Truly we live in a cross-media Golden Age, where anything from any medium can find new life and wider fandom in a different format.
Basically, if it can be adapted from a comic or a book or a video game or someone’s stupid Twitter Feed it can be transformed into a television show or movie.
The zenith of this are the television adaptions of A Song of Ice and Fire (renamed A Game of Thrones after the first book in the still running series) & The Walking Dead as well Marvel & DC’s various superhero cross-media “events”.
Unfortunately this means that with so many adaptations filling so many screens, the quality & which parts of the narratives they choice to follow as well as which characters they may change or cut various from production to production. More often than not fans of the original medium are angry &/or disappointed that they favourite scene, character or story arc has been either cut or changed beyond all recognition. After sci-fi series The Expanse had run its first season I was going to write an article about how the show completely race-washed, turning minor characters white for no other reason then TV producers prefer white people on screen because they perceive their audience to still be almost all white. I shit-canned the article because of crippling mental health issues but the arguments stayed with me.
When an adaptation diverts or completely diverges from its source material, it often creates a schism in the fan base. With the source material purists on one side decrying the changes as they wrest their shirts and beat their manboobs and the new/adaptation fans being blessed in their supposed ignorance of what they are missing out whilst being deprived of the original greatness (from the view of the members of 1st camp).
Yet there are many reasons for altering material within an adaptation that go beyond mere culturally ingrained racism. These have to go with keeping costs down, having to fit things within time/broadcast restraints as well as basic ignorance of the people doing the adapting. These harsh practicalities often mean that sections of the audience are left lamenting what they may never see or what never was yet they are crucial to how an adaptation is both produced and viewed by a wider audience. Obviously there are issues with not including important material from the source but if the adaptation is handled well, all that is cut or changed is not truly missed.
This brings us onto AMC’s last comicbook adaptation (the other being the widely popular The Walking Dead), Preacher.
Preacher was a seminal work from writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillion as part of DC’s “mature” publication line, Vertigo, made (in)famous by how far Ennis was willing to push the idea of the grotesque, violence and the absurd (three trademarks of Ennis’ work). There had been previous adaptations in the works over the years, some even making into pre-production phases, but it wasn’t until 2013 when Hollywood uber nerd (and stoner) Seth Rogen had teamed up with AMC to produce a pilot of a series. Cut to 3 years later & the results are finally on our screen.
The short of it is, that the story surrounding Preacher is about titular preacher, Jesse Custer, being possessed by an entity called Genesis, the infantile product of breeding between a devil and an angel, that has escaped from a furious God, granting Jesse the ability to verbally command almost anyone around him to do, literally, what he says. This power bring him into conflict with forces divine and mundane who either want it for themselves or wish to see it destroyed. So he travels the US with his arsekicking ex-girlfriend, Tulip, & charming rogue-cum-scumbag Irish vampire, Cassidy.
Rogen & his writing/producing partners Even Goldberg and Sam Catlin obviously have a lot of love for the original comic but does not mean that they are not willing to make changes where they feel they are necessary or interesting.
The greatest toxic stain on any adaptation or franchise are those directors & writers who both adhere vehemently to the source material yet make drastic changes which make no thematic or narrative sense for the sake of a shiny visual or action scene. Zach Snyder is fundamentally the king for doing such things, so it is refreshing to see how Preacher’s creative team have handled their changes to the source.
One thing that riled a lot fans up was the casting of Ruth Negga (known mainly for being Raina in Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD), born of Ethiopian and Irish parents, as Tulip in a case of what some net-dwellers called “reverse whitewashing”. Some people genuinely can’t handle a known character being turned from white into another race yet have no qualms about it going the other way (this is why I term to be examples of Cultural Paradigm & Cutural Privilege). Yet in complaining they fail to see how well Negga captures the essence of Tulip, in her brutal creativity, capacity for violence yet her utterly caring nature. The scene in which we are introduced to her is kept lighthearted in how she teaches two small children how to make a bazooka out of household items, metal toy soldiers & cornshine but never denies that she’s a force to be reckoned with. Negga’s ownership of the character is impressive, even down to how she gets her Texan regional drawl, but never once does she feel like she has been changed for a misguided sense of tokenism.
In fact, it is how much the actors who play the central characters inhabit their roles which makes Preacher such an impressive adaptation.
