Conventional wisdom will tell you nobody did Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” better than Jeff Buckley. The few who disagree are likely of the opinion that nothing beats the original. Here’s a third opinion: the person who transformed Cohen’s song into the modern standard it is today was John Cale.
As I started to compile songs for this Songs That Broke My Heart series, I found myself noting more than a few cover versions I found “sadder” than the originals. Maybe some songs have more pain embedded in them than their original creators realized, or were capable of expressing. Perhaps the original artists purposefully obscured the darker themes for the listener to slowly untease, only to have another artist come along later and lay it all bare.
The now-iconic song “Hallelujah” has a complicated lineage. Leonard Cohen’s original was released on the album Various Positions in 1984, and has since been overshadowed by a seemingly endless parade of cover versions. Former Velvet Underground member John Cale began it all with a spare, vocal-and-piano recitation for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Time has obscured Cale’s version about as much as Cohen’s original, but it’s still the template influencing nearly every subsequent rendition.
The most idiosyncratic take came from U2’s Bono on yet another Cohen tribute album, Tower of Song (1995). It now sounds very dated, from the brief-lived moment in the mid-to-late nineties when the trance and electronica genres flirted with the mainstream. Jeff Buckley and K.D. Lang each scored hits based on Cale’s version, and numerous amateur performances on American Idol finally broke the song into the mainstream consciousness (relive some of them here, if you can bear it). The song is now a cliché, but retains its ability to push emotional buttons even when performed robotically by Justin Timberlake on the “Hope for Haiti Now” telethon in 2010 and by K.D. Lang again at the 2010 Winter Olympics opening ceremony.
The worst abuse of all, however, was when director Zack Snyder misappropriated Cohen’s original recording for a preposterous sex scene in the superhero psychodrama Watchmen (read The Dork Report review). Granted, it must be said that Cohen deliberately crafted his lyrics to be flexible, and has himself performed different variations over the years. Buckley’s version found a markedly sexual interpretation, and were he still with us, he might have approved of the song’s use in Watchmen. Cohen himself told the Guardian in 2009:
“I was just reading a review of a movie called Watchmen that uses it, and the reviewer said ‘Can we please have a moratorium on Hallelujah in movies and television shows?’ And I kind of feel the same way. I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it.”
With such a wide variety of renditions, it’s clear the beauty is all in the particular vocalist’s delivery. Too many, however, bury any real human emotion under mountains of overproduced strings and histrionics, or in Bono’s case, trance beats and an ill-advised falsetto. For me, John Cale’s elegantly minimalist interpretation is the one for the ages, perhaps even moreso than Cohen’s original.
I was right to worry. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie is indeed a sexed-up and dumbed-down shadow of the richly multi-layered graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
I’ve already unleashed my pent-up anxieties about the then-forthcoming movie in The Dork Report’s 10 Reasons the Watchmen Movie Will Suck). Now that the notably long-gestating and troubled production is finally out in the wild, I’m puzzled why so many comics fans utterly adore it (q.v. Wil Weaton and AintItCoolNews), while mainstream film critics compete to deliver the most vicious bitchslap (q.v. The New Yorker and The Hollywood Reporter). The exception to the rule is the always-unpredictable (bless him) Roger Ebert, who gave the “powerful experience” four out of four stars. As a lifelong comics fan, I ought to naturally fall into the first camp, but I cannot relate to geeks like Kevin Smith, for whom, after spending decades anxiously pining to see Watchmen playacted on the big screen, found the result “fucking astounding” and “joygasmic.” Endlessly fascinated by the original, I personally never even wanted a Watchmen movie in the first place. But as a lover of both comics and movies, I felt obligated to suffer through it.
My aforementioned rant also repeated the old saw that Watchmen is the Citizen Kane of comics, and attempting to adapt it into another medium is folly. What is important about the example of Citizen Kane in particular isn’t so much its characters or incident, but rather how the story is told. As Welles did to movies in 1941, Moore revolutionized how comics could be told, stretching and bending every rule. Like Welles, Moore didn’t invent the many storytelling devices he used: including scrambled chronology (flashbacks nestled within flashbacks – not just as a storytelling device but a key insight into how one character experiences life), mixing of media (prose pieces expand the story), and stories-within-stories (the embedded Tales of the Black Freighter comic book that foreshadows a cataclysmic ending). Watchmen is in essence a book, not a movie.
Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City inaugurated the recent trend of treating comic books not just as raw story material but as actual storyboards. But whereas Snyder had room to expand the story of Frank Miller’s relatively short graphic novel 300 into his previous film, Watchmen is a massive beast of a book that only realistically had to be brutally cut and/or significantly altered to squeeze into a roughly two-hour motion picture narrative. Maybe, just maybe, that’s exactly what Snyder should have done: radically reinvent the story to fit another medium. Instead, he created a slavishly accurate translation that comics fanboys like Wheaton, Smith, and Aintitcoolnews apparently thought they somehow deserved.
In the end, Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse did make numerous cuts, many out of simple necessity. Some of them hurt (especially the murder of Hollis Mason, a scene which I consider essential to the story). Whereas I suggest above that the movie fails to reinvent the book as a film, Snyder’s mostly faithful adaptation does in fact make many significant alterations, but they are arguably the wrong ones. My three primary objections are the out-of-character violence, the flawed characterization of key character Adrian Veidt, and the altered ending.
I. HERE’S WHAT’S WRONG WITH: The Violence
First let me pre-empt the immediate objections: I am not a prude that decries any portrayal of violence in fiction (be it movies, video games, whatever). I have never subscribed to the reductive theory that censoring movies is the way to reduce real-world ills; if an individual is so damaged as to be inspired to violence by a movie (or even to take up smoking), there’s something more wrong with that individual than can be repaired by censoring movies for everyone else. So I don’t object to Watchmen’s notably extreme violence and gore per se, but rather to its injudicious use by all its characters, irregardless of whether it is motivated by their individual natures.
All of the so-called superheroes in the Watchmen movie are shown to be brutal killers. It does makes sense in the cases of Ozymandias (a megalomaniac presuming to kill a few to save many), Dr. Manhattan (an unemotional non-human that finds nothing extraordinary in life), The Comedian (a misanthropic, nihilistic mercenary), and, most especially, Rorschach. One of the most difficult-to-watch sequences of the entire film is a flashback relating Rorschach’s (Jackie Earle Haley) origin story. His voiceover narration states that, early in his career as a costumed vigilante, he was originally “too soft on crime,” meaning to him, that he used to let criminals live. He goes on to recall the specific case in which he cracked. He tracks down the hideout of a creep that has kidnapped and killed a little girl, and fed her to his dogs. This case is beyond the pale for a street-level vigilante more accustomed to busting up organized crime and purse snatchers. Rorschach sees no point in apprehending him on the police’s behalf, and summarily executes him in a rage. This sequence is unbelievably violent, but it speaks volumes about Rorschach, why he is the way he is, and what differentiates him from his peers, the vigilante fraternity.
But all this is undercut when we also see Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) execute an entire gang of would-be muggers. Muggers, not demonic child molesters! What’s their excuse for splintering bones and severing spines? At what point in their careers did they adjust their moral compasses and decide it’s justified for them to kill? To kill is totally out of character for both of them, and undercuts the entire point of the Rorschach sequence. Their actions make them no different than Rorschach. If the point is that they think they are different than Rorschach but are not, the movie doesn’t seem to be aware of this contradiction. Silk Spectre’s fighting style, incidentally, seems inspired by Madonna’s “Vogue” dance and maximized to strike sexy poses (not that I’m complaining).
The movie also alters the already-horrific rape scene in the book in two very strange ways: it makes it considerably more violent, but also explicitly clear that the actual act of rape was interrupted before… there is no word for the crime… completion, I’ll say. In later scenes, it is explicitly spelled out that Sally (Carla Gugino) and The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) have consensual sex some years later, conceiving Laurie (who assumes his mother’s mantle of Silk Spectre). My interpretation of the rape scene as it appears in the book has always been that Laurie was conceived during the rape, and that there is no evidence in the text that Sally and The Comedian had any kind of relationship afterwards. In both the book and the movie, the aged Sally cries and kisses a picture of the original hero group The Minutemen, which included a young Comedian. The scene is totally ambiguous in the book; I always assumed that Sally’s feelings were very complex – certainly not that she forgave or loved her rapist, but more that she was sad and nostalgic for a world long-lost. Laurie’s biological father (for better or for worse) and most of the population of New York were all murdered. Her happiness and glory days are long gone. Wouldn’t you cry too? But in the movie, it’s made utterly clear that she voluntarily slept with The Comedian some time after his attempted rape. If we are expected to believe that a fictional woman could do that, the movie ought to spend some time examining her psychology and motivations, which it does not.
