I’m not really a big comic book fan anymore, though I have been in the past. Throughout my teens I followed comic books, but I only really had enough cash for one hobby and I ended up choosing movies to follow seriously and comics sort of went by the wayside. I still read the occasional trade paperback, but otherwise the habit is pretty much in my past. There is however one relic from my comic book years that I still treasure and that’s my old Watchmen volume. I first read Alan Moore’s classic when I was fifteen and it simply blew my mind. I’ve read it many times since and it’s never failed to bowl me over with its complex story, meticulous structure, and dry satirical wit. A film adaptation of the tome has been rumored for decades, but whenever I heard talk of it I had one stock reaction: “Watchmen is unfilmable.” Now, to my continuing shock, someone has actually made the movie.
The story is an example of the alternate timeline genre. It essentially asks how history would have been affected if costumed vigilantes actually had popped up during the thirties as they did in comic books, and then influenced future generations to do the same. The main story is set during the mid eighties (a contemporary setting when the book was written), and begins with the death of the works most enduring characters; Edward Blake AKA The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) a former vigilante who is tossed out of a window by a shadowy figure. Ostensibly, this is a murder mystery seeking to find who murdered Blake and more importantly why. But there’s a lot more to the whole affair, the story investigates a number of remaining heroes and investigates how they came to be via a number of flashbacks set throughout the later twentieth century. It’s ultimately an exploration of the superhero as a character type, how the real world would affect them and how they would affect the real world.
I’m just going to concede right now that this is not a movie I can look at objectively. Alan Moore’s comic book just means too much to me and I’m just going to be holding an adaptation thereof to a much higher standard than I would any average movie. There’s no doubt that it was the financial success of Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City and Zack Snyder’s 300 that inspired the studio to give Snyder the go ahead for the project. Both of those projects had managed to stay true to their crazy source material by being almost frame by frame recreations of the comic panels. But those were Frank Miller adaptations, not Alan Moore adaptations and there’s a huge difference. Frank Miller, particularly in the case of those titles, is a dude who draws cool looking stuff for the sake of drawing cool looking stuff. They’re very simple and superficial works and there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what Moore does.
So what is it about Moore’s work that makes it so hard to adapt? It’s very long, but more importantly it’s complex, it covers two generations, and is set during three time periods. It has six main characters, each with a back-story that cannot be ignored as well as an entirely new take on recent history that needs to be explored. Secondly, while it is now thought of as a graphic novel, it was actually a twelve issue mini-series and a number of those issues are structurally self- contained. I’m thinking in particular of issue five (Fearful Symmetry) which is page for page symmetrical in the way its stories weave together, and issue six (The Abyss Gazes Also) which tells its story entirely from the perspective of a psychologist side character who over the course of the issue goes from optimism to despair as he’s forced to look deep into Rorsach’s psyche only to find a mirror image of himself. I highly doubted the film would preserve these structural pivots, and indeed both of these things are lost.
And that leads to larger problem; that a lot of what makes Watchmen a masterpiece is in the details rather than the story itself. The book is loaded with all sorts of sly anecdotes and small bits of brilliance that are littered throughout the narrative and into the very margins. There were just so many things that would have to be lost in any adaptations and each one of them is going to be missed. Add to all that the fact that the comic is loaded with edgy, and un-studio-friendly stuff that was unlikely to ever be seen in a studio production, and it becomes abundantly clear why I’ve been insisting on the story’s unfilmability.
To director Zack Snyder’s credit, he got a lot more into this than I thought he would, and by a lot more I mean a hell of a lot more. They were able to get the basic story in, most of the origins and a decent idea of the past events that lead up to the main story. That’s a lot more than I ever thought they could get into two hours and forty minutes, but this density comes at a price. There is so much squeezed into so little time that the movie has no room to breathe. Consequently, the whole thing feels very rushed, and the events seem to take place over a shorter period of time than they are supposed to. It’s abundantly clear to any viewer that this is not a story that was meant to be told in such a short span of time, and yet there’s still a lot missing from the equation.
The most egregious cut is the omission of a sub-plot about a newspaper vendor in the middle of New York prone to ranting about current events. The main story takes place against the backdrop of a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which has brought the world to the brink of nuclear destruction. This is established in the film and occasionally the audience is reminded of it, but not nearly to the extent that the comic books do. The aforementioned subplot is the main place where this is discussed, and it gives the whole story a degree of apocalyptic paranoia. This is essential both to the story’s tone and in establishing the stakes of everything that goes on.
