Constantine: The Original Sins of Adaptation

John Constantine on screen


Vanquisher of demons, careless of friends, it’s the irresistible pull of film and television that’s posed John Constantine’s biggest challenge. Three episodes into his televisions series, a look at the celluloid past, present and future.

CONSTANTINE. JOHN CONSTANTINE. IT’S BEEN WELL DOCUMENTED ON JOKERSIDE THAT HE’S ONE OF THE GREATEST FICTIONAL CREATIONS OF THE 20TH CENTURY. FACT. Inspired by Sting, hailing from Liverpool. So compelling, so real, that he appeared to his creator twice, seized the crown as Vertigo comic’s greatest son before making a fully formed attack on the House of Batman and Superman…

As he nears his 30th birthday, Constantine’s profile is stronger than ever. Now a cornerstone of the main DC Comic universe, he’s a major reason that Justice League Dark is one of the publisher’s New 52 revelations, let alone his own title Constantine. Hellblazer was the cost, an incredible 300 issue run over 25 years, from an incredible roster of writers. But while the age-rating may have dropped as he literally hit the mainstream, that’s surely an indication that it’s time he made a successful leap to new media. Like uttering a spell with a demon’s fingers around your neck: Easier said than done. He’s already been there before of course. And now, following the moderately successful 2005 film, could the mage’s brightest future lie with the NBC’s new Constantine series or Guillermo del Toro’s long gestating Justice League Dark adaptation?

Hellblazer stakes a claim

Director Francis Lawrence is currently enjoying the glow of ending the Hunger Games saga on the big screen. But in 2005, following a string of high-profile music videos, his film debut was the much anticipated adaptation of Constantine’s comic adventures. And who was that Constantine?  Well to quote Jokerside, “John Constantine, the Liverpudlian wizard, working class chain smoker and all round sarcastic bastard”.

For all its Americanisation and unnecessary twisting of the mage’s life, it managed the remarkable: capturing the tone of the comics remarkably well. It can’t be considered a complete disaster apart from, perhaps, its ability to promote the Scouse spell-caster to a wider audience.

While Hellblazer spent occasional and crucial spells in America, Constantine relocated the action to Los Angeles and reinterpreted the light trench coated, blond Liverpudlian as a dark-trench-coated Keanu Reeves. Accent: Canadianish. Around the mage is an eveness and consistency to the representations of hell that, while necessary in film narrative, doesn’t quite reflect the patchwork portrayal of the comics. The film picked up and mashed two inspirational Hellblazer storylines: Garth Ennis’ Dangerous Habits and Jamie Delano’s Original Sins. Strong material, if overshadowed by the kind of comic strengths that are film headaches. To bolster it was an impressive cast. Joining Keanu in keeping it terrestrial were Rachel Weisz, Shia LaBeouf and Djimon Hounsou while Heaven and Hell were packed out with Tilda Swinton, Gavin Rossdale and Peter Stormare.

It’s a good looking film, a solid one. And I went to extra lengths to prove that by completing the middling video game. That was good looking too.  The film earned a 15 rating in the UK and R in the US, making its haul rather more impressive, but it would inevitably struggle to get to those same dark places of the Earth as Hellblazer had and would.

Mage (PG)

In reintegrating the character back into the DC universe, the publisher paved his way back to the screen. There isn’t a critical or fan need for an adaptation that just ‘has’ to be produced by HBO or a cable channel previously associated with Preacher or American Gods series. Far from the aging, adult, sweary John Constantine, he was now rubbing shoulders with the heroes of the Golden Age. He was still smoking, but he was vacuum packed PG.  And so to Friday night NBC…

Episode One: Non Est Asylum

“The stakes are rising”

Even without the recent comic changes, it was inevitable that John Constantine would make a break out of the comics once again. But the real questions are: is it too late and has he, or his traits, already been squandered. If there’s one ‘meh’ encouraged by the Constantine pilot, it’s that it’s so similar to that 2005 film. The apartment blocks, the implicated, unaware girl with vision, the rather off-centre Chas, the random angel visits… True, much of that has unfolded in the comic series at one time or another, but in the fabric of 25 years continuous storytelling it can be damaging as a snapshot.