In fact, this scene was so squeamish that the crowd in the theater became unruly (an opening-night screening on Manhattan’s Upper West Side), and at least one person (a man, as it happens), got up and walked out, loudly complaining all the way. I also note without judgement that a few other people also walked out during the absurdly long sex scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre. Personally, the most offensive aspect of that scene for me was its ironic soundtrack of Leonard Cohen’s lovely Hallelujah. The Onion’s A.V. Club reports on even more significant walkouts.
II. HERE’S WHAT’S WRONG WITH: Adrian Veidt
To pull off a workable movie version of Watchmen, I would argue that the one character it would be most important to get right is Adrian Veidt. Strangely for such a visual director as Snyder, Veidt’s origin story is told not as a flashback (as with all other characters) but as a dull lecture given to a bunch of industrialists. He takes pleasure in explaining that he has patterned his hero persona after no less grandiose historical models than Alexander the Great and Pharaoh Ramesses II, also known as Ozymandias. Everyone should have known that this one would be nothing but trouble. A statue in Veidt’s arctic hideaway (his version of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude) is inscribed with the Percy Bysshe Shelley verse:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.
One of the key details that makes the superhero characters in the book so interesting is that only one of them is actually “super.” Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is a nonhuman being that exists on a quantum level of reality, but every other “hero” character is mortal. Exemplary and/or damaged in certain ways, but all human. We know from the book that Veidt has honed his body to near-perfect physical fitness, but the movie clearly shows him to possess superhuman strength and speed. It’s a pity to make Veidt more than human, because, like all of history’s greatest heroes and villains, he is just a man.
Most curiously of all, the movie implies Veidt is gay. If you think my gaydar is on the fritz, bear with me here for a moment. First, we see a brief flashback of Veidt hanging out in front of the legendary Manhattan nightclub Studio 54 with gay and/or androgynous pop icons The Village People, David Bowie, and Mick Jagger. Additionally, actor Matthew Goode made the bizarre choice to give his character a speech defect, perhaps meant to be the sort of lisp that codes movie characters as “gay.” It’s so dominant that some lines of dialogue were actually difficult to understand. Goode seems to speak clearly in Match Point and Brideshead Revisited (in the sexually ambiguous role of Charles Ryder), so we can rule out it being natural for him. The original graphic novel does not make any suggestions as to Veidt’s sexuality at all, which makes a kind of sense, as he is a megalomaniac that probably doesn’t want or need anybody, male or female.
III. HERE’S WHAT’S WRONG WITH: The New Ending
Veidt’s final solution to save the world is utterly insane, but one aspect in particular is brilliantly manipulative. He distracts his former comrades from his machinations with a conspiracy theory perfectly tailored to their own little psychodrama: an invented serial killer targeting former superheroes. While the world slides towards armageddon, they are preoccupied running around the globe fretting about a “mask killer.”
Meanwhile, Veidt plots to save the world from immanent nuclear war, a threat the other heroes are aware of but never consider to be something they can affect. In the graphic novel, he fabricates a nonexistent extraterrestrial threat, and stages a massive alien attack on Manhattan that kills thousands (millions?). Humanity is effectively united in a new but fragile world order, looking outward for foes, rather than at each other. Veidt’s plot in the movie is significantly different, framing Dr. Manhattan for the destruction of New York. Both endings imagine a kind of 9/11 in 1985, but the movie version is more self-contained and less absurd, perhaps meant to be easier for audiences to digest. The comic version is admittedly utterly batshit insane, which is part of the point: the faux attack is so shockingly unprecedented that it shocks the entire world into submission. It also underscores Veidt’s true diabolical evil genius: he’s the only one of his kind that sees outside of the superhero psychodrama, and he knows that to truly unite the world behind a fiction, it has to be something new, not something humanity has already rejected: the superhero. Also, as contributing Dork Reporter Snarkbait notes, why would the Soviets necessarily react peaceably to the threat of Dr. Manhattan? He was already a threat to them for decades, but had long since stopped becoming a deterrent (as the story begins, they were encroaching on Afghanistan anyway). It shouldn’t have surprised any citizens of this fictional world that Dr. Manhattan might blow something up. But it would shock the entire world if a gigantic alien squid were to decimate a city.
