To Hell With You: Blazing a Trail Through Hollywood with John Constantine

Seeing that it is now June and Comic Con is nipping at my writerly fingertips (as it does every year), I figured I would drag one out from the vaults to entertain and/or annoy you all with.

For the last 5 or so years, I have been a participant in the Comic Arts Conference, which is kinda like the Red Headed Stepchild of the Con. We don’t consider it that way, of course, and anyone who is interested in the academic side of the comic book world wouldn’t see it that way either, but anyone who spends the night outside the convention center in hopes of catching a glimpse of a sparkly vampire could really care less that many of us pour a goodly amount of time and energy into these papers. After all- it is an academic conference.

In any case, what I am presenting for you here is the piece that I wrote for the panel I was on in 2007.  I remember liking it. In any case, my opinions haven’t changed much so…here you go- now you too can feel like you were there…minus the crowds, the smelly fankids, and the overzealous everybody. Enjoy!

He’s been compared to James Bond, Phillip Marlowe, Mike Hammer. Critics have described the film as everything from “a clever fantasy/horror noir with a dash of broad comedy,” to one that “lacks the richness of its source material” and is “entirely beyond redemption.” Whichever way you slice it, the 2005 filmic adaptation of John Constantine: Hellblazer seems to be quite a source of discussion and debate, whether or not you were even a fan of the comic. It is common knowledge that all comic to film adaptations go through many stages on their way to becoming their own media object . Whether the parent text is used exactly or whether it is paraphrased, one can usually see the skeleton of the originating document underneath any new additions. Sometimes, however, when a given filmmaker is dead set on extricating him/herself from the previous incarnation of the work, the adaptation can lead to a obscuring of the source material, causing a rift to grow between that which was adapted and the adaptation itself. Director Francis Lawrence’s desire to create his own version of John Constantine and the universe in which he dwelt overshadowed his ability to portray a character that maintained any veracity to the original work. While some amount of this is to be expected, Lawrence’s methodology for addressing John Constantine led to a film that not only removed the character’s cultural trappings but also eradicated his larger theological basis. In doing so, Lawrence erased the things to which every author of Hellblazer had remained loyal to throughout the entire comic book series, thereby creating a character that was decidedly not John Constantine.

I have been working with filmic adaptations of comics for the last several years. Through the careful study of production methodologies, narrative changes, and textual similarities how smooth the transition from comic text was (or was not) became more apparent. The overall success of each film as compared to that of its progenitor is a key ingredient within adaptation analyses. However, the longer I studied Constantine, the more I found myself unable to defend it as a valid interpretation of the comic book. Not only did this movie willfully exchange the narrative complexities and character depth in the comic for easily digestible storylines and generic protagonists, but it also blatantly lifted items from another film in order to fill out the less, shall we say, “full” areas. By leaning heavily upon previously established film iconography and reformatting the substance of the comic book text to match, the writers and director of Constantine created a new media object that cast out all substantial elements of the initial comic and produced what could only be called a ghost-adaptation.

NO TRENCHCOAT, NO ACCENT, NO SERVICE

Locating the film within US confines instead of the UK was a change, but it really wasn’t that much of an issue. After all, it had been done countless times within the comic book with little to no detraction. However, changing John Constantine into an American freelance exorcist, who stockpiles Judeo-Christian weaponry, and doesn’t make a habit out of hustling, witchcraft and trickery as daily routine was more than slightly ridiculous. As far as the comic was concerned, no matter who was writing or drawing him, John Constantine was none of these things. In making these alterations in his career and religious orientations, John Constantine was changed from the protagonist seen in the comic book Hellblazer to a new character, one that was invented specifically for the screen that shared little more than the name.

