My only firsthand experience with John Constantine was the Keanu Reeves movie. I knew it was based on the Hellblazer comic books and it had changed quite a lot, but I thought it was a cool movie and Francis Lawrence was a good director. However, since I’m a member of the Television Critics Association, I got an early copy of the pilot for this fall’s Constantine show on NBC. I took my privilege seriously and made it my responsibility to see how this version got the comic books right.
NBC’s Constantine got a hell(blazer) of a lot more right than the movie did. In a lot of ways, it’s a little easier when they may have 22 episodes to explore the character and they don’t have to whittle it down to a two-hour movie. But in bringing John Constantine to network television, the show had to wuss out on a few things. It just changed different stuff. So here are five things NBC’s Constantine got right, and on page two, five that are still wrong. Spoilers for the movie, some of the comics and the new pilot follow. Also, this is not a review – just an informational preview.
5. He’s British and Blond
Matt Ryan as John Constantine
The hair color may be superficial, but the English accent was a pretty big deal. When Warner Brothers landed megastar Keanu “Whoa” Reeves for Constantine, they adapted the role to him and not vice versa. I will be a Keanu defender until the day I die, but when you look at all the shit he took for Much Ado About Nothing and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it was easier to just make him American. They also didn’t make him dye his surfer dude hair.
TV’s John Constantine is played by Matt Ryan, a natural Brit from Wales. He’s actually one of the few British actors on television who doesn’t have to do an American accent now. He did dye his hair blond though, so he looks a lot more like John Ridgway’s initial art and the artists who came after, especially when he puts on that trenchcoat. Oh yeah, he’s got a trenchcoat too.
4. He’s in Ravenscar As a Grown-Up.
John Constantine at Ravenscar
The Keanu movie did incorporate Ravenscar Psychiatric Facility for the Mentally Deranged (without the un-PC “mentally deranged” part). Keanu’s John Constantine had been there as a kid getting ECT treatments, and it’s where Isabel Dodson (Rachel Weisz) was committed when she killed herself. That’s not quite how Ravenscar plays into Constantine’s story, though.
The pilot opens with John residing in Ravenscar, receiving ETC treatments as his adult self. According to Constantine comics, these lasted three months, to be exact, and a Vertigo regular confirms John has been with him for three months. Robert Huntoon, also known as Roger “Piggy” Huntoon in some Swamp Thing comics, got promoted to a doctor at Ravenscar in the comics, a position he still holds in the show. Ravenscar is back in England, not relocated to Los Angeles like in the movie.
3. Chas Is not Shia Labeouf.
Technically, Shia did not play Constantine’s faithful friend Chas Chandler. He played some guy named Chas Kramer who drove a taxi and wanted to be an exorcist like Constantine. They also killed off Chas Kramer in his first mission and made him an angel in the post-credits easter egg, for a Constantine 2 (Constantine Too?) that never happened.
Matt Ryan’s Constantine is still friends with Chas Kramer, now played by the much more age appropriate Charles Halford. Seriously, what was Keanu doing hanging out with a then-teenaged Shia? I guess it wasn’t any creepier than Indiana Jones and Short Round. Now, the show still gives Chas some powers that he doesn’t have in the comic books, but the good news is he’s still around to bail Constantine out of trouble every week.
In addition to Chas and Dr. Huntoon, the Constantine show includes other characters from the Hellblazer comic book. Ritchie Simpson appears in the pilot as a metaphysics professor and former member of the Newcastle crew, just like in the comics. He helps out with some computer wizardry too, but will he become a demon by season three?
2. Dr. Fate’s Helmet
You’ll recognize that helmet when you watch Constantine
So when Constantine rescues Liv Aberdine (Lucy Griffiths), he takes her to her father’s secret library. While rummaging around and explaining various backstory and mythology, Liv picks up a familiar-looking helmet. The shape looks like Doctor Fate, although this version looks silver. Perhaps it’s all the rust from sitting in that abandoned library for so long.
Normally, these sorts of easter eggs are the things we usually like to let the fans discover, but the helmet showed up in a Canadian trailer, before it was removed from YouTube. Spoiler Warning, eh? Now that it’s out there, seeing a helmet is no guarantee Doctor Fate will appear on the show. The Flash had an easter egg about a familiar Flash foe too, but it will be easier to get some actor to wear the helmet than it will be to create that particular villain in The Flash.
