Sorry for the melodramatic title, but be honest, would you have clicked through to this article had I used a more measured headline like “10 Well-Reasoned Arguments to be Mildly Apprehensive the Watchmen Movie May Not Meet Expectations”?
Consider yourself a true admirer of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s graphic novel Watchmen (1986)? Read on for 10 reasons to be very, very afraid. Please note that I haven’t yet seen the movie, and the below rant is all coming from the perspective of someone that cares about the book. Also be forewarned that I can’t be bothered to avoid spoilers.
1. The project has been cursed for years.
Numerous directors have come before Zack Snyder, and all have tried and failed. The rogues’ gallery includes no less than Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, and Paul Greengrass, and those are just the ones we know about. It’s too soon in Snyder’s career to issue a verdict on him, but it’s fair to say that these three directors are all a fair sight more seasoned and acclaimed than he. It’s likely that all three (not to mention their producers and screenwriters) gave up on Watchmen for very good reasons. Gilliam, in particular, famously had the good sense to agree with Moore that his book may actually be truly unfilmable. And all this is not even to mention Warner Bros.’ dramatic feud with 20th Century Fox over the rights to the project itself, eventually ending in January 2009 with the two rivals begrudgingly agreeing to share the profits (while not mentioning that, I also won’t mention its fruitless fling with Paramount). Read on for still more animosity and bad blood swirling about the long-gestating project…
2. It doesn’t have Alan Moore’s blessings.
Worse, it doesn’t have his apathy either. Moore didn’t seem too perturbed by the From Hell (The Holmes Brothers, 2001) and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Stephen Norrington, 2003) movies. He didn’t collaborate on them, nor did he care to even see them. Basically, he shrugged, and trusted his books would live on in their own rights. But the results in every case so far have been disastrous: terrible films that retained little of what made the books matter. In retrospect, it seems Moore showed extraordinary patience with the first two films that mangled his books, and that he now have no mercy for those messing with V for Vendetta and Watchmen makes perfect sense. Additional legal and ethical skirmishes with DC Comics and Warner Bros. over The Wachowski Brothers’ and James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta (2006) led to Moore taking his name off any comics work to which he does not control the copyright (essentially everything he did for DC). In the cases of the V for Vendatta and Watchmen films, he has put his money where his mouth is and officially deferred all of his royalties to his collaborators David Lloyd and Dave Gibbons. You have to admire the integrity of anyone willing to leave that much money on the table. One ray of hope for those that appreciate the book, however, is that Gibbons has been actively collaborating on the Watchmen production. Hopefully his contributions have helped to keep the filmmakers on target.
3. At least one character has been miscast.
One of the curses of having read a book enough times to internalize every detail is to also have very clear mental images of the characters. The Watchmen producers were probably right to avoid casting any especially well-known faces. Based on what I’ve seen so far, several of their choices do feel right to me, especially Patrick Wilson as Daniel Dreiberg (Nite Owl) Jackie Earle Haley as Walter Kovacs (Rorschach), and Matt Frewer as Moloch. The 30-year-old Malin Akerman is certainly a very attractive sight onscreen, but her character Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre) is supposed to be almost 40 in the novel’s present. I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt for now, but the real problem is Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias). Goode is, simply, totally wrong. Veidt should be ridiculously handsome, like George Clooney, but utterly dispassionate and ice-cold, like Keanu Reeves. He should radiate intelligence and self-confidence, like Kevin Spacey, and be incredibly fit, like Michael Phelps. But Goode here seems shrimpy, ugly, and weaselly. His mushmouth dialogue in promotional clips has him affecting some kind of botched accent or speech defect. If I were the Watchmen casting agent, I’d Aaron Eckhart’s agent a call.
4. Snyder has reportedly tarted up the action.
Early reports are that Snyder has amped up the sex, violence, and action. Readers of the book will recall that Silk Spectre and Nite Owl come out of retirement by effecting an aerial rescue from a burning tenement building. As io9.com rightly notes, Snyder’s version of the scene sets entirely the wrong tone. The book shows Dan and Laurie as old pros that can basically sleepwalk through such a mission, and yet the movie has them outrunning fireballs in slow motion (Snyder’s directoral calling card). Other early reports are that a rape scene, already horrific and shocking in the book, has actually been made more titillating and explicit for the film. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Comedian) told MTV News that the scene is “really violent” and the movie is “rated ‘R’ for a reason.”