However, it was something else entirely that created the ultimate disparity.  To add insult to injury, this film committed the cardinal sin against a comic book character: they erased his history. What if Superman had not come from a different planet? What if a spider had not bitten Peter Parker? Either situation is analogous to what the creators of this film did to John Constantine. While it is essential in adaptations to “edit” the parent text for time and cinematic rhythm, it is not essential to completely alter or eradicate it. Sure, Constantine’s history is very involved and can’t really be boiled down to a single incident like a spider bite (unless you count Newcastle!). But just because a character has a complex background doesn’t mean that you throw the baby out with the bathwater!  Changing Constantine’s story to one that damns him to hell because of a suicide attempt as a teenager, changes his entire character, pathology, and situation. While it could be said that this was simply an attempt to save time and “edit” the comic to fit its screen counterpart, I would argue that the erasure of John Constantine’s history reveals a slightly larger problem: the erasure of his identity, period. The character played by Keanu Reeves in the film, is not the character within the pages of the comic. By taking him out of the UK, and making him an American with a whole new background, the wedge between comic book and film is driven deep enough to make it irreconcilable.

Made by the same man who gave you Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U” video and Jennifer Lopez’ “Waiting For Tonight,” the film version of Hellblazer was certainly updated quite a bit from the comics. As the director himself stated in one of the documentaries on the DVD, “[Constantine is] based on a comic book, but I didn’t want it to feel like a comic book movie.”[1] Unfortunately, this may have been his biggest downfall. Frankly, it wasn’t about John Constantine’s trench coat and aesthetic, nor was it about his country of origin. Both things could have been worked with, and perhaps forgiven to an extent. However, as it turns out, in this circumstance, playing with those items was like playing with fire. Lawrence’s desire to dissociate himself from the text that he was supposed to be drawing his inspiration from left him empty-handed, causing both the film product and the source material to suffer from this decision.

In the introduction to Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Hellblazer: Fear and Loathing (issues 62-67), Warren Ellis makes a solid point about John Constantine as he is portrayed throughout the entire comic book series, no matter who was writing or drawing him.

Frequently painted as a mystic investigator in some kind of bastardized Chandlerian tradition…John is one of horror fiction’s more complex characters…Since his creation, John Constantine has gone from the young English occult wideboy of Alan Moore’s initial vision to the troubled and aging adrenaline addict of Jamie Delano’s bleakly poetic writing…The strength of the character, that has him remain so clearly the same man even when viewed through two or three different writers’ eyes, is that he is a terrific mouthpiece for anger.[2]

While I believe that Ellis’ simplification of Constantine as a “mouthpiece for anger” tends to be a bit reductive, his underlying analysis is spot-on. John Constantine has been written and rewritten by no less than 10 different authors. While each of these individuals showcase different qualities of John Constantine and his varying desires/pursuits/intentions, at the end of the day, they all remain faithful (more or less) to the basic skeleton built by Mr. Moore back in 1985. Even Brian Azzarello, when he took up the reigns of the comic upon Warren Ellis’ abrupt departure noted that while his own approach to comic book writing wouldn’t change, his portrayal of John Constantine would require extra conscientiousness. “I’m going to have to be sensitive to this guy’s past,” he stated in an interview with Sequential Tart, “Readers have expectations with Constantine; if I don’t deliver they’re going to scream foul. Not that I’m not going to toy with those expectations, but at this point we know who he is, and what he’s capable of.”[3]   Azzarello, an American writer who excels at noir-type fiction, knew that “you can take the boy out of England, but you can’t take England out of the boy.” He knew that a character that was so deeply British would suffer enormously from any dilution of that cultural heritage.

Even with that in mind, John Constantine’s Britishness made it more challenging for anyone who was not British to write the comic. Brian Azzarello’s run tends to be a good example of this, as his portrayal of Constantine did suffer slightly from what seemed to be his own unfamiliarity with British culture. While the storylines were excellent, his attempts at accented dialogue were forced, and his American characters were far more fleshed out and confidently written than his protagonist. Where his American characters were expressive and extroverted, speaking freely and often, Azzarello tended to keep Constantine silent and stoic, qualities that he never really possessed in his previous incarnations by British writers. The discrepancy between Azzarello’s quiet and reserved Constantine and the more aggressive and loud American characters seemed to signify something more than a narrative choice. To a certain extent, it seems that Azzarello might have been slightly uncomfortable with bridging the nationality gap with Constantine’s dialogue and cultural components, causing him to take less chances with the character.

