The 1992 movie Candyman was based on a novella-length story by Clive Barker, entitled The Forbidden, which can be found in his anthology Books of Blood Vols. 4 – 6. The late 80’s and early 90’s were a great time for Barker fans, with many of his tales being made into Hollywood movies. Candyman and Hellraiser are the two franchises based on Barker’s stories that seem to have enjoyed the most longevity with the horror community, and the first entries of those respective series were well known for their over-the-top blood and gore.
Barker’s writing is heavily reliant on poetry to describe his horrific monsters and the landscapes they slither across. In execution and style, he seems to be a student of Lovecraft in many ways; it isn’t so much the story itself that is important, but the way he tells it. That’s part of his allure and his success as a horror writer. I know quite a few people who find Barker to be a difficult read, but I think it’s because he makes people uncomfortable. To read Barker is to know you are being manipulated and led somewhere you wouldn’t ordinarily want to go, but all the while some dark curiosity is piqued at the back of your mind; most horror writers keep the earth beneath the reader’s feet, but Barker will jerk it away without a moment’s notice. It’s a form of hypnosis he employs with his sensual prose, a seamless blending of the surreal with reality. Eroticism abides in his writing, though it is often simmering just beneath the surface and of a darker variety.
Candyman is a terrific film because the director (Bernard Rose, who also wrote the screenplay) understood the importance of preserving all that. The Forbidden is very esoteric and ethereal and Rose did a hell of a job bringing that atmosphere to the screen. There are differences between the story and the movie (I will discuss them below), but in this case, it matters little, if at all. This is strange for me to say, because I am usually a very nitpicky bitch when it comes to filmmakers screwing with the source material, but I can honestly say that this is one of the rare occurances where I prefer the film over the original book. That is not to say that The Forbidden is a bad story, because it isn’t. I love it. Candyman just feels like the true, more complete version of the tale. The Forbidden is quite short, as I mentioned earlier, clocking in at around just 100 pages. The reality is, the story was going to have to be fleshed out some anyway; what is good to know is that Barker had a hand in the expansion and serves as Executive Director on the movie. Another reason I prefer the film is that it is a feast for the eyes and ears. It’s bloody, gritty, wonderfully shot, all with an epic classical-operatic score juxtaposing the violence and cold, claustrophobic urban setting. And let’s not forget the performances here: Tony Todd and Virginia Madsen just knock it right out of the fucking park and the two of them onscreen is reason enough to watch. In the book version, Candyman isn’t really seen until the end and his appearance is more on the raffish/clownish side. Tony Todd makes for one scary undead son of a bitch.
While the main points of the plot remain the same, there are some big differences. The Forbidden is set in London, in a housing “estate” as they call it, which is pretty much the same thing as an American project/ghetto, so they weren’t making a big leap with setting the movie in inner-city Chicago. But the Candyman in the story was described as a white man, “with yellowish skin”. There is no backstory for Candyman in the book, either. This is what I mean when I say I feel the movie is the complete version of the tale. The backstory and little details of the like enrich the story.
While the Helen in the story is writing a dissertation, it is about graffiti, not urban legend. The whole storyline about summoning Candyman by saying his name five times in a mirror is only in the movie. I love that they added that part to the Candyman folklore. All of us grew up hearing about Bloody Mary; the urban legend aspect of the movie brings the audience in closer, because we’ve all grown up swapping those stories and laughing about them, but maybe somewhere deep in our minds there is a speck of belief.
Change isn’t always a bad thing. I think if Barker’s original vision of Candyman was brought to the screen, we wouldn’t be talking about this movie today, yet it remains a favorite among us horror freaks. It is rare, though, that a movie can greatly outshine the original book it’s based upon (Jaws, The Godfather… these are other good examples of that happening). I think in this case, they were successful because they focused on not just the plot, but also how to utilize Barker’s unique writing style, and how to take the prose and use it to shape something visually appealing and startling at the same time.
If you’ve never read it, I hope you go check out The Forbidden. It’s a good story in its own right, and a worthy companion to Candyman.
Next up on deck for Book vs. Movie: Exorcist III (for real this time, I swear!)