Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Preacher" - Gone to Hollywood

I'd say I qualify as a comic-book fan, meaning someone who reads comic books independent of any film or television influences, if just barely. In college I picked up a couple of volumes of "Sandman" and my roommate tracked down all the issues of "Johnny the Homicidal Maniac," and I found myself sporadically leafing through graphic novels like "Creature Tech" and "From Hell" ever since. I never collected and I never invested, but I've read a fair amount of the big titles and know who most of the big names in the industry are. And the knowledge has proved very helpful for being a film buff, as Hollywood's been snapping up more and more comics properties for development over the last decade.

I mentioned in yesterday's post that darker material from the comic book realm has been in ascendancy, as embodied by the runaway success of "The Dark Knight," and the willingness of a major studio to put some serious money into Zack Snyder's adaptation of the very adult "Watchmen." Though "Watchmen" didn't do well, it hasn't stopped filmmakers from continuing to push the boundaries with edgier comic properties like the upcoming "Kick-Ass." There's still a reluctance, though, to produce truly adult films based on comics for fear of alienating the younger demographic that most action films are geared towards. Of course, nobody seems to want to makes films for grown-ups these days in any genre, but it's interesting to look at some of the higher profile comic-based projects that are struggling with this barrier.

One title that's been percolating for a while now is "Preacher," based on the popular Garth Ennis comic that was published by DC's Vertigo imprint for mature readers in the 90s. I've read the entire run, all 66 issues, five specials, and the four-part miniseries collected into nine trade paperbacks. Centered around the adventures of a young Texan preacher who acquires supernatural powers akin to the literal Word of God, and declares war against the Almighty, it neatly straddles the line between Western and horror genres with a little passion play thrown in for good measure. In the right hands, I'm sure the material could spawn a good action film trilogy, or better yet a miniseries.

And over the last ten years, it's nearly been both, with the adaptation rights bouncing from the Weinsteins at Miramax to HBO to Columbia Pictures. James Marsden was attached to star. Then he wasn't. Sam Mendes was attached to direct. Then he wasn't. The latest word from producer Neal Moritz at the Collider yesterday was that they have a script (not one of the three drafts written by Garth Ennis), and are looking for a director. From what I can tell, the biggest holdup with "Preacher" has been the comic's reputation. It is one of the most influential titles to come out of the 90s, near the top of many a comic fanboy's list of most desired film adaptations. Kevin Smith and Stephen King are fans. Nobody wants to get this one wrong.

But on the other hand, faithfulness to the original comic would result in a film or TV series with a pretty narrow audience. The "Preacher" comic is a fun, pulpy read, but touches on all sorts of hot-button issues, revels in graphic content, and has an extraordinarily sick sense of humor. One of the major recurring characters is a young man who calls himself Arseface, a Nirvana fan who was so distressed at the suicide of Kurt Cobain, he tried to follow suit and blew half his face off with a shotgun. And survived. Arseface goes through the comic with features so disfigured people retch at his presence, and his speech is so garbled it requires additional translation in subscripts. To add insult to injury, these horrors are constantly played for laughs.

I don't have any issues with films like "Preacher" and "Kick-Ass" being made. But when we're talking about content that's practically in the realm of John Waters and Harmony Korine, is it any wonder the studios have had second thoughts? If audiences were cringing at the plight of Precious Jones, how are they going to react to Arseface, who's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the carnival grotesques of the "Preacher" comic? In this case, the more determined the filmmakers are to be faithful, the less viable making the film becomes, but cutting anything would only alienate the existing die-hard fans. At least one version was scuttled because the studio wasn't willing to risk putting up a fairly modest figure for the film's budget. The fact that "Preacher" has actually come so close to being made is more surprising than anything else.

If we ever do get a "Preacher" movie, it won't be another big budget, frame-for-frame geek love letter like "Watchmen." That ship has sailed. I expect we'll either get something drastically watered down and mainstream friendly or else a low-budget cult film with the content intact. The current film-making system isn't capable of dealing with anything else.

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