Another issue entirely is the pathetic cop-out of depicting only the decimated buildings of Manhattan, and not the accompanying piles of bodies (something the book does not shy away from). Co-screenwriter David Hayter chalks it up to a fact of the movie being a big-budget product of a major studio:
The ending of the book shows just piles of corpses, bloody corpses in the middle of Times Square, people hanging out of windows just slaughtered on a massive scale. To do that in a comic book, and release it in 1985, is different from doing it real life, in a movie, and seeing all of these people brutally massacred in the middle of Times Square post 2001. That’s a legitimate concern, and one that I shared.
If you’re doing the movie for $40 million, fine – bloody bodies everywhere. And that’s fine, and it’s a niche film, and only the hardcore fans would go see it. But if you’re doing it on this big of a scale, I just don’t think that’s… I understood their [Warner Bros.’] reticence to putting those images on screen.
IV. HERE’S WHAT’S RIGHT WITH WATCHMEN
Quite a rant this is turning into. Who needs this much negativity in their lives (and blogs)? The movie was not a crime against humanity, and certainly could have been a lot worse. As io9.com reports, for all its flaws, Snyder’s flawed alterations look like genius compared to the rude bastardization the studio Warner Bros. wanted: to set it in the present day, cut all flashbacks, cut the sequences on Mars, cut Rorschach’s psychoanalysis, and worst of all, end with the villain Veidt dying, apparently based on the conventional wisdom that audiences are conditioned to expect villains to die.
The movie kept one of my favorite little character moments of the book: when the old crimefighting duo of Nite Owl and Rorschach are reunited, Nite Owl finally snaps and tells him people only put up with him because he’s a lunatic and they’re afraid of him. Rorschach shows a final glimmer of the last bit of humanity left in him, and puts out his hand: “you’re a good friend, Dan.” But he doesn’t let go. Rorschach has long since lost his ability to interact normally.
Watchmen is, remarkably, a period piece. Snyder keeps the original setting of the book in the 1980s, complete with nostalgic easter eggs: including a vintage Apple Macintosh desktop, Pat Buchanan, Annie Leibovitz, John McLaughlin (of The McLaughlin Group, not the jazz fusion guitarist), Andy Warhol, Henry Kissinger, Ted Koppel, Lee Iacocca, Truman Capote (seen in Warhol’s Factory), Fidel Castro, Mick Jagger, and David Bowie. But one background detail in the book (a repeatedly reelected Nixon) is expanded to an absurd degree.
Jackie Earle Haley was extraordinary, far and away the best asset of the movie. More than any other cast member, Haley seemed to really understand the complex character. Rorschach is undoubtedly an unhinged, right-wing, sexually stunted nutjob, but in a strange kind of way, he becomes the moral center of the very liberal graphic novel. The same utterly uncompromising nature of his character that causes him to appoint himself an executioner of criminals also makes him unable to live with the grand lie that Veidt architects. For all his sins, Rorschach is right about one thing: the world deserves the truth. Haley’s final scene was perfectly performed, and the one moment in the entire movie imbued with real emotion.
Some of the best bits of Watchmen commentary, clips, humor, and esoterica that bubbled up on teh interwebs during the buildup to this geek apocalypse:
Levitz on Watchmen, in which DC Comics CEO Paul Levitz reveals the heartening statistic that DC hurriedly ran hundreds of thousands of additional copies of the book to meet demand. (also via The Comics Journal Journalista)
This is Not a Watchmen Review by Sean Axmaker, asking not only why the world needs a Watchmen movie, but why it would need another Watchmen review. Guilty.
Why Alan Moore Hates Comic Book Movies by San Shurst. Total Film’s brief exclusive interview with Moore in which he pithily nails the problem with movies: “everybody who is ultimately in control of the film industry is an accountant.” On Watchmen’s 100 million dollar budget: “Do we need any more shitty films in this world? We have quite enough already. Whereas the 100 million dollars could sort out the civil unrest in Haiti. And the books are always superior, anyway.”
Will You Watch the Watchmen? by Jason A. Tselentis. A consideration of the then-forthcoming movie from the point of view of a designer. I posted what I thought was a decent comment but was rejected. Ouch!
