Characters (and stories) are more than the sum of their parts
I was reading this blog post: Constantine or when the imitators eclipse the original about why an adaptation of a classic might be well done, but still seem derivative (and not of its source material). It reminded me of once when I read someone’s post about being disappointed about a Theodore Sturgeon book from the fifties, because it seemed to be a rip-off of the X-men. So I explained that it was the other way around: the original X-men comic book was created more than a decade after the Sturgeon works in question, and the same reason many people called Sturgeon’s stories classics, meant that lots of stories written since then have incorporated (and in many cased improved upon) his original ideas.
Once I noticed the phenomenon, I started seeing it everywhere. A story that had first introduced a particular concept or literary technique is hailed as a classic or breakthrough, but a decade of more later when hundreds of stories, movies, television episodes, et al have been influenced by it, the original pales by comparison.
I think Buhlert, the author of the above linked blog post, is correct that this phenomenon is a big part of why the recent television adaptation of the comic book character John Constantine flopped. But I also think there is more to it than that. I complained at the time that the showrunners had explicitly stated that this John Constantine, unlike the character in the comic books, was definitely not bisexual. And I don’t think the decision was a bad one because I think adaptations ought to slavishly follow the original. Nor do I think the decision was bad merely because as a queer person myself I take queer erasure personally.
It was a bad decision artistically because it was a symptom of a bigger problem. The people adapting the character and the character’s story failed to understand the essence of the character. Constantine isn’t merely a mystical version of a noir detective. While the character appears to dwell in that aesthetic, there is a significant difference. The archetypical noir protagonist is alienated and filled with existential bitterness, striving against random uncaring fate. Noir protagonists (and noir story lines) lack hope. Noir protagonists are frequently doomed because they are manipulated by others, traditionally a femme fatale.
The art style of Hellblazer, the comic series that starred Constantine, was very like a film noir. And Constantine’s cynicism looks an awful lot like the typical noir protagonist to the casual observer. But Constantine wasn’t alienated. Alan Moore, who created Constantine, once said that he was aiming for a character who knew everything and knew everyone; a character who was charismatic and never at a loss for what to do. That made Constantine, in several important aspects, the opposite of a noir protagonist. Constantine doesn’t struggle against random, uncaring fate—he often struggles against supernatural forces that are emphatically intentional in their disruption of mortal life—not at all random.
Constantine cares about people; he’s not alienated, he’s connected. And while manipulation happens in Constantine stories, it is usually Constantine doing the manipulation, rather than being the victim of manipulation. His cynicism comes from observing, again and again, that people he cares about always die. The noir protagonist’s cynicism, on the other hand, is usually the result of being betrayed or failed again and again by people they trust.
For example, in one issue of the comic, the King of the Vampires kills a man that Constantine had hooked up with the night before. When the King asks Constantine if the dead man was a friend, Constantine’s reply is, “He’s dead now, so he must have been.”
Sidenote: It has been said that noir’s roots are irrevocably American. I agree with Buhlert’s assessment that Constantine is quintessentially British, and that he works best in a British setting. And even when his stories don’t have a British setting, he is better when being writing by a British author (in my humble opinion). The showrunners’ decision to move Constantine to the U.S. certainly didn’t improve the chances they would catch the essence of the character.
To get back to my main point: You can have a straight character who has all of those characteristics, but the same sort of shallow misunderstanding of the character which leads someone to say, “we can drop his queerness” also led them to miss all the other things that made Constantine different from the noir archetype. When you combine that with the phenomenon that much of urban fantasy has adopted the aesthetic of the original Hellblazer comics, it just increased the likelihood that what they produced would come out as a bland copy of something we’ve seen a thousand times before.