5. Snyder’s adaptation may be too worshipful.
In DeZ Vylenz’ documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore, Moore notes the superficial resemblance between comics and movie storyboards. He believes that an understanding of the mechanics of cinema can inform comics writing (and vice versa), but if comics writers worship movies too much, their comics will be reduced to “movies that don’t move.” It also works the other way: Snyder has already proven his skill to literally recreate comics panels into cinema with his lurid adaptation of Frank Miller’s bonkers graphic novel 300 in 2007. Worse, Warner Bros. has produced an atrocious “motion comics” version of the original Watchmen graphic novel (available now on iTunes and soon on DVD), comprised of motion-graphics animated versions of Dave Gibbons’ artwork, read aloud by a single voice actor. As Scott McCloud spent an entire book demonstrating (Understanding Comics, 1993), the way that comics “work” is much more than that: the interplay of sequential images and (optionally) words. If Snyder’s movie is similar to 300 or the Watchmen Motion Comics, then it might as well just be called Watchmen for Illiterates. We don’t need a moving, talking version of the book; we can always read the book.
6. Paradoxically to the above point, the changes that Snyder does make may be the wrong ones.
Anyone who’s so much as flipped through the book will realize that its complexity is irreducible. I personally can’t imagine what must be sacrificed to squeeze the essential narrative down to a 2 1/2 hour movie, so thankfully Entertainment Weekly has compiled this list. Snyder has recently admitted to cutting what I feel to be one of the most heartbreaking and seminal sequences in the entire story: the senseless murder of Hollis Mason (the Golden Age Nite Owl). Snyder also hints he has changed the book’s cataclysmic climax. I don’t mind losing the specific details if screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have devised something suitable to replace it.
7. One word: “Watchmen”
Several trailers and TV spots released to date include both Rorschach and The Comedian speaking the word “Watchmen.” To anyone that’s read the book, this is an egregious sin (almost as bad as saying “The Watchmen”). As such, the trailers make it seem as if “Watchmen” is the name of some kind of supergroup like the Fantastic Four or The X-Men. True, in the book’s backstory, there was a group of heroes called The Minutemen in the 1940s (Moore’s equivalent to comic’s so-called Golden Age). A second generation of heroes gather in the 1970s (including many of the main characters of the book) to discuss forging a new group called The Crimebusters, but they immediately break up. At no point in the book is the word “Watchmen” ever spoken, by anyone. Its only appearance in the book is the occasional graffiti “Who Watches the Watchmen?” in the background of some New York City street scenes. According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, the Latin phrase “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” comes from the Roman poet Juvenal, asked by Plato in the socratic dialog Republic (380BC-ish). In the context of Watchmen, the meaning is obvious: the public is asking of their self-appointed protectors, who’s protecting us from you? But who’s protecting moviegoers from filmmakers that are dumbing down this story?
8. These characters are definitely not “cool.”
Nearly every character in the book is psychologically scarred, some deeply so (with the possible exception of Hollis Mason – the original Nite Owl – who comes across as the only one who turned to vigilanteism out of a genuine need to help people). Rorschach is a right-wing sociopath (Watchmen having been written in the mid 1980s, think of a costumed Bernard Getz or Charles Bronson). The Comedian is a fascist and a rapist. Ozymandias is an egomaniac of the most dangerous sort (think George W. Bush, except infinitely worse). Dr. Manhattan is not even human, and unlike the somewhat analogous Superman, is devoid of emotion, empathy, or compassion. New York City was recently host to a Comic-Con convention at which more than a few borderline psychos left the sanctity of their mothers’ basements to walk around the city dressed up as the sexually damaged, violent nutjob Rorschach. The imagery and clips released from the movie so far only seem to reinforce the perception of these characters as cool and badass.
9. The merchandise makes me cringe.
What creep would buy and display a statuette of the rapist and fascist The Comedian? Or if you want to rob a bank, you could do worse than don a Rorschach ski mask, about which io9.com has already remarked. Only an Ozymandias action figure [http://www.dccomics.com/dcdirect/?dcd=10047] makes sense in an ironic kind of way, for the character heavily marketed his superhero persona for personal profit. As for why these tie-in items make me feel queasy, please refer to No. 8 above.
10. And finally, Hollywood is taking away one of the last remaining comic book masterworks.
Warner Bros. Picture Group president Jeff Robinov proclaimed to Entertainment Weekly his loyalty to the source material: “The movie is impactful, tough, and true to the book that we all loved, and I’m very proud of it.” I’ll try to set aside my immediate gag reflex at the use of “impact” as an adjective, and hope that he’s right. Hollywood has already brutalized Moore’s From Hell, V for Vendetta, and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The books were read by relatively small number of people, but the movies were seen by millions who who may never even know the source material exists, let alone read it. Watchmen, like all of Moore’s comics work, was created for comics. None of the previous adaptations of his work have survived the adaptation process, and were misinterpreted and puréed into milquetoast.