Another of the aspects that was always a sticking point in the adaptation was the violence, sex, nudity, and language that would have horrified any movie studio. To Zack Snyder’s credit, he doesn’t sell out on anything, he shies away from nothing and appears to have ignored every studio note he undoubtedly received. Dr. Manhattan is just as naked here as he was in the book (the elimination of which would have been symbolically false), and thankfully Snyder has also included all the R-rated violence of the book. The problem, is that Snyder has not only matched the books violence but actually increased it. What was once an off-screen arson has been turned into a meat clever butchery, what was once a throat cutting has turned into a graphic chainsaw massacre, and an attempted rape scene comes with additional blows from the assailant. I suspect that Alan Moore would be horrified by this decision. Moore very specifically made all of the violence in the book potent but brief, and he’s not overly proud of all the senselessly violent stories that his work has inspired.
There are also a number of less graphic and more action oriented fight scenes that have been mishandled. Snyder has grabbed at every scene of violence to be found here and milked it for all it’s worth, extending and sensationalizing each one of them. The opening murder has gone from basically being the discovery of a body to being a five minute highly choreographed fistfight, later fights have been turned from three frame encounters into elaborate actions scenes. I probably could have lived with this, but I don’t like the way these fights play out. The characters tend to jump higher, fight faster, and have faster reflexes than any real human ever could, which is a problem because these aren’t supposed to be actually super powered people. They’re Batman-like vigilantes who aren’t supposed to be stronger than very fit humans.
This brings me to Zack Snyder’s visual style, which is another serious problem the film has. Snyder’s special effects heavy visuals were perfectly suited for filming a story about a bunch of Greeks chopping people’s heads off, but again, Watchmen isn’t a project like that. This is a dialogue heavy work that is meant to inhabit the real world. But this doesn’t look like the real world, it looks like a series of sets that have been decorated to the nth detail, everything just seems really artificial. Snyder has his camera in close all the time, he worries too much about trying to match the comic book’s angles and compositions. It feels like the camera can never sit back and simply observe people having a conversation. Look most other comic book adaptation (The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Spider-Man) and you’ll find they don’t have the same problems connecting with the real world, they’re look is a lot more naturalistic. Also the movie’s cinematography was a bit darker and bluer than I would have liked. Dave Gibbon’s artwork was a lot brighter, and skewed toward the style of silver age comics.
This brings me to another one of the film’s failures, in that its cast is not as great as it should have been. The best of the lot is easily Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who captures the look and attitude of The Comedian perfectly. Jackie Earle Haley also manages to bring the cold craziness of Rorschach both masked and unmasked, great casting there. Billy Crudup also does everything he needs to do while voicing and mocaping Dr. Manhattan. But the other three of the main cast deliver very problematic performances. Patrick Wilson fails miserably in the key role of the second Nite Owl, he fails to make him anything more than a stereotype in the early scenes and his character evolution is rushed and lacking in the subtleties needed. Malin Akerman also isn’t great as the second Silk Spectre, she comes off as whiny rather than pitiable in the film, she come off as something of a ditz. But the most egregious handling of a character is that of Adrian Veidt AKA Ozymandias. I don’t entirely blame Matthew Goode for this, but he plays Veidt as a an overly cold and calculating figure. This is exactly what Veidt is supposed to be like internally, but not externally; externally he is supposed to be a pseudo-Captain America, a Richard Branson type billionaire that has the public’s love.
I don’t want to let my pickiness overlook the film’s strong points, and there are a lot of them. It would be almost impossible for someone to adapt Watchmen and not have some of its brilliance rub off on the project. Though satire isn’t as much of a focus here as it is in the book, there are some funny moments that will be especially potent to those who don’t see them coming. Also, the movie sports an excellent soundtrack which perfectly accentuates the story with classic rock from the sixties. Also very impressive is the opening credits which show images of series history set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin,’” though I wonder how much sense this will make to those unaccustomed to the original mythology.
If nothing else Zack Snyder’s heart seemed to be in the right place, he stayed remarkably close to the source, but to what end? More than any adaptation I’ve seen, Watchmen seems more concerned with the letter of the source than the spirit. Frankly, the book was unfilmable. Sure Snyder fits a lot of Moore’s words and images onto the screen but he never creates the right the right tone and never matches Moore’s audacity. This is very different from the Wachowski Brother’s adaptation of V For Vendetta. In that project the Wachowski’s adapted the story to a different political climate and in doing so made it their own. It was something that manages to be its own thing; this on the other hand has little to offer aside from its inferiority to the source.
I’m not sure how people unfamiliar with the source would react to the film. But frankly feel sorry for them. This shouldn’t be anyone’s first exposure to Alan Moore’s magnum opus. If you really want to take in the Watchmen story this weekend they shouldn’t go to the movie theater, they should go to a book store. The real deal will be sitting in a large pile on a table near the door.
**1/2 out of Four