1. Constantine Has the Right Backstory.
Demon from NBC’s Constantine
If you were a Hellblazer fan and watched the movie, you were probably surprised to learn that Constantine had committed suicide as a teen, and that’s why he was doomed to hell. That only happened to Keanu Constantine of the movie. His real problem is more complicated, and the show gets it right.
NBC’s John Constantine conducted an exorcism in which he lost a young girl’s soul. Only on the show, this happened last year, not in 1978 like the comic books, but we’ll give ’em that. We’re starting over in the present day. The girl’s name was Astra, just like in Hellblazer.
Also, John’s mother died in childbirth and his father resented him for it. Ryan says his father used to call him “killer,” which sounds new. So far, there’s no stillborn twin brother, but maybe John just hasn’t told us about that yet. Also, no living sister Cheryl, but maybe that’s someone they can cast in season five.
All that is a promising start for the new Constantine show, but we’ll also have to put up with a few new things in on the NBC show.
Atlanta burns in NBC’s Constantine
Now, this isn’t totally wrong, as John Constantine would travel the world, but it’s certainly a stretch that he would make the ATL his entire base of operations. But, an American show is likely going to be based in an American city and Atlanta offers some great tax rebates to make productions shoot there. Hey, it works for The Walking Dead.
The Constantine movie was set in Los Angeles, which is pretty rare for a modern movie given how expensive it is to shoot in Hollywood proper. London was surely out of the question; it took 24 nine years to get there. But hey, at least they didn’t make Constantine a southerner or hire Josh Lucas to play him with a drawl. He still comes from England, and traveled to Atlanta to rescue Liv.
4. Get Used to Some New Characters.
Harold Perrineau is Manny
The Constantine movie invented Angela and Isabel Dodson (both Rachel Weisz), and any weekly case Constantine might take would probably concoct some new characters who don’t appear in Hellblazer. NBC’s Constantine introduces a few newbz as part of its core cast though.
Constantine’s first case out of Ravenscar is Liv Aberdine, who is signed on to the show for the long haul. Liv’s father, Jasper Winters, is another name I don’t see in any issue of Hellblazer, and apparently John promised to protect his daughter. NBC also gave Constantine a guardian angel named Manny (Harold Perrineau). Manny could very well be the angel of exposition, but John does plenty of that himself, so we’ll see where this goes. At least someone’s got wings on the show.
3. Constantine Has Business Cards?
They actually released this still to the public.
This must have been a network note because it’s the silliest part of the pilot. John gives Dr. Huntoon a business card that labels him as “Exorcist, Demonologist and Master of the Dark Arts.” At least he makes a joke that he doesn’t deserve the title of master, but all three of those trades seem like word of mouth professions, not something you advertise.
So someone thought it was necessary to solidify Constantine’s profession on a piece of card stock. They haven’t given him a stillborn twin or a living sister, unless John was being very cagy when he explained his history to Liv, but he carries around business cards to, I guess, network among the underworld?
2. He Doesn’t Smoke.
Matt Ryan and Lucy Griffiths in Constantine
We knew this was going to be a problem. On network TV, you can’t show a character smoking. This is a positive message. Tobacco companies used to shill their cancer sticks in the middle of I Love Lucy and they’re not allowed to do that anymore, but networks also don’t want their heroes to be seen endorsing tobacco, even if they’re antiheroes.
This is going to make it very difficult to do the story arc where Constantine gets lung cancer. Even the movie did that. He does seem to drink a lot, so maybe they’ll give him liver disease instead. He’s only drinking beer though, so it might take a while. Unfortunately, non-smokers get lung cancer too, so that’s probably what we’ll be dealing with.
1. It’s Still Not Called Hellblazer.
Matt Ryan is Constantine
What’s wrong, can’t you say “hell” on TV? There was that show Hellcats. I assume that was about Lucifer’s feline army. Was the Keanu Reeves movie so popular that the title is more valuable than the badass sounding Hellblazer? True, there are comic book series named Constantine now, but Hellblazer is awesome.
Plus, if they called it Hellblazer, we wouldn’t have to keep explaining to people that this isn’t a show about Roman emperor Constantine the Great. Seriously, in the year leading up to the movie, Keanu Reeves interviews would say he was playing Constantine the Great in his next movie. No, NBC is not doing a period piece aboutgGladiators, although they should do that too. Just call this one Hellblazer. There’s still time. It doesn’t premiere until October! Change it; we won’t mind.
Also by Fred Topel