Collins’ Crypt: Book Vs. Movie - LORD OF ILLUSIONS

Scream Factory puts out Clive Barker's film and BC takes the opportunity to compare it to the short story it's based on.

Earlier this year, I finally read The Hellbound Heart and compared it to the feature version of Hellraiser, and walked away with an even greater respect for Clive Barker as an artist. This is due to the fact that he adapted his own novel but made some fairly significant changes to it for one reason or another, something other creative types (and, more so, their rabid fans) can't seem to understand is allowed. Apart from changing the Kirsty character into Larry's daughter for the movie (in the book she was a younger friend with a minor crush on him), none of it was very significant, and some of it may have been strictly a budgetary limitation forcing his hand, but as a whole, it's apparent that Clive doesn't see his original text as so sacred that it had to be adapted to the letter.

Well now I've done the same with Lord of Illusions, and that realization is even more evident - Barker (or another filmmaker) could adapt the original story (titled "The Last Illusion") for the screen and, with the exception of the same character names, I'm not sure anyone would recognize it as the same thing. Apart from Harry D'Amour's attraction to Dorothea Swann, and the fact that Swann was an illusionist/magician, there's pretty much nothing from his story that made it into the film, which has a completely different plot and fully changed character dynamic. It's the sort of overhaul that even a casual fan might be annoyed with, but since it's once again from Barker's own doing, there's really not much to argue beyond "I would have liked to see the story I read onscreen." I mean, you can't accuse Clive Barker of shitting on Clive Barker - he can do whatever he likes with his own story.

But devil's advocate: it's a pretty good story as is, and just long enough that it wouldn't take much fleshing out in order to turn it into a feature without lots of padding. It shares the film's "Supernatural horror meets detective noir story" aesthetic, but even those details are pretty different. In the story, Swann is suddenly killed backstage while trying to seduce a fan, and Harry D'Amour gets the mysterious assignment to watch his body until it can be cremated per Swann's wishes. Other folks want the body, and the story is a bit like a chase thriller, with D'Amour teaming with Swann's assistant Valentin to protect the body from those who wish to use it for nefarious purposes. They head out into the city with it, Weekend at Bernie's style, and happen to make the acquaintance of a poetry-writing cab driver whose brother in law can cremate the body early, so it's a race against time kind of thing as well.

As in the movie, Butterfield is sort of the main antagonist, but all the details are different. He's introduced as Swann's lawyer here, and instead of a creepy but human looking bald guy like in the movie, he is assisted by The Castrato, described as only Barker can, with: "it did not carry the light with it as it came: it was the light, or rather, some holocaust blazed in its bowels" and "It had, as its name implied, been unsexed; from that hole too, light spilled" for good measure. Dorothea is also revealed as a villain, leaving Harry with only one ally - Valentin, who is a total thorn in his side in the movie. Harry's attraction to Dorothea is established (perhaps a bit too much), but it's not reciprocated in any way, making this one of the very few Barker stories I've read where there was no major sex scenes. There is no Nix, no cult, no other magicians, and no mandrill, though there IS a man-eating tiger, so it evens out in that department.

So it must have been pretty confusing to fans of the story when they sat down for the film in the summer of 1995, as it was written and directed by Barker himself but seemingly overhauled in every single aspect. It starts off with Nix, the cult leader, being killed by some of his followers, including Swann, and then flash forwards thirteen years later - already a huge difference from the story, which takes place over one or two nights. D'Amour stumbles into Swann's world accidentally while investigating an insurance fraud case (his mark goes a fortune teller that happens to be one of the guys who killed Nix; D'Amour interrupts Butterfield's eventually successful attempt to kill him), and Swann's death occurs on stage during an "illusion" involving swords falling onto him as he tries to free himself.

