How to Make a GOOD John Constantine TV Show
A cigarette smoking man steps out of the shadows in a long trench coat. If he’s near so is trouble. He’ll either save you or use you, or both. His name is John Constantine. He speaks in a Scouse accent and you strongly suspect he’s trying to manipulate you already, but he’s so charming and relatable. It’s hard to believe this cynical adrenaline addict is the enemy of all evil the underworld can muster…
There have been two attempts to adapt the Vertigo Hellblazer comic series to live action; a loose adaptation for film and a slightly less loose adaptation for TV. Neither succeeded critically or financially and neither succeeded as adaptations of the tone and style of the original comic.
Where did they go wrong? The film was so different from the original comic (it featured an American John Constantine, rather than a Scouse one) that it may as well have gone the whole distance to become an original property. The TV show was set in America with the only character that was still English being Constantine, not even loyal sidekick Chas kept his own identity, let alone mystical love interest Zed. Rather than have a conman gently make his way through both human and supernatural threats, he toured US towns literally running about casting spells during rituals. It may as well have been Supernatural but with less guns, bravdo and fun.
What was wrong with this approach? It had none of John Constantine or his comic’s personality. What should a potential TV show about John Constantine be then?
Hellblazer is about a Scouse conman, initially living in the ‘80s, who doesn’t battle demons, but merely tricks them (through cunningly worded loop-hole ridden verbal contracts) to delay bigger pains. There are no battles, merely a non-heroic man who must muddle his way through the ennui of life as much as avoiding going to hell.
It should be set primarily in London in the ‘80s (and will progress in time) thus able to comment reliably on the past and comment on the present without inaccurate broad statements that lack the benefit of hindsight. The comic was as much about surviving contemporary British politics and culture as it was the forces of darkness. In fact the right-wing culture of Britain was very much portrayed as one of those forces of darkness.
Now obviously you can’t have it exactly like the comic, which would neither be practical nor appropriate for the television format. It can’t be John mostly moping about for entire stories moaning internally about Thatcher as it was in many Garth Ennis and Jamie Delano stories. You need something more.
So take the community centric ‘Northampton Arms’ (from an early Garth Ennis story) and have the main characters interact there. A nice pub portrayed as a safe refuge from politics and hell.
Here John can interact more happily with characters, such as Chas, and it gives a good context for gossip to spread and plots to be established. John doesn’t search for problems, neither is he a detective who is approached; he gets intrigued by what he hears on the grapevine. Also the eventual payoff of the Northampton arms being burned down will have an emotional impact and provide future plotlines. For example John and his friends could gang together in an attempt to rebuild the pub and keep that community alive, thus they’d face further financial woe.
At its core Hellblazer was about the forces of hell being analogies for real societal problems intermixed with the direct portrayal of said societal problems. Characters had AIDs, hated the Tories, were on the dole and had to survive on cons. Moral ambiguity was threaded into every aspect of the story and character work. Hellblazer is about a world where life is a malaise of unwinnable battles made liveable by laughter, alcohol and sex. The show should embrace those elements of the comic alongside its British routes.
A lax approach to arc structure (not much demon stuff happens) will allow longer arcs based around iconic plots of the comics. Storylines such as; The Fear Machine, The Family Man, Dangerous Habits, Royal Blood and so on. These stories are all slow burners, involving demons, British society and cause drastic changes to John’s character. These would incorporate the Northampton arms and allow changes of scenery to prevent the show becoming stale when appropriate. For example The Fear Machine largely occurs within the confines of a hippie commune in the English and Scottish countryside. ‘Monster-of-the-week’ stories are difficult to sustain in the contemporary TV landscape, the recent Constantine TV show attempt demonstrated this aptly. A few simple demonic threats in the context of real human drama played out slowly. At its best the comic dealt out great dollops of gradual set up which led to arc finales involve genius pay off in the simplicity of John’s long cons. It certainly isn’t believable to have John elude the forces of hell every single week with similar shtick.
However, would making this show being viable with such a niche approach?
US networks don’t like making shows set in the UK, that much is repeatedly obvious. The ratings would be low so the show would have to be cheap. However it wouldn’t be hard to make modern London look like ‘80s London, nor the creepy villages and countryside John would occasionally visit. With the core sets being a city pub and a scummy flat of John’s, creating the sets would be cheap.
What about visual effects? With an arc heavy approach to plot with only a handful of supernatural threats handled per season the number of visual effects sequences would be low. Given that John will be conning the demons through verbal trickery rather than overt spell use, even those visual effects will be low key.
Arguably if going for a semi-kitchen sink drama tone one doesn’t have to hire notable actors. In fact it may be best to take a social realist approach of hiring believable amateur actors who come from the locations in which the show is set. Genuine people with genuine accents and lived experiences. As a genre show no one would be expecting Emmy levels of acting anyway. Besides anyone with even a passing experience in the social realist film genre knows this can lead to exceptional performances regardless of non-existent acting training.
Call the show Hellblazer. Get a real blonde Scouser to play John Constantine. Set it in ‘80s Britain; specifically London/Liverpool and every point between there. Keep the conflicts character and reality based. Keep the demonic conflicts low-key and slow paced. Have Constantine survive through wit and manipulation, not flashy spell-casting. Show honest working class lives full of bitterness, drugs and drink, sex and humour. Keep the tone believable and almost reassuring, but deliver on the emotional gut punches.