Read The Book, Need The Movie: Imajica by Clive Barker

A while back we compiled a list of great novels that deserve film adaptations. But a list like that only scratches the surface, and short-form list entries often do not do proper justice to the books (or films) reviewed therein. With that in mind, we present the first of a new variety of long-form articles, in which we review books at greater length, make the case for why those books are deserving of movie adaptations, and engage in some speculation about what might be cool to see in a film version, and what our ideal cast might be. In this entry in the series we examine Clive Barker's epic masterpiece of dark fantasy, Imajica.

The original hardcover artwork
To casually-acquainted readers and filmgoers, Clive Barker is best known as the horror auteur behind cult-classic films like Hellraiser, Lord of Illusions, and Candyman, and the short stories that inspired them. Despite being first and foremost a bestselling novelist, the iconic images of his Cenobytes and their Lament Configuration proved so unforgettable that Barker has often found them difficult to escape, and they tend to unfairly overshadow the rest of his fascinating body of work. Ironically, if you start delving into the world of Clive Barker's novels it soon becomes clear that he really is not strictly a horror author. Yes, his early short stories from the Books of Blood are horror, and he has written horror novels throughout his career, but most of his long-form work occupies the less easily-classifiable realm of dark modern fantasy. Indeed, he is less the British answer to Stephen King that he has historically been marketed as, and more the (often darker) predecessor to Neil Gaiman, with Gaiman's Neverwhere in particular feeling very distinctly like a post-Clive Barker modern fantasy novel. One of the best examples of this dark modern fantasy side of Barker's work – and widely considered to be one of the best examples of his work, period – is his epic 1991 novel Imajica: a sprawling, deeply philosophical tale which takes a group of characters from modern-day London and immerses them in a mystical reality that exists just outside our own. With a grand mythology and a host of fascinating otherworldly locations and characters, Imajica is a very unique novel which deserves to be one of the works Barker is popularly best known for. And for that matter, it also deserves to be a part of his cult-favorite cinematic legacy.

The underlying premise of the novel is that our world is just one of five interconnected realms: the five dominions, which make up a whole called the Imajica. Long ago, a cataclysmic event walled Earth (The 5th Dominion) off from the other four, throwing the fractured Imajica into turmoil, and creating factions on both sides of the divide who either want to see the dominions reconciled or separated forever. Broadly speaking, Imajica follows a collection of characters, both from Earth and the other dominions, who have been pulled as if by fate into a metaphysical conflict that could decide this struggle. Barker tells their intertwining stories over a sprawling, nearly-1,000-page journey which takes them from modern-day London across the strange worlds of the Imajica: worlds full of bizarre creatures and surreal places influenced by eclectic voices ranging from Lovecraft to Tolkien, yet thoroughly unique in their own right. But even more importantly, he takes these characters into a massive web of philosophical ideas and questions which challenge the reader as well.

The novel is extremely high-concept, tackling a bunch of fascinating philosophical themes. It is about the tension between fate and free will. It is about the balance of good and evil, and order and chaos, that exists within all people, and thus the world at large. It is about the tension between faith and religion, and the tendency of religion to be corrupted by power, ego, and patriarchy in a way that replaces faith with tyranny. It is about the fluidity of sexuality against heteronormative dogma. It is about power dynamics of gender, both disturbing and empowering, and the way that patriarchal power structures tend towards cruelty and destruction even when their perpetrators don't know it. It often positions its protagonists not against opposing villains, but against mirrors of themselves that reflect their darker natures. It explores the gray uncertainty of morality, with heroes that do very bad things and villains that can be sympathetically human. And it explores all this complexity in the framework of a grand-scale fantasy story spanning a world as big as the issues in it, and as surreal, dreamlike, and visually evocative as the dream-realm of H.P. Lovecraft's fantasy cycle. The labyrinthine city of Yzordderrex and the living ocean in the Cradle of Chzercemit belong right alongside Lovecraft's Unknown Kadath in the pantheon of really memorable dark-fantasy literary locations (and as a side-note, I have little doubt that they inspired many a Magic The Gathering card artist).

The cover art from book II of the
two-part paperback release:
the otherworldy city of Yzordderrex
While it is nearly a thousand pages long, it uses that length very effectively to explore all of the above things, and seldom feels overlong or padded. Indeed, parts of the novel actually move at a surprisingly brisk pace, and Barker maintains a good momentum throughout. And crucially, he continually takes the story in unexpected directions, changing course several times throughout the novel, away from what the reader might expect. It isn't easy for a book this long to keep readers on their toes throughout, but he does that here, and does it well. It isn't a perfect novel: it does have some parts that don't work as well as they're supposed to, and ideas that feel underbaked or not as well though-out as they should have been. But these aspects are more than counterbalanced by the elements that are very, very strong, and the novel is so big that the whole remains very compelling even when the occasional part falters. While he does have his occasional flaws and self-indulgences, Barker is a very good author; much better than the horror work he's best known for might have you believe.

