The Last Unicorn

Last Friday evening I had the wonderful opportunity to see a screening of an excellent film from 1982, The Last Unicorn. Until then, I had only ever seen it on the small screen, and only in standard definition at that.

If you’re not familiar, The Last Unicorn is, for all intents and purposes, a heartfelt fairy tale with a great sense of humor. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Peter S. Beagle, who I will have more to say about momentarily. If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you go watch it. On Blu-Ray, if possible. The art in the film is gorgeous, to say the least, and it is complemented by voice talent like Angela Lansbury, Christopher Lee, Jeff Bridges, and Rene Auberjonois. I can almost guarantee you’ll have a wonderful time.

My stalwart companion Sarah, her wife, and I arrived at the movie theater around 8:30 in the evening or so. I was instantly enamored of a cardboard stand-up of the Tenth Doctor that they had in the lobby for the low, low price of thirty dollars, but there were other things that demanded my attention.

On easels, throughout the lobby and the ramp leading back to the theaters, were pieces of art inspired by The Last Unicorn. Most of them were gorgeous. One had a unicorn with a weirdly-foreshortened muzzle and enormous alien-eyes that was far too eerie to be gorgeous.

Finally, along one wall of the lobby, a series of tables had been set up and were being loaded up with Last Unicorn merch. And sitting at the end of one of the tables was the man himself: Peter S. Beagle. The guy who had penned the original novel in 1968. A real, true, and proper Writer if ever I had seen one.

There was also a lovely young woman helping to set up the merchandise tables. She wore red and was wearing a headband with horns, clearly a low-key version of the Red Bull from the movie. But that is neither here nor there.

I had hoped that I’d be able to find a copy of the novel there on the merch table. They didn’t have any, though—a new edition is coming out soon, so Last Unicorn is temporarily between printings—so I instead located a copy via Audible, my typical source for audiobooks. Lo and behold, it was The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle, narrated by Peter S. Beagle.

I love listening to authors read their own material. It seems as though there’s no quicker way to get a sense of an author’s literary voice than hearing their actual voice say their words.

Eventually, as 9 PM neared, we were moved into the movie theater where the screening would take place. The first fifteen minutes or so in the theater were more or less an extended rundown of the various merchandise available for purchase, news of both a new Blu-Ray of the film and a new printing of the novel coming out, announcements that there are, in the works, a Broadway musical and a live-action adaptation of the film/novel, and many other things.

Then, after all that was said and done, it was time for Mr. Beagle to hold court for a Q&A session. He opened by talking a bit about the time he had played Hakim in a production of Oklahoma!, which was plenty amusing for a bunch of Okies, and then he opened the floor to questions.

Sarah asked the first one: “How different was the first draft of The Last Unicorn from the book?”

As it turns out? Terrifically different, Mr. Beagle said. Everything from the setting to the supporting cast was different in that first (abandoned!) 85-page draft. From the sound of it, the only thing that first draft shared with the eventual novel was the unicorn, her lilac wood, and the fact that she was alone.

Someone else asked Mr. Beagle where he got the idea from. We got to hear the story of how he and a friend, during a summer retreat to a cabin in an effort to be more artistically productive, both got quite a bit done as a writer and a painter, respectively. He pretty much made the first draft up as he went, just to show his buddy that hey, he could be productive in this cabin, too!

Another person asked Mr. Beagle if he ever suffered from writer’s block, from not knowing where the story would go next. He said he absolutely did. In point of fact, that’s why he abandoned that first draft at 85 pages: he had no idea where it was gonna go. But that, as time went on, writer’s block became more and more of a luxury he couldn’t afford. When your creativity is your paycheck, you can’t let the well run dry. He did say that he still hits points where he’s not sure what the next step in the story is, but he tends to resolve them more quickly now, by pacing around and offering himself two very simple words of advice: “Think, schmuck!”

I’m going to write those two words on a bit of paper and tape it to the wrist-rest of my Chromebook.

After the Q&A was over, the movie began. And there’s nothing quite like seeing a film that you have enjoyed at home getting shown on the big screen at last, especially in remastered high definition.

An hour and a half later, the modern fairy tale had finished spooling out on to the screen, and it was time for the part I was convinced Mr. Beagle would dislike most: the signing.

Sarah and her wife had brought along their DVD copy of The Last Unicorn, which Mr. Beagle kindly signed for them from hell to breakfast. The disc was signed, the case cover insert was signed, and the cardboard sleeve was signed. He was quite thorough.

And then it was my turn. I had purchased a nice art print of Schmendrick the wizard and Molly Grue (which you can find titled as “Schmendrick and Molly” here), and I tentatively set the print down in front of him, not entirely sure what to say.

Luckily, Mr. Beagle knew. “May I sign this for you?” he asked me.

The guy is in his seventies. He’s been on the road for who knows how long doing this tour—I knew he had done one screening already that day, and had done one in Tulsa the night before. It’s past eleven at night, at which point most reasonable people tend to be asleep at home. He’s already been signing stuff for twenty minutes.

And there he was, asking me if he could sign the print I had purchased.

“Yes, please,” I said, and told him my name, and took the print once he had signed it and thanked him for coming.

I learned a lot of things that evening, I feel like. I discovered that this incredibly successful author had almost given up on what became one of his most beloved works. I found out that he had writer’s block and off days, just like every other writer I’ve known. I basically had it firmly established that Peter S. Beagle was 100%, homegrown human.

And he was as polite to me as if I was the first person to come up to him at the signing that night, and not the twentieth or thirtieth or whatever.

So yeah. That’s a role model for a writer if ever I saw one. Hold on to that humanity. Keep writing. Find the dead ends, because even dead ends mean you’ve gone somewhere. Start things over if you have to. Be polite to your fans.

And, for the love of God, think, schmuck.

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