15 years ago, bookstores were a little less complicated. You could enter, find the genre or topic you wanted, and browse endlessly. Nowadays, however, bookstores have become almost infinitely compartmentalized. This is especially true when dealing with Young Adult fiction. Bookstores not only have a YA section, but there are now entire racks devoted exclusively to epic multi-part fantasy tales about stalwart teens and tweens using newfound magical superpowers (or technology as the case may be) to fight off monsters, witches, demons, and the like. The quality and positive influence of this overwhelmingly large subgenre is a matter of debate. Its popularity and ubiquity is unavoidable.
The breadth of this genre ties with the popularity of the HARRY POTTER novels, which began their publishing life in 1997, hit the States in 1998, and, by 2001, became a worldwide phenomenon. The story of a boy wizard inducted into a magical and dark world of vengeance inspired hundreds of other authors, and it wasn’t long before myriad imitators began flooding the marketplace, some of which also became modestly popular. It became the literary byword of the day, and multi-part fantasy stories remain the most popular format of YA fiction.
2001 also saw the release of the first feature film based on a HARRY POTTER novel. It was, predictably, a huge hit. But, more than that, it announced a new ethos to the makers of Hollywood blockbusters. Previously, Hollywood would commit to sequels only after the first film proved to be viable. With HARRY POTTER, Warner Bros. announced that they would go ahead and make seven feature films, based on the seven novels (some of which weren’t even written yet at the time). All of a sudden, it became financially viable to capture an established fanbase and plan out an entire series all at once. Directors were no longer auteurs. Now, it was long-thinking studio execs. Thanks to the success of the HARRY POTTER model compounded with the simultaneous success of Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS movies, we now have a world of gigantic film franchises planned into the infinite future.
But before Disney bought Marvel and STAR WARS, and put their ultra-successful supra-franchise model into place, they laid their ambitions on a fantasy series that few talk about anymore- Clive Barker’s ABARAT.
In the early 2000s, painter/author Clive Barker decided he would take a crack at his own epic fantasy novel series for young adults. Barker was no stranger to expansive and imaginative worlds of magic and mystery. In the past, he had written books like WEAVEWORLD, THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW, and his 1,000-page magnum opus IMAGICA. Never one to shy away for creative gigantism, Barker was almost ideally suited to enter the world of YA fiction.
ABARAT takes place in a mystical 24-island archipelago wherein each of the islands is frozen at a particular hour of the day. On Yzil, it is always noon, and on Gorgossium, it is always midnight. Our heroine is a teenage girl named Candy Quackenbush, who accidentally stumbles into the islands of the Abarat and must fend off the violence of a nightmare-eating ghoul named Christopher Carrion. Hundreds of other characters and complications, of course, arise.
The books (three published to date) are imaginative and complex. They are a grand example of Clive Barker’s greatest strengths as a writer- the ability to invent and populate entirely original mythologies. The first ABARAT was released in 2002. The second, DAYS OF MAGIC, NIGHTS OF WAR hit in 2004. The third, ABSOLUTE MIDNIGHT, wouldn’t hit until 2011.
The ABARAT books were not merely an intellectual and aesthetic exercise for Barker, however. Back in 2000, before ABARAT was even finished, Barker was talking to Disney about adapted the book to film. Disney was to turn the ABARAT books into a long-running and big-budget fantasy film series, perhaps the biggest to date. Bigger than HARRY POTTER, bigger than LORD OF THE RINGS. ABARAT was going to be for Disney what Marvel and Star Wars ended up being. It was to have tie-in TV shows, tie-in theme park attractions, and tie-in video games. This was the new expansive universe we were to memorize and love.
What’s more, Barker was up to the challenge. His world was carefully constructed, and the 24 islands in it were fully realized places. Barker painted hundreds of paintings, dictating the color and look of the ABARAT, and you won’t see more vibrant paintings elsewhere. Barker had never worked in such a well-moneyed milieu before, but was eager to give it a try. Disney put an enormous amount of faith in this quirky, dark, surreal horror author, and he was going to play along as best as he could. Everything was good to go.