DeZ Vylenz’s feature-length documentary about the life and work of writer Alan Moore was made in 2003 but not released until 2008. The delay might be easily explained as that of an independent production’s typical struggle for funding, but it’s hard not to guess the timing of this particular film’s lavish release as a deluxe double-disc DVD may have something to do with Moore’s currently elevated profile. The long-awaited theatrical adaptation of Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel Watchmen finally hits theaters on March 6 2009, after almost 2 decades of fits and starts in Hollywood limbo.
The Mindscape of Alan Moore is essentially an extended sit-down interview with Moore, intercut with evocative imagery evoking Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance. It moves too quickly to focus on any one aspect of Moore’s long career, and it’s possible to glean more insight into the man just by reading one or two interviews. But it’s apparent that Vylenz’s true interest lies less in Moore’s comics work than in his practice of magic. More on that later.
The charmer from Northhampton
Let’s be frank; Alan Moore is a weird cat. As more than one person has described him, he’s a truly great writer that has chosen to work in “The Gutter” (as it amuses Neil Gaiman to call it): comics. Which is to oversimplify; some of his other work includes several performance art pieces and the stunning prose novel Voice of the Fire. All this has left Moore a cult figure, underestimated even by many fans. He is probably one of comics’ best-known names, but while his friend Gaiman frequently tours the globe like a rock star, he’s happy to stay at home in Northhampton. Like Stanley Kubrick, he has an unfair reputation as a kind of eccentric recluse, but reportedly the actual truth is that he is a warm and friendly person who simply wishes to enjoy life in his home town and practice his art.
Moore began writing comics in the 1980s Reagan/Thatcher Cold War era, which informed the paranoid and apocalyptic air of V for Vendetta and Watchmen. One particular fictional nightmare of Moore’s that he perversely enjoys to point out is V For Vendetta’s accurate prediction that CCTV surveillance would blanket England by the late 1990s. But further on the topic of political oppression, Moore affirms that while conspiracy theories are everywhere you look (the act of looking creates them, one might say), in fact there are no conspiracies. If the world is rudderless and chaotic, conspiracy theories are mere comforts.
V approves of this post
Against his intentions, his dark take on the superhero and science fiction genres was radically influential in the wrong way. Fans and creators who didn’t grasp the deeper themes behind Watchmen forever steered comics into grim and gritty stupidity, mimicking the superfluous sex and violence without the subtext and literary merit that Moore snuck in the back door. On its simplest level, Watchmen could be described as what the world would be like if there actually were such a thing as superheroes. The answer being: totally different and yet exactly the same. But looking deeper, Watchmen is actually about the danger of those that presume to the power to change the world. It’s impossible to read Watchmen now, two decades after its creation, and not to compare the book’s true villain (whom it would be a cruel spoiler for me to name here) with George W. Bush’s misadventures in the Middle East. Bush and Watchmen’s villain both manufactured wars with the presumptive belief that they were destined to save the world.
Moore believes that while a knowledge and appreciation of how cinema works can inform comics, there are things that only comics can do. If comics creators only work with movies in mind, their comics will be like “movies that don’t move.” So, as a result, most of his work was essentially “designed to be unfilmable.” This Dork Reporter worries that the forthcoming adaptation of Watchmen will carry on the tradition of missing Moore’s point, and will simply be a dark, nasty, and depressing story of violence, sex, and depravity starring superheroes in sexy tights.
Rorschach’s cameo appearance
Moore declared to friends and family on his 40th birthday that he was a magician. That’s not “magic” as in the pulling of rabbits out of proverbial hats, but as in the exploration of areas outside the realm of science. Magic is the exploration of what science does not cover, but sometimes science describes the world in ways that might sound like magic. Collaborator Dave Gibbons points out the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, in which the more we learn what makes up matter and the material world, the less substantial it all seems. We can’t observe or measure it; there’s nothing there.
Moore defines magic as “The Art,” and if art is the manipulation of words and images to alter consciousness, then art is magic, and a writer is a magician. As Moore says in an interview with Daniel Whiston, his best grimoire (or book of spells) is actually a dictionary. Moore believes writing is a “transformative force than can change society” but by the 21st Century, writing is seen as a mere entertainment. Whereas once, in less rational or scientifically enlightened times, writers were feared. A witch could curse your crops or your health, but a writer could afflict you with a satire that could cause an entire community to laugh at you, and worse, for posterity to continue to laugh at you generations after you die! Now, the power of magic is not only underestimated, but abused. Advertisers work magic every day by manipulating and anesthetizing people en masse.