Considering that Azzarello himself is not British, and that, as previously stated, he wished to remain as faithful to the character as he could, Azzarello’s choices made a good amount of sense. However, they were also very revealing in a cultural capacity. Azzarello’s run was indeed a fascinating look at how one might interpret a foreign culture and attempt to negotiate it within the terms that you, yourself, are intimately familiar. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, the portrayal of John Constantine did suffer as a result of his silence and non-participatory stance, whereas the American characters in that run truly triumphed.

Within the comic book’s infancy and adolescence, the reader is reminded, over and over, that the protagonist is an incredibly culturally entrenched persona. John Constantine’s northern accent, working-class persona and addiction to Silk Cut cigarettes speak of a certain “Britishness” that, to be fair, would be almost impossible to translate onto American soil.

Azzarello attempts to negotiate cultural difference using cigarettes as the tool. Clearly, Constantine is not not a fan of the ones in the US.

Beyond his own affectations, certain famous London pubs and general British landmarks and cities consistently find their way into the visuals, populating the comic with innumerable reminders that John Constantine is unmistakably a Brit. From stories about football hooligans to his travels to see his family in the north, the geography of John Constantine is as much part of his identity as his bad attitude and knack for hustling everyone from his own pals to the devil himself.

By editing this character’s physical attributes, sartorial expressions, and homeland, the film adaptation makes his identity into something different and diluted. It is almost as if the name “John Constantine” has simply been reappropriated to fit a dark, brooding American who smokes too much and can see ghosts. Upon being asked about the aesthetic and nationality changes that were made for his role in the film, Keanu Reeves told Dark Horizons[4] that as far as he was concerned, the only change that was really made about the character was hair color and accent. Unfortunately, it should be noted that this was also a statement made by an actor who told Wizard magazine that he had only “read sections” of the comic books, and “looked more towards the script that I had. Most of what I’ve gotten has come from having a feeling of who Constantine is inside.”[5]

Ideally, seeing who the character is on the inside should be enough to give a fair portrayal on screen, no matter how bad the actor or the acting. On the other hand, not reading the original text is clearly going to buy the character a one-way ticket to Hell, pun intended. On the other hand, if Keanu was simply looking towards the script for inspiration, this means that the fault lies primarily with the writing and not with his apparent disregard for the parent text. The distancing from “comic book movies” that Francis Lawrence had desired made its way into the script, as well, causing an even greater disparity between texts as the actors gauged their performance by what was given to them within the pages of the multi-authored film layout, not with that which existed in the original work.

With additional items that were changed in the script, there was no way to avoid having a film that was barely even shaped by the Hellblazer series. Alongside the cultural amputation in the character, the script itself was an indiscriminate muddle of parts, few of which were from the comic text or original writing. Through the commentary of several actors who readily admitted that they used only the script for reference and had never picked up the comic at all, we can see that the diegesis progressed by the script failed to convey the kind of “spirit” of the comic that Francis Lawrence and the writers talked about wanting to capture. The narrative changes that were made as well as the multitude of alterations to John Constantine himself served to distance the film from the comic book in approximately the same fashion as Lawrence wished to distance his film from the rest of the “comic book films,” which is to say Far Too Much for it to retain the kind of fidelity it desperately needed.

THE EXORCIST REDUX: “THE POWER OF HOLLYWOOD COMPELS YOU!!”

A good portion of my research does involve looking at the natural connective tissues that are formed in comic to film transitions, such as those I have found in films like Hellboy and Sin City. As I studied Constantine and its companion piece, Hellblazer, I was unable to find the same kind of organic growth as I did with the aforementioned comics and films. Instead, what became more and more apparent with each subsequent viewing and reading was that this film interpretation not only struggled to dissociate itself from the comic book, it attempted to align itself with the properties and narratives more befitting the generic restrictions of religious horror films of the 70’s, in particular William Friedkin’s film, The Exorcist. This departure from the comic book made the film version of Hellblazer resemble a remake more than it did a comic book adaptation. As a result, its position within the world of comic-to-film-adaptations is highly questionable, and can be seen as yet another attempt at using a newly popularized genre to try and make a few bucks. Tragically, this comes at a very high cost to the integrity of the actual work, and the trajectories of the comic book series as a whole.

