Thursday night, AMC screened the first episode of “Preacher,” based on the iconic '90s Vertigo comic – a thrilling, disgusting mash-up of action, horror, spirituality, and the films of John Ford – which will debut in late spring. Reviews are embargoed til closer to the premiere, but I can say the following things:
1)I laughed a lot, was very intrigued, and really want to see more;
2)While some characters (Tulip in particular) are perfect renditions of what we know from the comics, large swaths of the premiere (and what it seems to be setting up for the first season) barely resemble Garth Ennis's story from the comics;
3)I think that's exactly what Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Sam Catlin should have done, even if it's going to anger a lot of hardcore “Preacher” fans.
“Preacher” is a great comic, but one that seems unadaptable if you're trying to do a straightforward, faithful adaptation of what Ennis and Steve Dillon did on the page. The comic book covers so much ground in terms of tone, scope, gore, and blasphemy, that there's no real way to capture it all, even if the producers were somehow working with a huge budget and absolutely no content restrictions. So alterations were going to be necessary no matter what.
At press tour late Friday, the creators said part of the motivation to make changes came from each other, and part from Garth Ennis himself.
“We talked with Garth, and Garth very much encouraged us to make a lot of small changes and to make it a good show first and foremost,” said Goldberg. “Our big thing is we want fans who love the comic to get everything they want but also make some new twists and turns.”
“We are fans of the comic,” added Rogen. “We love the comic, and we are going to make a show we like. So we hope that that translates to people who love the comic as well. But, again, our first and foremost goal is to make a great, entertaining, fun television show that, if you”ve never heard of the comic book, you love.
“I don”t know if you could translate the comic (directly) to television,” Rogen added later.
Rogen noted, for instance, that they were shown a very faithful-looking makeup test for Arseface, a horribly mutilated character introduced in early “Preacher” issues, “And as soon as I saw that, I knew we should not try to make it look exactly how it looked in the comic, and we should take some license and try to make it something maybe a little more palatable… We wanted the character to be sympathetic and, ultimately, someone you really rooted for, and there”s, like, a threshold where that becomes difficult just in short bursts.”
Catlin referred to “very long, sort of Talmudic” arguments among the creative team about how graphic much of the visuals should be, and when it should be most evocative of the Steve Dillon art.
“Overall, we want the show to be watchable and fun and entertaining, and we don”t want it to be alienating in its content,” Rogen said. “We want the show to be fun for regular people with not sick sensibilities. Put that on a poster.”
Now, I imagine people who love the comic will read some of those quotes, or in time details about exactly how the story deviates, and wonder why anyone would want to make a “Preacher” TV show that changes so many elements of “Preacher.”
But a direct translation isn't automatically a good one, just as an unfaithful one isn't automatically bad. Just staying in the realm of comic book adaptations, look at “Watchmen,” which captures all the important story beats of the comic, and even models many of its shots on Dave Gibbons' artwork, yet ultimately misses the whole point of the comic. (Alan Moore was deconstructing superhero stories; Zack Snyder was telling a straightforward superhero story with slightly odd characters.) Then look at “iZombie,” which borrowed a few elements from the source material but is almost entirely its own entity, and is still a really entertaining TV show.
The “Preacher” TV show doesn't seem as radical a shift from the page as “iZombie” is, but it is still going to be its own separate thing. Yet even as I raised my eyebrows a lot at changes over the course of the pilot, I also repeatedly felt that it was capturing the spirit of the comic. It wasn't always “Preacher” in story, but it was in tone.
What Rogen said about Arseface, for instance, makes sense. There's a lot of imagery in the comics that would be very hard to look at for even a few seconds if rendered directly in live action, and Dillon's artwork for that character in particular was stylized enough that he could become sympathetic in time in a way that would be much harder if the makeup looked exactly the same. (And, for what it's worth, all the “Preacher” newbies in the screening were well and truly freaked out by the final Arseface design, and even more when I told them the show had toned it down a bit.)
“Preacher” is moving to a different medium, and more than 20 years since the first issue of the comic was published. Changes are inevitable, and not just because references to Kurt Cobain and Vietnam will have to be updated or changed altogether. Maybe the changes in time turn out to be bad ideas that the show can't get away from. Or maybe, like “The Walking Dead” (where the source material isn't nearly as strong as “Preacher,” admittedly, and thus should invite far more deviation), the new stories and characters wind up favorites among readers and non-readers alike.
But the three men executive producers all seem to understand the strength of the book and the ways they can and can't change it.
“Some of the (comic) scenes that might seem ludicrous, we play as grounded as possible and then and vice versa, and that”s just that”s the world of 'Preacher,'” said Catlin. “That”s the crazy tone and tightrope act that we have to walk with Garth”s show.”