Welcome to By The Book, in which we take a look at cinematic adaptations of literary works. This feature is less a review of the merits and shortcomings of the films themselves, rather a study of the films as adaptations – is it faithful to the source material? Where it differs, what choices were made, and are they successful? Do the book and film work together to tell the story, or are the authors turning in their proverbial graves at what has been done to their novel? Here we look at the divisive, long-gestating adaptation of classic graphic novel Watchmen.
Warning: this article contains major spoilers for both versions of Watchmen.
If you’re a comic book fan as well as a cinephile, it is a damn good time to be alive. We’ve now become so good at bringing everything about comic books – from the sprawling continuities to the colourful characters – to the big screen, that a movie about a tree and a talking raccoon can be one of the biggest critical and commercial hits of the year. But as we enjoy Avengers: Age of Ultron, which by all accounts looks set to top the staggering $1.5 billion its predecessor made at the box office, it’s worth thinking about the book that got us here: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen.
Published in 1986 alongside Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Moore’s opus is considered to be the book that revitalised the comics industry and brought adult audiences back to the fold. More importantly, it brought their money, and convinced film studios to give superhero movies another chance after the awful Superman IV nearly killed them off. Without Watchmen, there’d be no Tim Burton Batman movie, no Dark Knight trilogy, no X-Men, no Spider-Man, and no Marvel Cinematic Universe. Great directors like Darren Aronofsky, Paul Greengrass and (most famously) Terry Gilliam tried and failed to adapt it for the screen, with Moore eventually declaring it “unfilmable”. But in 2009, Zack Snyder was brought in to shoot David Hayter’s script, and succeeded where everyone before him had failed. So after a wait of more than two decades, did Snyder do justice to the comic book that Time listed as one of the best 100 novels in the English language?
Alan Moore’s dystopian version of 1985, where superheroes have been outlawed, is a masterclass of alternate history; this is a world where Richard Nixon is serving his third term as president, and America won the Vietnam War. He presents this in myriad ways, from newspaper clippings to throwaway lines of dialogue, and while Snyder could never hope to include the same level of detail, he crams the movie with incidental reminders of how different this world is from our own. His genius stroke, however, lies in the opening credits. Images of skewed moments in history – the superheroine Silhouette embracing a nurse on VJ Day; Dr. Manhattan reflected in the visor of Neil Armstrong’s helmet – flash before our eyes, to the melancholy strains of Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changin”. It’s a wonderful sequence, and does a perfect job of establishing the downbeat, hopeless tone of the film.
Snyder’s respect for the source material is obvious from the opening shots of The Comedian’s death, as DP Larry Fong frames crucial scenes as if Gibbons’ illustrations had come to life – as the great Roger Ebert succinctly put it, this is one of the few superhero movies to truly evoke the “feel” of a graphic novel. But there’s still an unmistakable Zack Snyder flavour thrown into the mix – Gibbons’ light colour palette is drowned in oppressive noir overtones, while the action sequences are as gloriously brutal as anything in 300. The soundtrack is equally excellent, with Tyler Bates’ score peppered with classic tracks like ’99 Luftballoons’ and Nat King Cole’s ‘Unforgettable’ – though sadly, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ only serves to make a dull sex scene completely excruciating. Less consistently successful is the dialogue, huge chunks of which David Hayter and Alex Tse have lifted verbatim from the books – but that has more to do with the actors delivering the lines. Which brings us to…
An ensemble piece like Watchmen was always going to live or die on the strength of its cast. But rather than striving for big-name recognition like much of the MCU, Snyder went for lesser-known thespians and the result is a cast that (almost) works like gangbusters. True, there are some weak links – in particular, Malin Akerman and Matthew Goode look decidedly uncomfortable in their lycra and spandex uniforms – but there are also some astounding performances. Jeffrey Dean Morgan breathes real soul into the Comedian, making it strangely easy for an audience to feel sympathy, even pity, for a character they see violently raping someone in an early scene. Despite an often-distracting blue CGI todger and the brunt of a lot of expository dialogue, Billy Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan is remarkable. His monologue, in which he mourns the loss of his own humanity as he becomes a literal god among men, is one of the film’s high points.
But ultimately, Watchmen belongs to Jackie Earle Haley. From the moment he first starts reading Rorschach’s journal aloud, he steals every moment he’s on screen. His ever-shifting mask is a wonderful piece of visual trickery, but as iconic as it is, Haley’s most devastating moments come when he takes it off. Rorschach is a truly tragic figure, irreparably broken by the Sisyphean task of simply trying to make the world a better place, and by the end you can almost hear the relief in his voice as he tells Dr. Manhattan to kill him.
We previously said that Snyder’s film is incredibly faithful to the original book, but that’s not strictly true. While the majority of the story is nearly identical in both forms, Snyder takes the film in a completely different direction in the closing moments – and drastically improves the story in the process. In both versions it’s revealed that basically everything bad that’s happened is the work of Adrian Veidt (better known as the superhero Ozymandias) who has orchestrated a plan to end the rapidly escalating Cold War by causing widespread death and destruction, giving both sides a common enemy – “killing millions to save billions.” The difference is in the how. In the book, Veidt uses a team of special effects experts and genetic scientists to create a fake alien invasion – something that admittedly looks cool on a splash page but would be impossible to pull off in a live-action film.
Snyder, meanwhile, keeps the threat much closer to home, having Veidt explode a series of experimental reactors designed to solve the energy crisis which he created with the help of Dr. Manhattan. It’s another stroke of genius on Snyder’s part, because it makes Manhattan’s decision to guard Veidt’s secret (killing Rorschach in the process) all the more logical, and all the more terrifying. We see how completely Jon Osterman has lost his humanity: “the world’s smartest man,” he tells Veidt, “poses no more threat to me than does its smartest termite.”
Purists might balk at the radical diversion from Alan Moore’s ending, while newcomers will find some of the mythology that’s been carried over too dense to penetrate – Ozymandias’ genetically-engineered lynx Bubastis is just bloody weird on screen. All the same, there’s no denying the impressiveness of Watchmen as a piece of cinema. Alan Moore said his creation was unfilmable. Zack Snyder proved him wrong.
GR ADE: A-