Lawrence’s work may fit into the genre of “comic book movies,” but that identity can only go one of two ways. On one hand, the adaptative identity can be good; it can emulate a type of cinematic hypertext, leading the viewer back to the source material, and perhaps creating new fans or refreshing the memories of old ones. However, on the other hand, this identity can be that which conforms to its own generic restrictions. In this case, as Gerard Genette has written, the piece will, like a genre itself, proceed  “by contagion, [or] imitation, [it has] the desire to exploit or modify a current of success and, as the vulgar phrase goes, ‘jump on the bandwagon.’”[6] Thus, when producer Lauren Shuler-Donner stated that upon receiving the script she saw an opportunity to make a “very classy classic horror film like The Exorcist,”[7] she was basically already mapping out the film’s fate. Donner and the screenwriters wanted to “capture the spirit” of the comic book within the confines of a big-budget horror flick. The director wanted the film to bear a resemblance to the primary text, but not feel like a “comic book movie.”  With that in mind, we can see exactly how this film traveled down the darker path of exploiting both the horror genre as well as the comic book genre.

Director Lawrence pursued the adaptation of this comic through a long standing cinematic horror tradition mixed with a desire for wide public consumption; a methodology that the comic book writers involved with Hellblazer couldn’t have been less concerned about. They stayed true to horror, as it was a horror comic, but they could have cared less about “making it big.” They just wanted to keep telling a great story. Tragically, what the film did was perform a highly publicized castration on the parent text, leaving the most crucially important aspects within the comic and lifting only that which could be digested by the American public within Judeo-Christian terms- ironic for a comic primarily about magic and things of the occult nature. Lawrence’s film simplifies the Constantinian universe to one singular battle between good and evil- heaven and hell- God and Satan. In doing so, the foundation of the original text is transmogrified and refocused. Instead of looking critically at the institution of religion as a whole (like Hellblazer did and still does), the film Constantine only involves Judeo-Christian (in particular, Catholic) theology.

If anyone were to doubt this film’s trajectory, they need only watch the first appearance of John Constantine. Our protagonist’s entrance not only confidently casts him in a role traditionally belonging to Catholic teachings, but also allocates this scene, visually and thematically, to another, widely familiar, cinematic instance. In this scene, we bear witness to a young girl with long stringy hair wearing white or lightly colored nightclothes. Previously seen climbing the ceiling, she is now tied to her bed, writhing and speaking in growls and snarls and a demonic tongue. Constantine enters the girl’s room, and, after a few attempts, finally exorcises a demon from the body, leaving her previously evil and distorted countenance to relax back into that of an innocent; no longer the vessel for a predatory demon.

You don’t need to have read Hellblazer to recognize this scene, after all- it’s not in the comic books. Within this dramatic opening, you have the very basic component parts of the beginning exorcism scenes in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. The significance of this is immense. Not only is John Constantine being posited as a surrogate Father Karras, but he also produces the same result: the casting out of the demon from the young girl’s body, and her return to innocence. While Constantine may perform certain exorcism-type activities within the Hellblazer series, none of them come anywhere close to the way that this one is visually or thematically represented. This scene includes enough familiar horror iconography so as to “jump on the bandwagon” and attempt to include a wider audience who may not be familiar with the comic, but are all-too-familiar with the now cliché Exorcist schema.