Where Constantine does make a conscious difference is in rooting the mage in his comic origins. It’s not so much the New 52 – as Constantine’s family confession reveals in the pilot – but reaching back to the original Hellblazer run. First of all, and common to every storyline, it mostly hinges on the infamous events of Newcastle.

First appearing in Swamp Thing, it would take until issue 11, Jamie Delano’s The Taste of Things to Come,to see what created Constantine. In the pilot we see glimpses and even more so, the shadow it casts over Constantine from asylum to curse, as well as the irrepressible arrogance and guilt.

That’ asylum’, Ravenscar Secure Facility is where the show opens, home to Constantine and all Arkham in its entrance – not bad for the Yorkshire coastal village. It’s where Hell’s children come to paint a message, the catalyst for a story that introduces us to the televisual incarnations of a few familiar characters.

There’s comic staple Chas, then Zed at the end, sketching various Hellblazer covers in the coda, and even Ritchie Simpson. Ritchie, a character destined for a future a lot closer to computers here finds himself in alliance against an inner-demon demon, Furcifer, nourished by electricity (after a spot of Constantine blackmail of course). That foresight, the dwelling on Constantine’s friend ‘issues’ and making time for some fore-irony, is one of many signs that the series is conscious of its source’s depth and strength.

And then there’s the ubiquitous Chas Chandler, long suffering London cabbie in the books, his name a reference to the original bassist of The Animals and Jimi Hendrix’s manager. Oh, and Slade. Where we join this series we’re clearly beyond Constantine’s abuse of Chas’ chariot and assistance and also, so far, lacking the associated guilt. But then, there is clearly a story behind the man with the cab.

In this format, there would always be some concessions when it came to characters.  There’s Chas, Ravenscar’s Dr Roger Huntoon and of course, and most importantly, Constantine himself. With David S. Goyer behind it, Dark Knight scribe and rather accomplished comic writer himself it should have safe hands, but unfortunately that doesn’t always counts for much. After all Constantine travels many of the same paths as the phenomenally successful Supernatural – roaming America with a wide range of demonic and angelic antagonists to meet along the way. That series, reaching its 200th episode this week, has already spawned the popular Castiel, an angel wearing a remarkably familiar trench coat, tie and shirt combination.

And that’s really the problem.

While Constantine’s prospered on paper it’s been gazumped on the small screen. While John Constantine has many secret weapons, they’re the ones that can’t easily translate. Any Constantine story should walk a fine line between dark, adult, comic, fantastical and comedy. It’s not easy, and incredibly difficult to wrench from the darkly dense comic writing defined by some of the greatest, majoritively British, creators in the business, not least the often dark language, humour and scripting. That’s partly why 2005’s tonal success was unexpected – even though Reeve’s Constantine forgoes sarcasm for deadpan. Or possibly, cut loose in the character’s considerable range, it’s all the less surprising because of it.

Casting is everything and while Reeves added unnecessary publicity, Matt Ryan is a good semi-anonymous choice. Mania, instability, broodiness and non-sequiturs inform Ryan’s character. But he needs something… Uncaring protagonist to the point of an arrogant death-wish can grate quickly, although self-destruction is crucial (“Your arrogance brought me to a city of light” mutters Furcifur unironically). While the amorality can be tricky on TV, chain smoking is untenable and a lot hinges on how well Ryan can improvise with an unfocussed Zippo in his hands. Sometimes, like the ready-meal wake sequence in the second episode, this version shows that Constantine can be portrayed in the broadest terms with great success.

Back to the pilot and Neil Marshall continues to enhance his rep on the small screen by helming a good looking addition to this year’s comic haul. There are some stunning set pieces, mostly the chilling encounters with the possessed. When Nergal appears in flashback it may not be too faithful to the comic appearance but sure aren’t too shabby.