This leads to a bit that curiously might have been a bigger surprise for readers than folks like me who saw the movie first. In the story, when Swann dies he's dead - it's not a trick, he's not resurrected on the scene, or anything like that. But here, the whole thing is staged; he's faking his death in order to keep Nix and Butterfield from coming after him or Dorothea. This allows him to be a much more prominent character (something the second billed casting of Kevin J. O'Connor probably gave away anyway), unlike in the story where we never get to see him in action and just have to take Valentin and Dorothea's word for it that he was pretty great. But readers might have been trying to find an "in" to the story they knew and just assumed there wasn't anything more to Swann's death. They probably thought "NOW our story will begin!" but no, if anything from there it just gets even more different, as Nix's cult takes prominence and Valentin becomes ever shadier (and he's not a demon in the movie, either).

Despite all the changes, I found it interesting how Barker was able to recycle certain elements from the short story for his new narrative. For example, in the book the woman that is with Swann when he dies is driven insane, and babbles nonsense when D'Amour goes to see her for some information. This character doesn't exist in the movie, BUT one of the followers who assisted in Nix's murder has since gone crazy, and thus we still get the "D'Amour sees a crazy lady for some exposition" scene, albeit with very different context. And the climax is kind of similar, in that it involves a corpse being ripped apart by otherworldly magic, which is one of the better FX sequences in the film (the majority of the CG in the film is pretty dodgy). Oh, and Valentin dies in both. Spoiler.

So the funny thing is I wish Barker had adapted his movie into a novelization. As "The Last Illusion" was a story in the 6th volume of the Books of Blood, they just changed the title of the collection to Cabal featuring Lord Of Illusions (though the fine print above that part of the title says "Includes the short story that inspired" or something like that). Cabal wasn't part of the collection originally, far as I know, so that was a curious decision on the publisher's part as this was 1995 and Nightbreed was several years old by then, but it makes me feel better about never realizing this until recently, because of course I bought this edition as a teen (probably after seeing the movie on VHS) and also the regular edition of that volume of Books of Blood when I began building up my collection (I'm still missing volume 4, if anyone is so inclined to buy a gift!), so I otherwise own the set twice.

But back on point, Nix only features in two sequences in the film, and he seems like such a great character in the Barker tradition, so it's sort of a shame he only exists on the screen and not the page, where Barker's lyrical prose would allow us some insight that the feature obviously can't provide. In a world where we've gotten Batman's origin some several dozen times, how about a Nix origin movie or story? I'd be all for that, and I hate prequels! Barker isn't opposed to franchising his characters; D'Amour has popped up in several of his short stories and novels, and he was involved with the Hellraiser sequels (just not directing them) for a while before Dimension went off on their own to ruin the series. And with his recent expansion into the comics world (the original Next Testament just wrapped up, and there's an ongoing Hellraiser series, as well as frequent adaptations of his other stories), it seems like a 4-6 issue series about Nix would be something that fans would eat up, even without Harry D'Amour around (since he wouldn't have entered the story yet).

Until then, it's a fine time to revisit the film, which holds up nicely and has been treated well on this new special edition blu-ray. In addition to the new transfer, it carries over the great Barker commentary and other extras, plus adds an all new interview with the film's storyboard artist (it's a pretty interesting chat, highly recommended) and a never before seen hour long documentary on the film's production, created from the old EPK, dailies, and other vintage material. The set also includes the theatrical cut of the film on a separate disc, which I've actually never seen as I missed the film theatrically and the d-cut was what was released on DVD and even VHS. This might actually be the first release of the theatrical cut on disc, now that I think about it.

Of Barker's three theatrical features, I must admit I prefer Hellraiser and the new cut of Nightbreed, but that's not to say this is a "lesser" effort or anything. Despite the length it races by, and it's shockingly grim for a studio feature (the cult members leaving their lives behind as they get word of Nix's return is quite unsettling). I don't know if a straight adaptation would have been better or worse, but I AM kind of giddy at the idea of someone making a true feature of "The Last Illusion" someday. I mean, it's almost like a buddy movie at times, so with the right actors cast as Valentin and D'Amour (I'd even be OK with Scott Bakula reprising his role, though that'd be a bit weird) it could be a lot of fun. Agree/disagree?