Best Films Never Made #10: Terry Gilliam’s Watchmen

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Alan Moore’s legendary Watchmen was the catalyst for a sea change in the way both comic books and superheroes were viewed by the wider world. Deconstructing the clean-cut superhero myths of classics like Superman or Batman with virtuoso skill, Watchmen explores ideas of existentialism, space and time, and just what it is that would make people in the real world dress up as superheroes. A critical and commercial success upon its serialised release in 1986, the film rights were snapped up by Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver of 20th Century Fox, but in 1991 the project was put into turnaround and bought by Warner Bros with Terry Gilliam attached to direct. So just what happened to Gilliam’s version, and more importantly would it have been any good?

The script that Gilliam inherited was written by Sam Hamm and featured some significant changes to Alan Moore’s original story. For example, he removed the iconic opening lines from Rorschach’s diary, relegating The Comedian’s murder to nothing more than a cop anecdote and reduced Dr Manhattan’s emotional origin story to a handful of brief scenes.

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Despite these odd choices, Hamm also introduced intriguing new elements to the story, in particular the idea that Laurie was given cancer as part of Veidt’s plan, driving a wedge between her and Dr Manhattan in a much more personal and dramatic way. With Dr Manhattan gone, nuclear strikes are launched and the world is minutes from total destruction. Unveiling a globe that shows Jon Osterman moments before he becomes Dr Manhattan, Veidt reveals his plan: He will kill the past version of Dr Manhattan, thereby changing history as they know it.

“It’s a tachyon chamber. It generates subatomic particles which flow backwards in time. […] There are other worlds, Daniel, other timelines – existing parallel to our own – […] In some of them – only a few – the human race survives. And it survives because Dr Manhattan never existed.” – Adrian Veidt, Watchmen

Dr Manhattan suddenly appears and vaporises Veidt, but moments later he realises there is only one way to save the world and steps into the past, sacrificing himself as the chamber activates. Back in the future, the world literally disintegrates around Laurie, Dreiberg and Rorschach and they are sucked into a vortex before being dumped into the middle of present-day New York. Our present day New York. Metres away is the familiar sight of the kid reading a comic book beside the news vendor, but what comic book is it now? That’s right, it’s Watchmen.

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In hindsight, even Hamm himself was sceptical of the qualities of his script, saying “I thought it too unwieldy to compress into two hours. The comic really is a spectacular piece of architecture. Trying to replicate it [was] just impossible.” Nevertheless, Gilliam attempted the impossible, having the script rewritten by long-time collaborator Charles McKeown (Brazil). Little is known of his rewrite, but the few available facts suggest it reinstated some of the classic elements missing from Hamm’s version, and was structured around Rorschach’s voiceover from his diary.

Perhaps the best example of what a Gilliam-helmed version of Watchmen would look like is given by combining his 1985 classic Brazil with his most recent film, The Zero Theorem creating a unique brand of philosophical neon noir. Arguably Gilliam’s style is a bit too broad and farcical for the gritty world of Watchmen, but he was a fan favourite for many years. Sadly, after struggling to reconcile the film’s density and running time with the need to keep it marketable, Gilliam gave up on the project amidst growing budgetary concerns. In the fascinating interview below, made shortly after he accepted the project, Gilliam spoke about how he’d “got the film down to about two and a half hours, but I don’t know what else to take out.” He made a last-ditch attempt to pitch it as a five-hour miniseries that would have cost $1,000,000 a page, but Warner Bros weren’t interested.

Gilliam talks about Watchmen from 08.30-09.00 and 15.14-18.20

After that the film passed through many hands, with David Hayter, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass all attached to direct at various times. Eventually Watchmen ended up back at Warner Bros with Zack Snyder directing after his impressive work on 300, but the film’s troubled production history didn’t end there. 20th Century Fox sued Warner Bros just as production finished, claiming they still held rights to the film and Warner Bros were forced to pay out between 5 and 10 million dollars covering development and legal costs.

When it eventually hit cinemas, Snyder’s Watchmen proved to be a faithful, but uninspired adaptation receiving mixed reviews from critics and Gilliam himself, who said: “I thought it was too reverential. There are great sequences in there, but the overall effect is kind of turgid in a certain way. I also thought The Incredibles had kind of fucked it for him. The Incredibles is doing Watchmen.” We’ll never know if Gilliam’s Watchmen would have been any better, though he did admit that Snyder’s version, “was certainly looking better than what I was going to do!” Perhaps the answer lies with Moore himself, who once stated bluntly, “I increasingly fear that nothing good can come of almost any adaptation”. Maybe he’s right, or maybe he’s just never seen the inspired version of Watchmen below.

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Are you a fan of Snyder’s faithful adaptation? Or do you wish that Gilliam had persevered with his bolder revision to the classic comic? Tell us your thoughts!

Don’t forget to share this if you enjoyed it.

Sources: Ain’t It Cool/Noise to Signal/Variety/Entertainment Weekly 1/Entertainment Weekly 2/New York Times/Wikipedia/Complex/Bleeding Cool

Read the entirety of Hamm’s screenplay here: http://www.watchmencomicmovie.com/downloads/watchmen-script-hamm-1989.pdf

2 responses to “Best Films Never Made #10: Terry Gilliam’s Watchmen

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