In terms of the character, Matt Ryan certainly looks the part, particularly in his first confrontation with the Angel Manny – although his coat is noticeably just a little too practical in its length. His accent, a Yorkshire, Welsh just touch Scouse, is effective in expressing about and exploring the oncoming threat and as the episodes go on, the vernacular rounds. There is solid quipping to help (“That makes the two of us mate” ) and mannerisms: see his great ambiguous little shake of the head as the heavens open…

“The one who steps from the shadows, all trench coat and arrogance”

Various writers have balanced Constantine’s spell casting in different ways, some ignoring it completely. On television that’s not much of an option, as the first onscreen exorcism shows. It’s a short spell in the asylum, the mage eager to admit himself to Ravenscar in the futile hope that so he can be convinced that demons don’t exist. But as soon as he can’t be, there’s really no point hanging around.  Then it’s full pet into supernatural horror-thriller with jokes. They give it a good stab between its Evil Dead riffs (“Dead by morning”) and perculiarly Sherlock score. Marshall is a great choice, employing horror conventions at will to subvert expectations, such as the reveal of Chas as… Well, actually a carpenter. Chas carving a warning glyph, not exactly what you’d expect from the comics, but then it’s a step up from Shia LaBeouf and there’s the far more distracting and inexplicable complication of his supernatural recovery to consider.

Marshall even fits a tri-partite scare into the ‘zombie ‘ambulance scene, which is a joy to watch. There’s an inevitable pace to this rather simply plotted story. An unrelenting Terminator demon (Furcifer, from the inner circle), saving the girl (of course) – it’s just simple enough despite not drawing its own identity from the 2005 film.

The pilot isn’t perfect, derailed by that ending and certain character missteps – how could Constantine be so easily tricked by a demon at the end, then so easily and conveniently convinced otherwise by his new companion? Of course it’s a well employed trick to use an uninitiated and learning apprentice as the audience’s eyes and ears and here Liv provides plot sustenance for a whole series (or more) through her Scryning.

Considered alone, Liv’s pendant is almost the same plot device as water (combined with ritual) fulfilled in the 2005 film; a way to see the spirit world as Constantine does (or decidedly not, as he says here).

Liv is also narratively necessary to Constantine as he doesn’t “have the knack” to set that series of plots the TV show. But as reshot ending establishes, she wasn’t long for Constantine’s world; reason given: creative considerations. And so instead we find the scribbling Zed.

Episode Two: The Darkness Beneath

“Leaving only a nod, a wink and a wisecrack”.

The second episode brings us the creepy credits of burning souls and an overall polish. Good old studio notes. Constantine is cleaner, literally, with shorter, brighter hair shorter.  The plot is far more procedural and, well, Supernatural. That isn’t so different from the comics, albeit serialised, although here it doesn’t quite take. Constantine has assumed Jasper’s den (that would be Liv’s father) from the pilot as a base with the ‘Liv stigmata map’ (copyright) providing the route around America.

In settling the first trip on a “one horse Welsh mining town” in Pennsylvania there’s a nod to the fourth wall that the show would benefit from bringing out further. Noticeably, Constantine’s Liverpool accent grows as the mage mentions his birth city. Again, there are very effective set-pieces, like the drowning car sequence.  That wonderfully reinforces the inevitable draw to Constantine’s aura of nihilism, that proves the end for many an acquaintance.

The coblani spirits at the centre of the horror are an intriguingly subversive element.  However, they’re a little weakened by Gypsy lore despite the a nicely dark conclusion played out on picket fence garden path. On the companion side there’s even less for Jazz to do but mix up the sceptical scale.  And as Constantine suggests, while Zed provides “moderate value in the field” the end voiceover makes it clear that there is no trust lost here. Away from the naive and talented Liv, mystery is what Zed provides and surely that is the creative direction the show-runners were eager to move to. She’s likeable, and an artistic parcel of mystery that will undoubtedly take quite some time to unravel.

