Preacher: Adaptation Fail!

Loving art is not the same as loving your children: with art, you’re allowed to have favorites. Within any beloved medium or genre, there are always favorites. Of interest here is a long-time favorite of mine, the late-1990s graphic novel Preacher, written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Steve Dillon. It’s a violent, gory, wonderfully original story involving: a southern preacher, an Irish vampire, the Saint of Killers, the off-spring of an angel and a demon, and God himself (not to mention Tulip, the Grail organization, and a, pardon the expression, “host” others).

When a favorite literary work (such as Preacher) is adapted for film or TV one has a sense of both anticipation and trepidation. On the one hand, seeing the work come to life can be wonderful. But on the other, it can be awful if (you feel) the adaptation doesn’t honor the source.

To me, the AMC adaptation of Preacher is the latter: awfully awful.

The thing is, as adaptation fails go, I think this one fails hugely on nearly every story point. For me it was a bit like the FX series, Fargo, in that I didn’t find much of anything to like about it.

Art criticism says as much, if not more, about the reviewer as it does about the reviewed. Art has inkblot qualities that allow us to see ourselves.

With that caveat, this reviewer is of the opinion the Preacher adaptation badly misses the most important beats of the story and utterly trashes more than a few. After two excruciating seasons, I’m giving up on it.

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Let me step back a bit and mention how adaptations of literary works into visual works have three choices to make:

  1. Original material to remove (or compress).
  2. Original material to change.
  3. New material to add.

In all three cases, the primary reasoning is to adapt a written work to a visual medium. Typically changes really are necessary because storytelling techniques vary among different media.

(In particular, the toolkit of text stories is vastly different from the toolkit used to tell visual stories. Graphic novels have strong visual elements, which changes the equation, but they are still essentially text-based stories.)

Adaptations makes changes for many reasons: to update obsolete aspects of a story; to make some deliberate point; or as artistic expression of a new version of the story.

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I generally don’t have a problem with removed (or compressed) material. These often are due to visual storytelling needs, in particular pacing and time restrictions. Sometimes a brief bit of text requires lots of visuals to implement; other times, many pages of text can be visualized in mere seconds.

A typical removal is a character (or scene or location) that only exists for flavor and texture. Importantly, they can be removed without damaging the plot. Fans of the text might miss the character, but others won’t notice the absence.

A good example might be the film Ender’s Game, which was adapted from the SF classic by the same name. An attraction of the book for fans — Ender’s growth as a leader — is mostly missing from the film, but including it in all its nuance would have required a much longer film.

Worse, including it would actually have been tedious. It’s a much harder thing to convey without text, because your toolkit is about action and dialog and pictures. Representing nuance requires lots of dialog (which is why plays are often more nuanced than film or TV).

The visual toolkit lends itself more to less subtle storytelling. After all, the famous phrase is: “Lights! Camera! Action!”

The bottom line with removing from the source is whether the missing bits significantly alter the story. Usually, adaptations get this right. Ish.

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I can also usually get on board with changes so long as they honor the intentions of the original.

As with removals, changes often come from a need for pacing, but there are other reasons to change the text. The more benign ones, such as updating obsolete technology or ideas, go down pretty easily. But to change something is to add something, your own something (see next section about additions).

This requires greater care in honoring the intentions of the source.

When Zack Snyder adapted Watchmen, he changed a key aspect of the ending, but that change actually makes the story better for modern audiences (or so at least I’ve always thought).

On the flip side, Peter Jackson made a couple of changes to Lord of the Rings that seriously annoyed me (see: “Han Shot First!”).

Of key importance in visual storytelling is the idea of “show, don’t tell,” so, exactly was with removals, one need for change is the requirement to visualize written material. How does one turn several pages of internal thought, or pages of background description, into a visual story?

It’s widely regarded very bad, in TV or film, to use narration or, much worse, a bunch of text. (The opening text crawl of Star Wars is technically a violation of this, but the way it’s done is creative enough to make it a win.)

As a counter-example, the Netflix movie, Anon, features a way of identifying its characters that’s not only entirely visual, but which is completely organic to the story. Which is necessary to the story! (Not a bad SF flick. I give it an Ah!)

The bottom line is whether changes honor and serve the story.

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When it comes to additions, I can be a hard sell.

If something entirely new is added, there had better be a damn good explanation for it, and it had damn well better fit with the themes, modes, and intentions of the original.

Which is hard to pull off, which is why additions often really suck. They are a conceit on the part of the adapter, a presumption they are up to the level of the original author.

What’s more, fans (speaking personally here) can be sensitive about the intentions and meanings of the original source material and therefore very easy to offend.

I think it’s crucial that adapters both love and fully understand (to the point of researching) the material. Far more than mere changes, additions reveal the skill and intentions of the adaptation. The questions about honoring the source and serving the story are more urgent here.

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It’s that last point especially — additions — that brings us to my massive issues with the AMC adaptation of Preacher.

And not just the additions, but also sweeping changes that, at least to my eye, reveal either a lack of understanding of the source or a deliberate dishonoring of it for reasons I can’t fathom. (And in not understanding the latter, lean towards the former.)

Just as a starting example, the entirety of the arc of season two — being in New Orleans, Cassidy’s son, Tulip’s marriage, much of the action — isn’t in the original at all. And I have a hard time seeing how any of it honors the story; so much of it is just random, weird bullshit.

Which I know is popular these days, but I’m not a fan.

