During my brief and utterly unsuccessful attempts to pitch scripts in Hollywood, one of the most common responses I heard from development execs and producers was, “Yeah, that’s a cool idea, but it’s got to be a comic book first!” While my feelings about the movie industry’s rather shameless pillaging of other mediums aren’t exactly positive, the reality is that comics happen to make great source material for films and TV. With so many adaptations hitting the big and small screen on a yearly basis, it may not seem like there’s anything left to tackle. Really, that couldn’t be further from the truth. As a self-professed comic book nerd, I thought that I’d put a spotlight on some popular and obscure titles that haven’t made the jump from panel to screen yet, and detail what Hollywood needs to do to get them right. In this installment, I’ll take a look at Garth Ennis’ controversial DC/Vertigo series ‘Preacher’.
The story of a young Texas preacher who becomes possessed by a supernatural entity called Genesis, ‘Preacher’ is a blasphemous, violent, sexy, disturbing, funny and incredibly smart series that ran for seventy five issues (including specials) from 1995-2000. Bound to Genesis, Jesse is gifted with The Word, which grants him the ability to force those around him to do exactly as he says. Joined by his ex-girlfriend turned hit-woman, Tulip, and a foul-mouthed Irish vampire named Cassidy, the trio hit the road to search for God, who has mysteriously disappeared. Pursued by angels, secret religious organizations and the Saint of Killers himself, the gang brings blood and mayhem wherever it goes, resulting in an exciting, gruesome road trip like no other. It’s kind of like ‘Dogma‘ if it had been directed by Quentin Tarantino… on steroids.
The comic plays fast and loose with religious concepts, and certain aspects of the story can get quite provocative. This level of controversy might be one of the reasons why a film/TV adaptation has yet to successfully materialize. A movie version went into development back in the late ’90s with ‘Tank Girl’ director Rachel Talalay set to helm and James Marsden cast as Jesse. This eventually fell apart, leading to an attempt by Mark Steven Johnson (‘Daredevil‘, ‘Ghost Rider‘) to get an HBO series going. This too fell apart. Most recently, Sam Mendes was attached to a film version, but that seems to have fallen through as well.
In order to get any potential adaptation right, taking it to TV is probably the best course of action. The serialized nature of comics and television make a perfect match, and one could conceivably do a straight issue-to-episode translation (as Johnson had planned to do). While the instinct to neuter the series’ controversial subject matter and themes might be strong, that challenging content is part of what makes ‘Preacher’ so special. The comic pulls no punches when it comes to its depiction of violence, sex and religion. Any adaptation would have to follow suit or risk losing the edge that helps make the book what it is. For now, it really seems like the provocative religious content is holding production back, and unfortunately there’s no easy fix for that.
Beyond the outward sex and violence, ‘Preacher’ is really a story about friendship. The relationship between the three main characters is paramount, and casting the right leads is of the utmost importance. Marsden wasn’t a terrible choice for the aborted Talalay version, but my current top pick for Jesse Custer would be Jack Huston from ‘Boardwalk Empire‘. He has the right look, and while Richard Harrow is quite different from the charismatic cowboy-esque Custer, the demanding role has proven that Huston has some great acting chops. I think he could pull off the loyal, emotionally closed, but tough-as-nails hero of the story well. Though he’s fallen off the radar somewhat in recent years, Josh Hartnett could potentially do the character justice as well, and could bring a nice blend of heroic charm and brooding rage to the role.
For Custer’s love interest Tulip, the adaptation needs a sexy, strong-willed woman. Amber Heard, Anna Paquin, or Yvonne Strahovski from ‘Chuck‘ could all match the character’s appearance and personality well. All three are beautiful, blonde bombshells who have kicked ass convincingly in the past, and each could lend the role the necessary heart, strength and vulnerability that it needs.
Though Cassidy was technically rather young when he was turned into a vampire, any film or TV show would be better off casting the part older. A hard-drinking but still loveable rogue, the character needs an actor who can pull off despicable deeds while still remaining likeable. James McAvoy has the right blend of charm and skill to handle the role, and his ‘X-Men: First Class‘ co-star Michael Fassbender would also make a great fit. While he already played a fairly similar vampire role in the ‘Fright Night‘ remake, Collin Farrell is damn near perfect for the part as well.
‘Preacher’ blends a lot of different genres, but at its core, the comic is really a very twisted, contemporary Western. The project needs a director who understands the genre. Andrew Dominik (‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford‘), John Hillcoat (‘The Proposition‘), The Coen brothers (‘True Grit’), Robert Rodriguez (‘Desperado‘) or the aforementioned Quentin Tarantino (‘Kill Bill: Vol. 2‘) would all make good choices to direct. Tarantino especially seems like a good fit for the book’s outrageous content and witty, colloquial dialogue.
For the time being, it looks like the comic’s divisive religious content is still too risqué for the big or small screen. Whether it makes it to film or television, undiluted or sanitized, the most important aspect of the comic is its characters. Beneath the controversy, loyalty and friendship are the ultimate themes of the story. If the filmmakers can get that right, even a slightly cleaned-up adaptation might be worth the effort.