Episode Three: The Devil’s Vinyl

“A cheating, drug dealing voodoo priest”

By the third episode we are back in movie territory again, with the second incarnation of Papa Midnite to make it to the screen. Constantine’s still based in Atlanta, and by now forming the “bucket brigade” if not the trench coat brigade. Jasper’s house is further developed as a house of mystery, a crooked house that shifts and threatens – thoroughly deserving of its latest occupant. As for the immediately blood-drenched Constantine, With Zed’s arrival he’s happy to employ the old ‘keep your enemies close’ tactic as mystery beckons elsewhere.

Perhaps the most interesting element is how integrated it is to Constantine’s past. The first episode had already established that , contrary to the comics, JC’s a huge Sex Pistols fan. Here it’s not only his route to avoid the Devil’s Vinyl but adds the background his meeting with Bernie in a morgue – he being the producer on Constantine’s band Mucus Membrane’s only record. Naturally that sequence is subverted. Like the Pushing Daisies, and Torchwood the dead are awakened for a brief time, but this time every corpse in the vicinity awakens. And the cryptic “Moonrise” wends an inevitable trail to Midnite.

A trinket carrier, Constantine reveals that spells have a cost and that dip into magic has been deducted from his own life. If anything that may prove be the show’s weakness. While Constantine often seems wildly out of control, he’s defined by the knowledge and guilt his acquaintance brings. With his oldest friend invulnerable and his powers at the cost of his own life, the power of his character is naturally diminished. Especially as one of the longest living characters in comicdom, aging in real time as he did throughout the Hellblazer run (albeit with some moisturising help from demon blood).

I won’t acknowledge the charmed card, aped from the wildly overused psychic paper of Doctor Who. although again, Constantine adds a twist. The MacGuffin of a haunted record again highlights that this is a show that will struggle to escape Supernatural. And while the story probes classic rock and hell connections, lightly brushing satire, the quickly moving plot accentuates the difficulty of any emotional balance.

But of course, it’s the soul broker that’s the real storyline; or at least Papa Midnite lurking just behind him. Constantine knows Midnite describing him as a “cheating, drug dealing voodoo priest”. While that would help sum up their relationship, it’s unclear if Constantine still owes him a wad of cash as in the comics. In any event, by the end, as Midnite shapes a very cute Constantine voodoo doll – there will be a price to be paid as the cost to Constantine stacks up. History, close rivals and an early roster shake-up illustrate that this is a show with challenges, albeit one that is eager to change quickly and emphatically. And as always, worse than any Gypsy curse, Electric Demon or fatal recording is scheduling. NBC gave Constantine his biggest challenge in the Friday night slot replacing the cancelled (and very much more slow-burning) Dracula.

He’s faced worse and he wouldn’t take a good luck charm as frankly, John Constantine will endure beyond his series.

Dark Times Ahead

In the recently announced roster of DC Comic films, the long-gestating Justice League Dark was absent. When the magical team-up of the DC universe does make it to the big screen, Constantine would simply have to play a major part. And true to DC’s overall plan, the film universe would remain separate from any television universe that’s, hopefully, still on air.

Much like Tim Burton, director Guillermo del Toro has quickly established a niche style where ‘obvious’ projects prove insurmountable or too easy. The failed adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness and subsequent Pacific Rim could form an unfortunate pattern. But the magic realms of the DC universe do pose a brilliant canvas – no doubt why del Toro’s orbited it for so long.

With the New 52’s recent Future’s End storyline tying the mage into Dr Fate (his famous helmet also making a cameo in the pilot) and the TV series bringing expanded DC characters such as the Spectre into the mix it could be less a struggle to bring him to the screen, than a further tool in the consolidation of Constantine as a major DC character. He is after all one of the most travelled; from dingy London flats to epidemically possessed Glasgow to the American penal system.

It’s increasingly likely that Constantine will dominate a screen of some size.

And frankly, for the working class mage from Liverpool, that’s extraordinary. To quote one of his famous city-mates, a working class hero is something to be.

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