Preacher coming to HBO

Okay, there’s been a trifle too much dicking about the marsh lately and not nearly enough blogging. That’s about to change. For one thing, I’m going to cease restricting myself to lengthy reviews and make this the more encompassing blog I originally planned it to be, with news stories of note, links to great articles, and so forth.

The most surprising news of the last week was the announcement that HBO are developing an ongoing series based on Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher comic series for DC/Vertigo, which wrapped in 2000 after 66 issues telling of former priest Jesse Custer’s mission to literally find God, who has abandoned Heaven and whom Jesse believes must be taken to task for his wrongdoing. Jesse has been possessed by Genesis, spawn of an angel and a demon, which allows him to command anyone to do anything, and he employs The Word on an intermittent road trip with fugitive girlfriend Tulip and Irish vampire Cassidy.

A concept like that is controversial enough in itself, but Ennis and Dillon are famed for their uncompromising violence and depraved humour, which has no equal, at least in mainstream comics. I’ve read the first two volumes of the series, and it’s among the most confronting things I’ve read. I honestly don’t know what to make of it, but I suspect that the grotesque and decidedly unsubtle veneer is a sleight of hand for Ennis’ more sophisticated commentary about organised religion. Preacher has certainly attracted enough praise from various circles to support this, but until I read the whole thing I’ll have to remain uncertain while being guiltily entertained by the lengths Ennis take things to. And they are long

A movie adaptation was in the works for a while, but fan consensus was that an HBO series was the only way to faithfully translate the story, given its content. Lo and behold, here it is, and I’m genuinely shocked – I expected the underwhelming critical response to Carnivale and its subsequent cancellation would have put HBO off the supernatural for quite a while, and Carnivale was much more allusive than Preacher; if critics didn’t respond to that, I can’t imagine the response that Preacher will receive, especially given the content. If even a few of Ennis’s setpieces are preserved for the show, they will rank among the most horrendous things ever broadcast on American television – I’m amazed even Vertigo allowed some of it through. HBO has picked one hell of an incendiary property here, although this does suit their stated desire for originality – “it’s not TV, it’s HBO”. But Preacher could be bold in a far less beneficial sense.

Plus, they haven’t hired a promising team. HBO have prided themselves on recruiting visionary creators with proven artistic track records – even The Wire‘s East Coast creator David Simon had the Emmy-winning and hugely praised mini-series The Corner behind him. The Preacher pilot will be scripted by Mark Steven Johnson (writer-director of the drubbed Daredevil and the potentially woeful Ghost Rider) and directed by Howard Deutch (director of comedies like Pretty in Pink and the Grumpy Old Men films, also written by Johnson). These names are not remotely prestigious or evidently appropriate for a show like Preacher. But then, HBO has never adapted an existing property for an ongoing series before (although this is shocking in itself), so I suppose the previous rules don’t apply: vision is not a prime requirement since the story is already out there. But I’m still surprised that HBO went to these guys for one of their dramas, regardless of its origins. Perhaps they’ll surprise us. We won’t know until it’s on the air.

But this development reminds me of my dilemma about comic adaptations, particularly of long-form narrative comics like Preacher and The Sandman. A movie will be too short and could only hope to capture the original’s spirit, but the freedom of an ongoing TV show could be similarly redundant: we already have this story in episodic form, and to hew too close to the original telling begs the question of ‘why do it at all?’ Religiously faithful translations almost always seem superfluous since they have failed to justify themselves as separate texts and often because they have not modified the book to suit a visual medium. The turgid, overlong Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a recent example of this, which then gave way to the tighter, more cinematic Prisoner of Azkaban. Johnson does not appear to have heeded this though. From Sci-Fi Wire:

“I gave [HBO] the comics, and I said, ‘Every issue is an hour.’ And it’s exactly the book. … I had my meeting yesterday, and [Preacher creator] Garth Ennis is on the phone, and we’re all in the room, and Garth is like, ‘You don’t have to be so beholden to the comic.’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, no. It’s got to be like the comic.’ So that’s what’s so brilliant about it.”

Granted, it must be thrilling to be able to preserve a cherished text on screen, but when the author tells you to be less adherent to it, you should listen. Comics and television share an episodic format, so to merely film the existing episodes becomes redundant, especially on a network of HBO’s proven calibre and creative flexibility – they would let you do something new. But they are very different mediums anyway, and to merely film the comics will likely result in an undead facsimile rather than a worthy alternate text; the effect will be similar to a direct translation of prose without the translator modifying the result to create coherency. To transform a text for another medium is not to betray it, but in many cases to be more faithful by recognising what makes it universal and making the necessary changes for the new delivery mechanism, in this case television. The crucial flaw of Johnson’s Daredevil film was that his passion for the material overrode his judgement about what would work in cinema and what wouldn’t – among other things, supervillain posturing is easier to get away with on the page than when an actor has to deliver the lines. Will Johnson’s love of Preacher blind him from doing it the greater service, which is to prove its value by modifying it for the screen rather than exposing it to the accusation that it is merely a comics curiosity that does not belong outside of those pages? First it has to get to series though, so we won’t have to wonder for a while yet.

But this may partly tie into my increasing ambivalence regarding adaptations for film and television, particularly of comics. Since both media are both visual and written, to adapt a graphic novel or a long-form self-contained comic series for the screen potentially belittles them, implying that film can capitalise upon these glorified storyboards and do them better justice. But check out Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics for a revelatory explanation of why comics are unique, and why film adaptations are even less worth the trouble than those of a prose novel. With an iconic visual text like Watchmen, I’m torn between the tremendous promise for the film version that is Zack Snyder and an inner scream that a movie is completely bloody pointless, not just because of the original’s complexity (most novels cannot be wholly preserved in that sense on film either) but because the story is so carefully constructed as a comic that a film, even an HBO mini-series as many have called for, could only be a strange, parallel-universe monster incarnation of the story. As much as I liked V for Vendetta, this nagging demand of ‘what’s the point?’ arose while watching it and still does. But this is all an essay for another time…

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