How Hard Is it to Keep ‘Constantine’ True to the Comics?

As the "Constantine" pilot begins filming, fans are arguing about whether it's important for the character to retain vices such as smoking on-screen. Is it really that hard to create an adaptation of the character that stays true to the comics?

Mar 18, 2014 at 8:21AM

Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) NBC is moving ahead with the pilot for its upcoming show "Constantine," based on the comics "Hellblazer" and "Constantine" by Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) DC Comics (and its Vertigo publishing imprint). Previously adapted in a 2005 film of the same name starring Keanu Reeves, that adaptation failed to find a large audience and was criticized for a number of significant deviations from the source material.

NBC seems to want to stick much closer to the original comics for its telling of the story, though the network is already coming under fire for shifting the setting from London to New York City. Some fans say that the network should just directly adapt the comics, or at least come as close to it as possible. Is it really that simple, though?

Being John Constantine
In the comics, Constantine was a blonde-haired British chain-smoking cynic who likes to drink. When the first cast photos from the filming of the pilot appeared on the safety awareness tribute site "Slates for Sarah," Matt Ryan was seen in costume as Constantine for the first time and looked fairly spot-on for the part. There were no cigarettes in sight, though that doesn't necessarily mean anything given that the pictures were cast-and-crew shots and not actually part of the pilot's filming.

Of course, there's more to being a character than just looking right in costume. John Constantine has several habits that are core to his character, and some of those might be harder to translate to the small screen.

Sticking to the comics
Executive producer David S. Goyer stated in an interview with I Am Rogue a week before shooting started that the show "clings more closely to the source material than the film did." This doesn't mean a perfect translation from the comics, however. When asked whether the character would smoke, for example, he stated that they were still negotiating that with NBC, even though the pilot was slated to start shooting the following week. 

This has led to an ongoing debate among fans of the character, some of whom feel that stripping out his smoking habit will reduce the impact of the adaptation. They argue that part of Constantine's appeal is that he's such a deeply flawed character, and his constant smoking is one of the more obvious examples of his hedonism. Unfortunately, creating a 100% comic-accurate depiction of John Constantine isn't necessarily a priority for NBC.

Realities of the business
Unfortunately, there are a number of factors that influence what NBC can and can't do in "Constantine." The smoking issue is a good example. Networks typically don't like to show smoking on TV because of complaints that they are glamorizing the habit, which could in turn scare away advertisers or otherwise impact advertising revenue.

NBC also falls under the jurisdiction of the FCC, so it must abide by FCC regulations or risk being fined for inappropriate content. Given the subject matter that "Constantine" will deal with, it's likely that it will have some complaints lodged against it with the FCC anyway; if the network feels that planned material would push it too close to violating the FCC's rules, it simply won't allow it in the show.

Likewise, the network's primarily American target audience is much more likely to be familiar with the sights and locales of New York City than London or other locations in the U.K.; as a result, the setting of the series was moved to the United States in an attempt to appeal to a larger audience than just fans of the comics. While this does open the door for potentially interesting U.S.-based cameos such as Swamp Thing in Louisiana, the change was a business decision first and foremost.

Can it still be a hit?
As NBC has shown with "Hannibal," it isn't afraid to push a few boundaries in regard to content. Despite this, there are still lines that the studio won't want to cross since they could negatively affect advertising revenue or bring about fines from the FCC. Walking this line with "Constantine" will result in a series that isn't completely accurate to the comics, but that should be much closer to them than the Keanu Reeves film was.

These departures won't be all bad, however. In addition to providing opportunities for cameos from Vertigo and DC Comics supernatural characters, they should also help the show appeal to a wider audience. The more viewers "Constantine" has, the more opportunities it will have to capture the magic of the comics for fans and new viewers alike.

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