In his book, The Satanic Screen, Nikolas Schreck identifies Friedkin’s film as a

“big-budget Bible-thumper,” a title that could easily be applied to Constantine as well. Schreck’s main criticism was that Friedkin positions Woman as “literally the gate to Hell.” (Schreck, 169) While the female body has been used time and time again as the vessel for horror (see practically any Cronenberg film for further reference), Francis Lawrence’s Constantine utilizes the female body in much the same “gateway “ role as Friedkin. Not only is there the opening exorcism scene, but also the remainder of the film centers on a Catholic female, Isabel, who has seemingly taken her own life. In doing so, she has used her body to engage with Hell. Suicide, according to Catholic doctrine, damns Isabel to eternal hell, and means she cannot be buried in sacred ground. The film follows Isabel’s sister Angela (played by Rachel Weisz) as she enlists John Constantine’s help to try to prove that her sister did not in fact commit suicide and therefore deserves a good Catholic burial.

This very narrative substantiates Schreck’s argument, and makes Constantine a definite competitor for the “big budget Bible-thumper” contest. While the opening of the film is meant to establish Constantine’s religious identity, the more thematic and stronger correlative comes at the end, making these two scenes like bookends, sandwiching the film into the familiar Friedkin terms.

As the film gets ready to head into the final confrontation between good and evil, we are confronted with another “situation.”  Through a series of incidents involving the Spear of Destiny and Mexico, Angela has now become possessed. Once again, an exorcism is needed. Constantine begins the exorcism; laying hands on Angela, with his young apprentice Chas looking on. Within the comic book, Chas is a character about 20-30 years older than he is in the film, and he couldn’t care less about anything mystical or magical except for possibly trying to decipher where he might find a good pint. In Lawrence’s interpretation, he is approximately 20 years younger than Constantine, with an eagerness and fan-doration for Constantine that would leave most Harry Potter lovers in the dust. However, the way the two characters are positioned in the film is not unlike the way that Father Karras and Father Merrin are positioned, age difference included, in The Exorcist.

As the exorcism continues, it becomes clear that Constantine needs assistance, as Angela’s belly is looking like it might repeat a scene from Alien. So the young apprentice begins to chant along with his mentor, their voices rising in volume and power. The exorcism continues, an older and a younger exorcist, combining their powers to banish Satan from the body of the innocent Catholic girl.

The cadence of their voices practically mirrors that of Father Damien Karras and Father Lankester Merrin in the 1973 film. In those final thrilling scenes of Friedkin’s piece, the possessed young girl is eradicated of her demons by the powers of actors Jason Miller and Max Von Sydow repeating with increasing volume, “The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!” and chanting over her body with all their might. Eventually, the spirit is exorcised from little Regan and inhabits Father Karras, who, in a final act of self-sacrifice, throws himself out the window in order to exterminate the demon from the innocent form and the mortal plane. Poor guy… No one told him there would be sequels…

Karras, the younger priest, and Chas, the apprentice, are parallel characters in that they both provide a central act of self-sacrifice in the face of evil. After Constantine and Chas succeed in ridding Angela of her demons, so to speak, Chas looks up at Constantine and smiles broadly. “We did it!!!” he exclaims, with great joy, at which point we are witness to his body being suddenly torn away from Angela and Constantine, and smashed again and again and again into the ceiling with great invisible force, and dropped to the ground like a rag doll. Just before Chas expires, however, he has the opportunity to utter the most unintentionally appropriate line in the whole film. He looks up at Constantine who has run to his bleeding and broken body, and says haltingly, “It’s not like the books, is it John?” To which John replies, “No, Chas, it’s not.” Although this was referring to a previous conversation the two characters had had, what this line really does is give a full disclosure of how this film, with its familial ties to other films and divergent issues of faith and culture really is “not like the books.”