Between the epic scope of its fantasy story, its high-concept and multi-layered themes, and its vivid and surreal imagery (not to mention that it was a bestselling novel in its day), it is fairly strange that no film adaptation of Imajica has yet been made. Granted, the novel is way too massive in scope to fit comfortably into just one film, but the narrative would be perfectly suited to a two-film arc – and we all know how much studios these days love splitting a hit novel adaptation in half to double the box-office revenue. The book even splits very neatly into a part-one and part-two, pretty much right down the middle at a center-climax which brilliantly shakes up reader expectations of events. This is so much so the case that, when it came time for its first paperback pressing, Harper/Collins decided to split the single hardcover novel into two paperbacks (Imajica Part I: The Fifth Dominion and Imajica Part II: The Reconciliation) as a solution to how ridiculously fat and unwieldy the book might be otherwise. While most subsequent pressings have restored it to a single volume, there's no reason why a film adaptation couldn't follow the format of the first dual-paperback editions. Perhaps a still better way to adapt the novel would be as a big-budget, single-season TV series in the Netflix/HBO mold, where it could be as many episodes as it needed to be (no more or less) and not have to worry about content (the book is decidedly R-rated).

Another logical reason why Imajica wasn't adapted to film or TV in the early-1990s when it was fresh off the bestseller list is the sheer visual wildness involved in the book, especially in the last act. From the four strange and surreal dominions beyond Earth, to the odd characters and creatures who inhabit them, and to the gods and goddesses whose powers define the Imajica, Barker's world is very imaginative, and very visual. In a time before there was truly convincing CGI that could blend effectively into environments, creating all this on-screen would have been insanely expensive (or would have looked really fake). Even now it would be a tricky book to visualize, but given other recent films in which CGI has been blended seamlessly into environments (particularly when creating landscapes and backgrounds), I think our technology is finally up to Imajica's challenge. And of course, all the strange beings throughout the story would be perfect for creating a menagerie of practical-effects creatures – something that cinema could always use more of. Between the quality of modern effects and the move towards long-form storytelling both in theaters and on TV, the time definitely could be right for Imajica to be told in a new medium.

One of the surreal creatures that
inhabit the Imajica, from the
illustrated edition
When imagining what a novel would be like on-screen, one of the most fun parts is conjuring up a dream cast to play the book's ensemble of characters. Of course, this is ultimately just an opinion that comes down to the mind's eye of each reader, and I'm sure this will inspire some comments by fans of the novel with different ideas, but here are my picks for the stars of an imaginary Imajica movie or series. James Marsters (Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Spike) as the novel's deeply flawed but charismatic protagonist, Gentle: a professional and personal deceiver in search of self-knowledge. Keira Knightly as the story's other protagonist, Judith: an enigmatic and adventurous woman on a metaphysical quest of her own. Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who's 12th Doctor) as the icy, sardonic, Machiavellian villain, Dowd. Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) as Oscar Godolphin, a morally suspect aristocrat and practitioner of magic; a role that seems like it could have been written with Oliver Reed in mind, though sadly we're a bit late for that now.

One of the novel's most important roles would ideally go to a relative unknown: that of the mystical, psychically-attuned Pie'oh'pah, a being from one of the farthest dominions whose physical appearance, sex, and gender are all fluid and often-changing. Pie is in many ways a physical embodiment of the book's themes concerning the fluidity of sexuality and gender, the artificiality of the boundaries society has built governing those concepts, and the power, pitfalls, and magic intrinsic to sexuality. They are an androgynous being, literally genderfluid in the sense that they are from a race of people for whom gender and physical sex (and indeed, physical reality in general) are not fixed states, but attributes which shift, like so many other aspects of human nature. They are also a character of color. As such, the role should be played a trans or genderqueer actor or actress of color; a wonderful chance for a large-scale production to give a prominent, pivotal, hero role to a new talent from a group too-often neglected by mainstream film and TV. Of course, one of the biggest dangers of Imajica being adapted to the screen would be the risk that it fall prey to the too-common decision by studios to cast a big-name (cisgender) star made to look androgynous, rather than the trans or non-binary actor or actress that the role clearly asks for. A production worthy of the source material would need to avoid this trap and do the character justice; in a sense, the opportunity for inclusive casting offered by the character of Pie would be just as cool as seeing everything else about Barker's darkly fantastical world realized on-screen.

For anyone who is up to the challenge of a philosophically rigorous and narratively sweeping dark fantasy tale – and who has the patience for a book that is nearly a thousand pages in print, and nearly 40 hours in audio form – Imajica comes highly recommended. If you only know Clive Barker from his horror movies or his Books of Blood short stories, this a very different side of him; one that positions him less as the British heir to Stephen King and more as the predecessor to Neil Gaiman. It is a boldly original work, which creates an extremely unique and fully developed mythology even as it is informed by a diverse array of literary voices from the history of the fantasy genre. Barker often cites this as his personal favorite among his written works, and that reputation is well-deserved. Indeed, as memorable as the Cenobytes might be, this novel deserves a much more prominent place in the pop-cultural view of Barker's legacy. Perhaps soon we will finally get the ambitious screen adaptation that Imajica deserves, either on the big or small screen. But meanwhile, if you have the time to embark on the journey across Clive Barker's five dominions, it is certainly a trip worth taking.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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