[This is a review of Constantine season 1, episode 4. There will be SPOILERS.]
Thus far, NBC's Constantine has in many ways felt like Hellblazer-lite: the same main character and general premise, but with a lot less teeth. The fourth episode, 'A Feast of Friends,' is the only episode so far that's based specifically on a story from the comic book series, and therefore the differences between the source material and screenwriter Cameron Welsh's adaptation of it really drive home the ways in which Constantine's flavor is different to that of Hellblazer. It's also easily the most solid episode of the show so far.
The latest member of the Newcastle Crew to cross paths with John Constantine once again is Gary Lester (Jonjo O'Neill), a junkie who sought to forget John's disastrous botched exorcism by fleeing to Sudan and doing vast amounts of drugs. Along the way he discovers a living sacrificial victim with a hunger demon locked inside his body, and Gary takes it upon himself to liberate the boy and capture the demon for himself. This operation is a success, but Gary's little jar of demon juice gets smashed on his way through customs, unleashing the demon on an unsuspecting Atlanta.
'A Feast of Friends' isn't based on just any Hellblazer story; it's based on Hellblazer #1 and Hellblazer #2, the comics that introduced the character and his own particular way of getting things done to readers who might not have read Swamp Thing closely enough to encounter him before. It's a particularly nasty and mean-spirited tale, and it's a shame that it was watered down for TV.
Even the monster of the week is made less interesting in this adaptation, portrayed simply as a hunger demon that forces its host to consume disgusting quantities of food even as they starve to death. That certainly was the fate of the first victim (an obese man) in the source material, but writer Jamie Delano's spin on it had the hunger demon forcing people to eat whatever they craved most: a weightlifter chows down on his own body, a jeweller crams diamonds into his mouth, a priest dies trying to consume a life-size crucifix, etc.
With the demon reduced to something fairly generic, the strength of this episode is O'Neill's performance as Gary, one of the many ill-fated friends of John Constantine, who is wracked with guilt for running and hiding during Astra's exorcism and is determined to put things right. Ultimately, he discovers that John's plan is to use him as a vessel for the hunger demon, and Gary acquiesces in an act of noble sacrifice.
Though still notable for being Constantine's first unhappy ending to an episode, this is a lot more cuddly than the outcome in the original story. The comic book Gary Lester is a snivelling, cowardly addict and John conspires with Papa Midnite to lure Gary into a trap, strap him down and forcibly offer him up to the hunger demon so that he can be slowly, excruciatingly consumed before his soul is dragged to hell. There are no words of reconciliation and definitely no speeches about Gary's bravery. John does give Gary a Fredo kiss, though, so at least that part was accurate.
In a featurette about the episode, Welsh describes it as "a real character-defining story for John [that] goes a long way to speak of who John Constantine is and the sacrifices he's prepared to make." It's important to emphasize that change from the source material is never inherently a bad thing, but based on Welsh's adaptation of this particular story, it looks like the main changes made in Constantine will be a sanding down of Hellblazer's sharp corners, to keep things from ever getting too nasty or nihilistic.
Another difference between the comic book and this episode? In the original story, the boy that Gary "saves" through his exorcism dies in agony, his skin flayed to tatters.
Whether this kind of change is a good or a bad thing will likely vary on an individual basis. Constantine still works pretty well as a fairly generic supernatural show with a snarky protagonist, flashes of humor and a new monster every week. However, Hellblazer fans who were hoping for a John Constantine who is a true bastard and for stories with a real sting in the tail are probably going to be left unfulfilled.
Constantine returns in ‘Danse Vaudou’ next Friday @10pm on NBC.
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