We have cast John Constantine in the bifurcated roll of exorcist as well as Judeo-Christian representative. Through this introduction, and a little boost from a film so well recognized as to become part of common parlance and culture[8], the character of John Constantine is marked within a set of primarily Catholic terms. The problem of this demarcation is that this is not who this character has been defined as, within the pages of the comic. In fact, this definition is about as far from Hellblazer as you can get. Indeed, as one fan of the comic noted in an online forum discussion,

John Constantine has given the Judeo-Christian god the finger, outwitted the devil on his own battlefield, pissed on the king of vampires in a drunken victory, and can con any man into giving him a smoke. That is who John Constantine has always been. True, he may have sought small redemptions. After all, he is human. But the…storyline depends so much on mythos other than that derived from the Judeo-Christian point of view.[9]

BETTER THE DEVILS AND THE ANGELS YOU KNOW

The Hellblazer universe, borne out of Alan Moore’s run of Swamp Thing, was never meant for such reductive measures as were given by the film. Yes, it is a comic text that wheels and deals in religious iconography. In fact, any given run contains more religious issues than an episode of the 700 Club. However, unlike that show, it does not concentrate on religioN, it concentrates on religionS. Where Lawrence went monotheistic for the sake of easy audience digestion, the multiple authors of Hellblazer went pluralistic, indicting and exploring any aspect of the larger concept of capital “R,” Religion that they saw fit to print. Hellblazer was impartial when it came to the treatment of religion and spirituality. Linking Margaret Thatcher and demon yuppies in one story, discussing figures from Chilean folklore like the invunche in another, and following witchcraft-bound killers in yet another, John Constantine had no proclivity towards any particular brand. Thus, by casting him in the role of freelance exorcist/ Father Merrin surrogate/ Catholic superhero, the foundation and real substance of the comic is eradicated, leaving nothing but a phantom of what had previously existed.

So, in the end, what happens when you base your film on a theology and religious narrative that is so disparate from what this character has ever been or done in the originating material?  The answer can be found within the pages of the film reviews. To use one of the oldest and most easily accessible stories within our myth-laden culture, the battle between good and evil, may be easier, but it is also lazy. And the laziness showed. Very few reviews from this film were positive, whether the writer had read the parent text or not. Sure, the establishment of a protagonist that plays to what Max Braden called “Catholic Rules Sinball”[10] creates an easy entrance to the film for a non-comic-reading public. However, in the end, it hurts the cinematic translation as well as the comic book world. Indeed, as Barb Lien-Cooper accurately observed,

    Bad reviews of comic book movies reflect badly on all comic book movies and, by a VERY slight extension, all comic books. When you read the reviews of Constantine, notice if and when the critics talk about the fact it’s a comic book…The easiest way for the comic book boom to go bust is to produce movies that make the public feel that all comics must be as bad as the movie adaptations. We can’t coast on the good will of the Spider-man movies, the two X-Men movies, The Road to Perdition, Ghost World, and American Splendor forever.[11]

And she’s right. Creating a ghost-adaptation like Constantine is not only damaging to the newly-established genre of comic book films, a genre only now able to start exploring its capabilities, but it also endangers the comic book community at large. Indeed, if it has taken us this long to establish ourselves as “real literature,” a film that erases the truly admirable aspects of the comic book is only going to make the struggle for recognition that much harder.


[1] Lawrence, Francis. Special Features “Conjuring Constantine.”Constantine. DVD. Warner Brothers, 2005.

[2] Ellis, Warren. Introduction. “We Never Liked You Anyway.” in Ennis, Garth. John Constantine, Hellblazer: Fear and Loathing. New York: DC Comics, 1997.

[3] Vega-Rasner, Lauren. “Blood Letters and Badmen: Brian Azzarello.” Sequential Tart. Volume 2, Issue 8. August 1999. http://www.sequentialtart.com/archive/aug99/azzarello.shtml

[4] Franklin, Garth. “Constantine: Set Report.” February 20th, 2004. http://www.darkhorizons.com/news04/const2.php

[6] Genette, Gerard. Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

[7] Shuler-Donner, Lauren. Special Features. “Conjuring Constantine.”Constantine. DVD. Warner Brothers, 2005.

[8] Films such as Scary Movie 2 and Repossessed as well as TV shows like “The Simpsons” and “Saturday Night Live” have all make liberal use of the original Friedkin film.

[9] Big_chris, “Constantine” http://www.popcultureshock.com/reviews.php?id=3882, accessed November 11, 2006.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

No comments yet.

Comments RSS TrackBack Identifier URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s