Adapting Clive Barker: Tripping the Dark Fantastic
By Desmond Reddick
13 November 2006 — If there were ever a Renaissance man in the horror genre, Clive Barker would certainly be it. He's been a playwright, novelist, painter, photographer, director, screenwriter, film producer, creative developer for video games, comic book line editor and children's book illustrator. Wherever he goes he brings his unique brand of erotically charged dark fantasy and deep horror. I make it no secret that I have a longstanding connection with his work. Clearly, this installment of Reel Dread is going to be slightly biased.
In thinking about adaptations from prose to film, no other genre author has the track record that Barker has. His works of fiction have inspired and been the basis for many groundbreaking horror films. The Hellraiser franchise, Nightbreed, Candyman and Lord of Illusions are but a few of the cinematic oeuvres Barker has brought the world. He also was executive producer on one of my favorite films: Gods and Monsters. There have only been a few stinkers associated with his work: Rawhead Rex (piss-poor adaptation of the short story) and the wildly mishandled Saint Sinner (neutered TV movie).
Looking at that track record and throwing in the upcoming film work Mr. Barker is involved in makes him nothing less than prolific in my eyes. Incidentally, his second episode of Masters of Horror will be directed my Mick Garris, an adaptation of his short story "Midnight Meat Train" hits DVD next year, an adaptation of "Thief of Always" is in the works, a film based on McFarlane Toys line Tortured Souls and, craziest of all, he's scripting the Hellraiser remake.
His novels don't hit the shelves as regularly as someone like Stephen King, but he makes up for it in quality and the same can be said for his films. He adapted his own novella "The Hellbound Heart" in 1987, creating Hellraiser and Pinhead. Though he's credited only as "Lead Cenobite" in the first film, fans quickly dubbed the character "Pinhead" — and thus an icon was born. This is indicative of the fiercely loyal fanbase Barker has accrued throughout his career; they've eagerly devoured seven official sequels, fanfilms and will no doubt droll over the upcoming remake. In my estimation, Hellraiser remains the most interesting and entertaining horror franchises since the Universal Monster films.
Hellraiser aside, what about Barker's work makes for better adaptations? I'd posit that the answer is twofold.
First of all: length. The stories from Barker's repertoire that have been adapted are either novellas or longer short stories. I believe that a lot of what makes shite movies out of great novels is the shift in length. Altering the pace and story structure devastates the overall story when one adapts a 700-page novel into a 120-minute movie. (Remember, you see me praising the adaptation of Barker's work right now, but my demeanor will change when they announce the film version of "The Great and Secret Show." That novel that changed the way I look at reality would not be done justice if it were a trilogy of movies.) Long novels should never be made into two-hour movies — but more on that next week when I discuss the relationship between novel length and movie quality, especially as it pertains to Stephen King. Short stories and novellas, on the other hand, are very much to the point making the jump from printed word to film (often) smoother.
The second, and perhaps more important, factor leading to the superior quality of Barker's movie adaptations is the fact that much of his prose is visual in nature. Many authors focus on character and plot to drive a story, but Barker uses imagery better than any other writer I know of. He goes to great care to paint you into a story as a bystander, forcing you to empathize with the characters through their experiences rather than through extended periods of "road trip dialogue."
The stories that have been adapted are all quite simple. No one in the world with a functional mind is going to extol the virtues of Hellraiser's plot intricacies. The delirium of swinging chains and screams of pain disorient us and make us uneasy like they do Ashley Laurence's character. When we watch Candyman, it's not for the dialogue (although it's quite good); we watch Candyman because we've stood in front of the mirror ready to call Bloody Mary (or whatever regional urban legend lives on the dark side of the mirror) and not been able to finish for fear of it being real.
Barker will be the first to tell you that he strives to bring emotional realism to his fiction and I think that bleeds into his films whether he's directly involved with them or not. Barker's drowns us in imagery, making immersion into his worlds impossible to resist. Other authors, not so much. It's this experience that makes the film real to its audience... or as real as a film about demons in fetish gear who psychically control chains and hooks can get.