As a Hellblazer reader with very strong opinions about adaptations, I wasn’t planning to watch the trailer for NBC’s upcoming Constantine. However, the reactions to it across my social media networks were pretty positive, so I thought I should give it a chance.
Immediate reactions to the trailer, in real time:
If this is set in the present day, there’s no reason for Ravenscar to look like old-school Arkham Asylum.
Three things I know about John Constantine:
- He does not work as a professional exorcist.
- He does not have a business card reading “John Constantine: Exorcist, Demonologist and Master of the Dark Arts.”
- He would not have a business card at all. Business cards are for the legitimate, and John Constantine does not consider himself legitimate. Also, “Master of the Dark Arts”? I must have missed the story arc where he taught at Hogwarts.
Accent status: South Welsh.
Constantine said “Bollocks!” to show that he is a cheeky Brit. The Constantine I know is less cheeky and much more self-loathing. Accent status: generic British.
Maybe this is because I grew up in a hand-raising, speaking-in-tongues church, but the exorcism scene reminds me of our post-service prayer times more than anything else (up until the woman flies backwards through the air, that is).
More cheeky Brit times: “Ooh, ‘ello.” Accent status: ??
BASED ON THE DC COMIC HELLBLAZER [IN THE LOOSEST LEGAL SENSE OF “BASED ON”]
What is going on with that accent? Constantine is from Liverpool, which is actually important to his character and the plot (more on this later). Or give him some Cockneyage, depending on which author’s run you’re going with. Garth Ennis sure liked making him say “luv.” But the Baelishesque generic-British with occasional touches of Welsh is bizarre.
Hey, look, it’s Harold Perrineau! I sure hope there are other black people in this show, because casting a lone black actor as a demon is pretty questionable. On another note, it appears that Perrineau has not aged at all since Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet.
Accent status: the Midlands, possibly.
“Look around. There are men in fedoras everywhere, pretending to be mysterious.”
I know Constantine has been to America many times, but do we really have to set everything there? There are many things I picture him with, such as cigarettes, booze, and an occasional crippling sense of failure; a blue pickup truck is really not one of them. Did the producers get confused by True Blood and assume that all edgy supernatural shows have to feature pickup trucks?
“The sacred Cross commands you.” Accent status: back to South Wales. And we’re done!
That sure was action-y. A fun show about a cocky Brit fighting evil, just in time for the fall lineup — not that there’s anything wrong with that per se. It’s just not a great adaptation of Hellblazer: too flashy, too standard-issue, too … I hate to say this, but too American.
However, my question is less “Why does US media have to Americanize everything?” and more “Why didn’t British TV pick this up?”
Of course US media Americanizes everything, especially for TV. US TV is made with an American audience in mind, and I doubt that NBC wanted to spend too much time delving into the history of Margaret Thatcher’s time in office.
But given the reception of Utopia and shows such as This is England and My Mad Fat Diary, the late-80s setting of early Hellblazer — post-punk, pre-Britpop, the Thatcher years — would have made a perfect period drama for British TV (especially now that a Conservative government is in power again).
The first run of Hellblazer, written by Jamie Delano from 1988-1991–the run that drew in its initial readers and defined Constantine as we know him — is an unsubtle howl of betrayal, bitterness and fear. It suggested that Britain was being destroyed by those who embodied it: Constantine himself describes the country as “eat[ing]its own heart.”
This was the era that spawned Threads and the heart-shriveling When the Wind Blows, and several storylines from the initial run of Hellblazer deal with Britain’s nuclear facilities. In issue 18, an old woman has a waking nightmare of encountering a cannibal called “Bombsite Bill”, and a young boy dreams of living near the nuclear facility Sellafield and contracting cancer: “He knows that the cancer is coming for him — slowly dragging its ghastly, shapeless body across the fields and into the back-gardens. Soon it will find him and suck out his juice and leave him dry and thin. It’s going to hurt him.”
But this potentially destructive future is preceded by a state of decay — and here’s where the fact that Constantine is from Liverpool becomes important. After riots occurred in the city in 1981, Thatcher’s government suggested evacuating Liverpool, even though it’s one of Britain’s major cities, and leaving it in “managed decline.” Several high-level officials even argued that spending money to revitalize Liverpool was essentially pointless; a request for £100 million a year for just two years was “met with a paltry offer of £15m.”
Constantine is also the former front man of a now-defunct rock band in the days after punk and, initially, before Britpop, from a city that came close to being left to die by the current government. Even his name suggests the end of an era; Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople, which is thought by many to have led to Rome’s fall. Hellblazer’s protagonist is a walking symbol of decline.
However, the other side of 80s badness — hyper-consumption — also inhabits the darkness of Hellblazer. The first demon that Constantine encounters, Mnemoth, creates an overwhelming hunger within its victims and causes them to consume anything they can; however, they can never get enough to eat, and so starve to death. This hunger spreads from person to person, so that anyone within a victim’s orbit will become victims themselves. It’s as good a metaphor for 80s greed as any.
There are also more pointedly political analogies between demons and Thatcherism. In one issue, Constantine goes into a bar full of Young Conservative yuppie types who all turn out to be demons. A famous panel depicts Constantine hanging upside down after a fight with a demon and watching the Conservatives gain a majority, with a text box reading, “Like I said, there’s more than one road to Hell.”
What sticks with me more than the obvious political critique, though, is the symbolic: a demon manifesting as a swarm of flies to devour a man; a hellbeast made of the fused bodies of football hooligans, which Constantine manages to trick into fighting itself by pointing out that its tattoos support rival teams. It’s the ugly side of Britain punching itself into oblivion. This is what attracted me to Hellblazer, and what could make a TV adaptation of the series great. But for any of these aspects of the series to work on screen, it has to stay in Britain.