ABARAT never took off. Despite being specially selected, primed, and primped by one of the world’s biggest entertainment corporations, Clive Barker’s fantasy epic was to remain pagebound and incomplete. So what happened to it?
Part of it likely had to do with bad timing and rushed schedules. The first book was only a modest hit, and Disney wanted to roll directly into another, ensuring that the ABARAT would remain in peoples’ minds. Barker, however, wrote the second book, and then scrapped the entire draft when he was unhappy with it, starting over from scratch. This may have been a delay that Disney was unhappy with. Barker is a hard-working author whose books take an enormous physical and emotional toll, and working within a corporate structure could have merely been a bad match-up. Barker also works in a very specific way (he’s written all of his novels in longhand, for instance), and likely resented studio pressure to provide something particular. As we have learned from people like Joss Whedon and Edgar Wright, working within the Disney machine can be frustrating for a creative person. Barker began to have that most classic of Hollywood problems: Creative Differences.
It’s also likely that the studio began to sense the risk this would be. Here was an unvetted property that they were going to bank very heavily on, and perhaps Disney got skittish at the risk. This was a premise full of wild, unrecognizable characters, and full of a form of magic and fantasy that had not yet been seen before. Perhaps this was just too crazy to try out. Think of something like JOHN CARTER or JUPITER ASCENDING. Imaginative, expensive, original, fun… and complete failures at the box office. Disney may have seen the writing on the wall with ABARAT. It was just too big, too imaginative, too weird for its own good.
Also, why take a risk on a children’s property authored by a man whose books famously contain extreme gore, copious sex, and no small amount of human fluids? Clive Barker is a very visceral writer, and his horror novels tend to be sexually and violently extreme. This is the HELLRAISER guy, after all. It’s likely Disney didn’t want to associate a kid product with Barker. Never mind that Disney’s Dimension Films put out HELLRAISER: BLOODLINE.
The blame may also lie with Barker himself. Even though he has a talent for constructing elaborate and fascinating worlds and mythologies, he’s always been notoriously weak with his protagonists. Candy is, in theory, an adventurous soul, but in practice, she’s a bit of a stuffed shirt. It’s likely that Barker was unable to create a heroine that people would relate to. Also, his first book is somewhat basic, but the sequels get increasingly complex very quickly, to the point of being overwhelming. Imagine the complexity and character density of the HARRY POTTER novels condensed into two books, rather than spread out over seven.
Barker also has a tendency to leave projects unfinished. Back in the 1980s and early ’90s, Barker talked about writing a third book in the series that started with THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW and its sequel EVERVILLE which never manifested. There was a long period when his book THE THIEF OF ALWAYS was going to be adapted into a stop-motion animated film, but got caught up in development hell.
Plus, we’re all still waiting for the newest HELLRAISER remake that Barker has written and may direct. That one seems to be on an eternal back burner. I await the extremity of TORTURED SOULS, which doesn’t seem to be moving forward. Although Barker’s flagging health (throat polyps) may have taken him off of his more recent projects, it’s likely that he just had bad luck and a lack of business savvy when it comes to finally getting shit done.
So Barker expanded his ABARAT series to five books, but has, to date, only completed three of them. Perhaps no one was patient enough to wait for Barker to figure out this five-book series on his own. Making an uncompleted series of books into a condensed film project was not viable of anyone.
This is all a pity. We can only imagine the explosion of original, colorful, amazing weirdness that a big-budget film version of ABARAT would have provided the world. Like Jodorowsky’s version of DUNE, it was a genre epic to end all genre epics, and no one was interested in ending all genre epics. Reading the books gives us the story, and looking at the paintings only whets the appetite for what could have been.
ABARAT, sadly, was just not to be.