Dominic Cooper (who is known for playing Howard Stark in Marvel films & TV series) plays Jesse Custer & you would swear that he was a native Texan with how well he performs the accent. There is no trace of English civility within him, replaced with a broken scene of Americanism that’s a fettered mix of faith & violence. Within the first scenes you know that Jesse is a man who is running away from something, whilst trying to do his best but not his hardest for the small & exceedingly backwards/redneck community to which he has returned after a long, unexplained absence. Cooper plays Jesse as a man seething with an underlying sense of helpless & rage, trying not to fall back into old habits but struggling with keeping the moral high ground against people without any sense of shame or even human decency to their fellow man.
He’s joined by Joe Gilgun as the Irish vampire Cassidy, portraying him, ironically enough, as full of life. Cassidy is the embodiment of hedonism & self destructive behaviour all cloaked within the guise of roguish charm, to which Gilgun plays up with utter aplomb. His accent is flawless, especially reflecting the speed in which Irish people can talk when they’re spinning up a tale. Gilgun plays Cassidy as a man without a plan but confident that he can get out of any situation he finds himself stuck in through a combination of disarming charm, ingenuity & extreme violence -as depicted in his fight scene on a private jet. His involvement with and meeting of Jesse is a little tenuous but plays off well as Cassidy sees Jesse as both a kindred spirit & a source of entertainment who can provide him with shelter from the sun & whomever he’s happened to have pissed off.
The strong trinity of Negga, Cooper and Gilgun pushes the pilot episode through despite how it changes so much from the original comics, such as introducing the character of Eugene Root way earlier than he should’ve been but the young actor Ian Colletti portrays what would otherwise be a pathetic character as one nuanced with hope, shame & fragility at how he is perceived by those around him.
This is a series that I have good hopes for, especially by the impact made by the first episode.
The episode itself exists to set up basic context with the three lead characters without flooding the viewer with an over abundance of background information, played out against an invisible force from deep space (as seen in an incredible retro sci-fi B film opening) that is possessing & destroying high ranking members of the global religious community (including a Russian high priest of the Church of Satan & Tom Cruise delivering a Scientology sermon). The focus is primarily on Jesse as he struggles & fails to be the moral centre for a highly immoral community, constantly beset by members of his congregation, like mother issue swamped Ted, & their personal issues. This is reflected in how a young boy asks Jesse is hurt his dad because he beats up his mum, with Jesse laying out how things escalated when resorting to violence but fully knowing that the other authorities in town will do nothing to prevent the abuse & that often violence is the only answer to a bad situation. This is constantly brought up in how other characters, such as the sheriff & Tulip, bring up his past & bad reputation within the town -mainly by referring to how he is no longer acting like he used to. It’s all brought to a head by Tulip’s return to recruit Jesse into what one would assume to be a major crime & Cassidy crashing out of the sky only to stumble into a bar where Jesse drinks away his emotional pain.
The episode as a whole does not take itself too seriously but does not disrespect the audience or actors by playing up serious scenes or ideas by being silly, self conscious or giving any knowing winks of fan service. It plays with comicbook convention & loose scene/time transitions as well the hyper-realised violence & yet does not over play the jokes. This is seen from the opening scene of an African minister exploding over his congregation you are well aware that this will be a show that indulges, like the original comic, in the grotesquity & absurd idea of violence without flashing up nudity ever 20 minutes (which is Game of Thrones greatest failing, replacing drama with tits & now cock). There is even a lack of foul language, despite the gory violence, which is a little surprising but well done in its own way.
This is so refreshing when we are caught in such a glut of cross-media adaptations, where things are being turned into movies or TV shows before their even published or dragged out or transformed beyond recognition of the original. Preacher touches the high watermarks of other series like Game of Thrones or Marvel’s work with Netflix where it keeps largely faithful to the source but isn’t afraid to venture out when new ideas are needed.
Time will basically tell if a wider audience will be willing to adopt another comicbook adaptation for the small screen -especially one from the 90’s before a large section of the audience weren’t alt-pop culture consumers. If the actors & production team keep up with what they provided in the pilot & stick to the spirit of the comics then it will be easily adored by others. Yet if they decide to swerve away from the cores of the characters & narrative, especially what sets both apart from other series out there, then it will more than likely be dropped quicker than a sci-fi series on Fox.