Moore and Gibbon’s Watchmen is perhaps the seminal graphic novel to date. I’m not the first to say it, but Watchmen is the Citizen Kane of comic books. It’s a towering, complex, and multi-faceted masterpiece. It has the kind of scope, ambition, and narrative experimentation that makes it one of the few graphic novels that deserves to be called a novel. Time Magazine recognized as much by naming it one of its All-Time 100 Novels in 2005. Just as it’s inconceivable that Citizen Kane be adapted into another medium (theater? poetry? interpretive dance? or for that matter, comics?), so too do I shudder to imagine Watchmen translated into any other form. My biggest fear is that millions of moviegoers will experience Watchmen in this incarnation as a big-budget escapist spectacle, and never be aware of its special source material.
Most of Moore’s graphic novels are exactly that: novels. Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Lost Girls, and From Hell are all finite and self-contained. There are no sequels, prequels, or spinoffs. Watchmen is being heavily marketed as another in a long line of superhero movies, following the massive success of Iron Man, Batman (read The Dork Report review of The Dark Knight), and Spider-Man franchises. All of these are open-ended, ongoing episodic series that have lasted for decades. How many moviegoers will not understand that Watchmen is based on an actual novel? Will they anticipate a sequel? Let’s pray that Warner Bros. isn’t plotting one, lest Moore really lose his temper.
Only Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus is more well-regarded, if perhaps less widely read. Watchmen too might have earned such top-shelf garlands had it not been set firmly within the historically juvenile genre that utterly dominates Western comics to this day: men and women that dress up in tights and fight crime. Superheroes. They’re for kids, right?
To anyone familiar with Moore’s oeuvre, it’s clear he does genuinely love superheroes despite his repeated attempts to rip them apart. With Watchmen and the even more pitiless Miracleman (now tragically out of print, maybe forever), Moore tried to inject a degree of psychological and political realism into comics. But generally speaking, audiences (and publishers) mostly latched onto the superficial elements of violence and sex, ushering in a few decades of superhero comics that were grim and gritty but lacked depth and imagination. As the comics chased the aging generation that grew up reading Watchmen and its progeny, it left kids behind. In 1999, Moore did try to atone for his inadvertent revolution with a line of comics that attempted to re-inject whimsy, clever storytelling, and innocence back into comics (especially in the Tom Strong and Tomorrow Stories series). But even so, today most acclaimed comics lie outside the superhero genre, including Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman (fantasy, mostly) and Brian K. Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man (science fiction, mostly).
Watchmen is one of my favorite books, and I’ve probably read it at least 10 times over the years. So obviously, my love for it feeds into my apprehension that it may be mishandled. But there have been other much-loved books that I haven’t been especially worried about. Stuart Gordon’s film based on William Wharton’s novel A Midnight Clear is an excellent (and rare) example of an exceedingly faithful adaptation that works. Also, as much as I loved Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, I’m quite looking forward to director John Hillcoat’s film, as opposed to dreading how he might screw it up. Although it should be noted Hillcoat has the excellent The Proposition (2005) on his résumé to commend him, while Snyder only has Dawn of the Dead and 300.
Some prose works have arguably been improved as movies, or at least translated into great works in their own rights. To name a few examples mostly in Watchmen’s arena of science-fiction: Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (read The Dork Report review) is more gripping and visceral than P.D. James’ novel. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is something else entirely than Philip K. Dick’s novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. And at the risk of incurring the wrath of sword-and-sorcery geeks everywhere, I’m prepared to argue that Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films improve enormously upon J.R.R. Tolkien’s insufferably tedious books. Oh yeah, I said it. Bring it on.
So why am I so apprehensive about Watchmen in particular? Because it has been historically misunderstood and misinterpreted for 20 years and I see no sign that Snyder is seeing any deeper than its surface. If Moore’s Watchmen tried but failed to permanently revitalize the superhero genre by laying bare its internal lunacies, what is Snyder’s movie trying to accomplish, and will it too fail?
Official movie site: watchmenmovie.warnerbros.com
Must read: BoingBoing’s Xeni Jardin interviews Snyder and special effects creator John Des Jardins about their efforts to make an exactingly faithful adaptation of the source material.
Must read: Why I will not be seeing Watchmen by Kevin Church
Must read: Spoiler Alert: WATCHMEN is Fucking Awesome by über-geek (that’s a compliment) Wil Wheaton
Must read: What Happens if Watchmen Flops? by Graeme McMillan