unfamiliar with the book, it's probably a pretty unique and enjoyable experience of its own. The soundtrack hasn't aged as well, but if your tastes run to such things, it's a good one for a vinyl party.


  1. I was wondering when you'd be getting around to this one. On the whole, I tend to think of "TLU", both the book and it's adaptation as, in all honesty, the best story I've ever read and seen.

    For me it's not a question of visuals, rather it's more about whether or not the writing holds up, and in both cases it was a knockout. In terms of any meaning, right now I think I'm still busy unpacking this story even today to say I know quite were it might be going.

    I think it uses a lot of techniques that are considered post-modern now, but in terms of the story it has to tell, it's sometimes difficult to say what's being held up for examination, the old familiar tropes or the very self-referential techniques that are being used to tell the tale.

    I've heard about Beagle's trouble with his now ex-manager. It's too bad. The real shame is that Beagle seems to have been the victim of one too many bad business choices. Personally, I'm hoping he wins this one.


    1. Me, too. The 4-part interview in the IDW adaptation has tons of info. Ironically, tho, it's an interview between Beagle and Connor (the guy he's suing now) and several times throughout Beagle alludes to the fair deal he's getting with Connor, as contrasted to the various ways he was burned by previous managers. It's a shame.

      Hopefully not only will he receive the financial compensation he deserves, but The Last Unicorn will be read more. I mean, it's already read plenty, of course, but it's just such a superb book.

  2. I must be a real rube, man, because I have zero familiarity with this. I can't honestly even say that I'd heard of either the book or the movie prior to reading this post. I'd heard of Beagle, though, which means I probably had at least seen the title "The Last Unicorn" somewhere.

    I think that when and if I ever get around to making time for these, I'll give the movie a spin first. I like the screencaps (except the horrifying ones), so the idea of the movie appeals to me; and if the book is THAT good, I'm sure it'd only seem that much better in comparison.

    1. You'll definitely enjoy the movie more if you see it before reading the book.

      If it had a unicorn, a spellcaster, or a castle, chances are the McMillans had it on VHS in the early-to-mid-80s.