Doctor Manhattan as Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man
Moore posits the existence of what he calls “Ideaspace,” the landscape of the mind and spirit. The various systems of magic, like the Tarot and the Kabbalah, are maps to Ideaspace. He describes how writers and musicians sometimes feel like they are tapping in to something beyond them, as if merely taking dictation. I myself once felt a faint, pathetic little echo of I think what Moore is talking about. A high school friend and I used to compose and record instrumental music for guitar and keyboard. Our compositions were of varying degrees of seriousness, many just silly fun, but some fairly ambitious. While jamming around one of our silliest tunes, I still swear I heard a melody in the music that neither of us had played yet. My friend couldn’t hear it even when I figured it out on the guitar and played it over the backing tracks we had already recorded. Perhaps I was just hearing musical overtones that were literally present in the sound waves, but I remain convinced that, as silly as that particular song was, I very briefly connected into some kind of world of music. I don’t feel like it was a piece of music that I wrote, more like something that was already there, waiting, and I just had to hear it and play it back onto tape.
But if Ideaspace is real place full of “information” (nonmaterial ideas and inventions), humans are accumulating information at an exponentially increasing rate, and Moore predicts an apocalypse of sorts. If it continues at this rate, the accumulation of information will accelerate to a point where it will effectively approach infinity around 2015. He doesn’t know what will happen, but poetically describes the event as society reaching a boiling point and “becoming steam.” Moore’s ideas here are similar to Ray Kurzweil’s notion of the coming Singularity, the point at which computers become so advanced that they can act of their own accord, and improve themselves, and in effect become conscious. What Moore has to say here is both fascinating and frightening, but the film falls down by literally illustrating his big ideas with overly literal special effects sequences showing Northhampton burning.
Other filmed sequences reenact scenes from Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and John Constantine: Hellblazer (a series initially written by Jamie Delano, but starring the character Moore created for Swamp Thing). It probably seemed extremely unlikely in 2003 that any of these properties would become big-budget Hollywood films, and yet they now all have. In particular, the two sequences from Watchmen and V for Vendetta almost surely didn’t make Warner Bros. (who owns the rights to the works) happy, but they seem to have allowed Vylenz’ film to be released nevertheless.
A bonus DVD includes lengthy interviews with many of Moore’s collaborators, discussing their own work as well as their collaborations with Moore. Moore’s wife Melinda Gebbie, an American expat and illustrator of the pornographic novel Lost Girls, is more… well, normal than I would have expected. She’s extremely intelligent, with progressive politics, making her an obvious partner for Moore, but to be honest, I expected more of a freak. Also, Dave Gibbons does a wicked impression of Moore.
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?
For all the negative buzz regarding Alan Moore’s total disavowal of the adaptation, I was surprised to find the film kept far closer to the book than I expected. Closer, in fact, than the two other travesties of Moore’s comics, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s better than both, if by itself still not very good.
It’s impossible for me to imagine how I would have reacted had I not read the book several times, but I suspect I would have had very mixed feelings either way. When if comes to movies based on comics, it’s the prerogative of every fanboy to obsess over “what they changed.” So let me point out a few changes I feel illustrate how the filmmakers either misunderstood or deliberately warped some key themes that make the book what it is.
First, Evey’s life (and the future Great Britain, for that matter) as seen in the film is in a far less desperate state than in the book. The book opens with her at the absolute end of hope, her parents dead and herself alone, blacklisted and unable to survive. She makes a misguided and pathetic attempt to prostitute herself, runs afoul of the corrupt police, and is “saved” (in more ways than one) by V. Her susceptibility to V’s seduction is much more plausible if she herself is already a victim of the state. In the film, she’s a rather happy person with a regular job, and her encounter with V is motivated by a redundant invented character called Deitrich. Every theme Deitrich represents is already covered by the character Valerie (which is, incidentally, lifted almost unaltered from the book).
But perhaps the biggest deviation is the very nature of the fascist state Great Britain has become. In the book, it’s something that just happens; a form of order that arises out of the chaos following a nuclear world war. In the film, the great societal disruption is a conspiracy machinated by a cabal of shadowy old white men, who then step in and profit from the reconstruction. Of course, the filmmakers are obviously reaching for an analogy to the Bush Administration, Carlyle Group, Halliburton, etc. While that may make the story of the film relevant to today, it obscures a more powerful point of the book: it’s far more scary when fascism arises out of the common consent of the people, as it did with Nazi Germany.