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I started writing this back in June after grinding through it on Hulu. I’d given up on season one while it was on AMC, but thought to give it a second try on Hulu because I like the graphic novel so much.

But I really hated the adaptation. In almost every regard.

To write a good review, especially one citing how bad it is compared to the original, I figured I’d better re-read the graphic novel…

Which is nine volumes long. Over four inches of shelf space.

Months ago I put down volume two and never got back to it. I’ve since realized that, right now, I’m just not in the mood to re-read Preacher (for the fifth or whatever time). I’ve got other stuff to do.

So, and because this has gotten long already, and to get it out of my Drafts queue, just some stuff that really stood out rather than a more careful analysis of how badly the adaptation misses the marks of the original source.

And if it’s not already clear, I give the adaptation my lowest rating: a solid Ugh!

(By the way, if not obvious: Spoilers!)

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¶ When Genesis first comes to Earth (in the adaptation), it visits others and wreaks some minor havoc before it comes to Jesse Custer. That’s an addition. In the original, it heads directly for Jessie as though destined for him. I like that aspect.

It’s a minor point, but it shows how the adaptation put me off from the beginning. In a story in which God, Lucifer, angels, demons, vampires, and Jesus, are all real (and in fact characters), destiny absolutely plays a role.

Failing to see this suggests (to me) a lack of understanding on the adapters’ part.

¶ In the original, its Genesis merging with Jesse that blows up Annville (which I always thought was awesome), but in the adaptation, there’s a new storyline involving a methane reactor operated by Quincannon’s company. Due to events, it blows up.

The problem is it puts no mystery behind why Annville blew up (in the original, in what seems like a small nuclear event). The idea that a small town exploded for no reason added to the story.

What is essentially an exploding fart seems like a kid gag.

¶ They totally screwed up one of the most important characters, the Saint of Killers. They screwed up his backstory, a crucial part of the original. They screwed up how he behaves. They screwed up how he interacts with Jessie.

That business with the soul and Hell was just plain stupid. (The whole business of souls in the second season is just plain stupid.)

One of the best parts of the Saint’s story is how, when he ends up in Hell for his misdeeds, his heart is so cold it puts out the fires, and Lucifer kicks him out. But it’s all missing from the adaptation.

¶ This business of sending Eugene Root to Hell, and what transpires there, was complete bullshit, and I hated every minute of it. And, of course, because that’s the level the adaptation is working at: Hitler.

The visualization of Hell was the same lame derivative urban-techno-Hell we thought was so cool when we made student films in college. And (because no imagination) Nazis, of course.

Seriously, the whole series feels like the stuff we did back in college. Stuff I now recognize as immature and shallow. Which I think is also true of the adaptation.

¶ Didn’t really care for the way they wrote Tulip, but that was one of the things I needed to re-read the original to check. The graphic novel Tulip was a strong, cool character, but the adaptation Tulip seemed all over the map. One minute timid and fearful, the next angry and impulsive.

Didn’t care for the whole previous marriage diversion or any of the stuff they made up for her character. Is is possible male writers just did a horrible job with this central, strong female character?

I don’t know what went into the writing, just that Tulip was one of many character fails.

¶ For that matter, wasn’t all that thrilled with how they wrote Jesse. The original was softer with his close friends. This one seems harsher, less connected.

IIRC, the original Jesse really hated vampires, which always put an edge to his friendship with Cassidy. That seems lacking in the adaptation Jesse.

¶ Cassidy is probably the one character they got closest. I don’t really have many complaints about Cassidy, other than the added storyline about his kid. Who, because vampires are immortal, is an old, dying man.

Meh. Whatever.

¶ I take it back. Herr Starr wasn’t too bad, either. Featherstone and Hoover are a little too clowny to pull off the darker bits, but they were, eh, okay.

I do take exception to how the second season ended, with Jesse joining the Grail to replace the inbred offspring. That’s a serious diversion from the original, and to my mind a serious diversion from the character of Jesse Custer.

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I promised to be brief, and the preceding really does just scratch the surface.

Speaking as a big fan of the original Preacher, for me the adaptation is a complete fail. Which is exactly the danger adaptations face with long-time fans of the source.

At best a serious disagreement with how it was adapted. At worst, these guys didn’t really understand the original and just made a shallow adaptation containing their favorite “cool parts.”

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For contrast, I loved what Zack Snyder did with Watchmen, and Watchmen is a graphic novel I love even more than Preacher. I thought Snyder blew the doors off; as I mentioned, I thought his ending (a change) made it better.

Watchmen was a very faithful adaptation (as was Ender’s Game, the parts it kept). As a contrast, consider Dirk Gently, which now has two seasons completed on BBC.

It’s delightful! I’d even give it a Wow!

What’s interesting here is that Dirk Gentley is an adaptation of two books by Douglas Adams (yeah, that Douglas Adams). The adaptation contains only the essence of the main character, Dirk Gentley.

But his backstory is different, the arcs of the two seasons aren’t based on either of the books, and it adds new primary characters (not unlike Companions for The Doctor).

The adaptation is nothing like the two books, except for the essence of the main character, and (speaking as a fan of the books) it’s a huge hit with me.

So maybe it’s like running the table in Hearts. You either get it right (no hearts), or you shoot for the moon and take them all.

More likely it shows the importance of fully understanding and loving the work one is adapting. Preacher doesn’t feel like either a work of love or a work of understanding.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

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