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Saturday, November 15, 2014

To Watch the Watchmen

I was surprised when I first learned that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1986 graphic novel Watchmen was going to be adapted to a film version; it didn’t strike me as a very filmable story.  The original material is extraordinary, the only graphic novel to be included on Time Magazine’s list of 100 best novels of the century (Goldstein 1) but I was wary.  “The book is always better,” may not be true in every case, but it’s true often enough to have given me some reservations about the movie. But now, after having seen the film directed by Zach Snyder on the big screen at the movie theater when it was first released in 2009, and several times at home on DVD in the years since, I am still surprised that it was made, and that it is as faithful an adaption as it is, even with its flaws and shortcomings.

This isn’t to say that it is an absolutely or slavishly faithful adaptation.  Adaption means change, of course, and somethings – many things -  had to change in order to translate the Watchmen from two dimension drawings on a nine paneled page into moving images projected onto a screen.  There were the expected compression of events and elimination of material; this is inevitable when a lengthy novel is filmed, unless one is willing to sit through nine hour film.

Though the drawings of the original Watchmen material were only two dimensional, the characters that emerged were surprisingly developed – three dimensional, even.  They may have been super-heroes running around in masks and tights, but they were realistic.  They suffered. They loved. They hurt.  They aged.  They (some of them) died. They were breakable, and broken. Impotent.  From Gibbons’ detailed drawings and Moore’s nuanced writing emerged believable and authentic characters.  Curiously, when this story was translated from its original two-dimensional medium to a motion picture (with at least the illusion of three dimensions) the characters were flattened into two dimensional caricatures.  Cutting material in order to ensure an acceptable running time for the film meant that the Watchmen became the shallow type of comic book characters that the Watchmen graphic novel was designed to challenge.

Gone were the complexities of their relationships.  Gone were some of the relationships all together, as some characters like Captain Metropolis appeared only in flashback sequences of the film or, like Hooded Justice, had their roles reduced to a single line.  Much of the detail of these human interaction came from portions of the graphic novel that were completely excised from the film – the various extra material included at the end of each chapter: the newspaper clippings, police reports, and specifically the excerpts from one of the character’s biographies, Under the Hood.”  The graphic novel dealt with the very human interactions of these superheroes – their sexuality, their doubt, their struggle. The movie lost much of this. While the movie version does a fair job of showing (at least the surface of) these issues, it does not take the time to develop them with any great depth.

“Under the Hood” as well as a comic book within the graphic novel, “Tales of the Black Freighter” were cut from the film, but are now available as an extra DVD, separate from the film version of Watchmen. This misses the point, however.  One of the things that made the graphic novel such a powerful work of literature was the way the story was carried along by two simultaneous, and roughly parallel tracks.  The material in the auto-biographical “Under the Hood” and the pirate themed comic book “Tales from the Black Freighter” (superheroes, being “real” in this alternate world, are less interesting for comic books, thus – pirate stories) is not extra or bonus material to be included in the DVD release, but are integral parts of the narrative development.

Lost also are the repeated motifs and images and the structure of the graphic novel.  Released originally as a 12 part series, and later bound as a 12 chapter novel, Watchmen is structured around the image of a ticking clock, counting down the hours toward the red apocalypse of war between the United States and the Soviet Union.  The film made a brief nod toward this clock image, and created some of the cold war anxiety, but it lost repeated clocks.  The one exception to this might be the smiley face which is found both on The Comedian’s button and on the surface of Mars, in the film as in the book. 

A few of the book’s epigraphs are carried over into the film – most noticeably the titular quote from Juvenal, “Who watches the watchmen” can be seen spray-painted on a wall and the references to the music of Bob Dylan was translated into the film’s music cues – though “Desolation Row” was relegated to the end credits and not worked into the story proper. But the quotes from Nietzsche, Blake, Einstein, Genesis, Job, Jung, Percy Shelly, etc., were dropped from the film. Again, these are not mere extras to be included as bonus material at the end of the film, they are the philosophical underpinnings of the novel; these ideas are interwoven into the story in the graphic novel. Perhaps it is snobbish to say, but the film is less intellectually satisfying than the graphic novel.

The most notable change made in adapting the graphic novel to film is in the story’s conclusion.  (And, here there be spoilers.  Be warned.) Alan Moore’s story is similar to previous works of science fiction, relying on a similar plot device: the arrival of aliens to put a stop to the warring between the nations of Earth.  Theodore Sturgeon used the idea in his 1948 short story “United to Conquer,” as did Kurt Vonnegut in his novel The Sirens of Titan in 1959.  As Moore was writing the story he became aware of the similarities between his Watchmen and an episode of the TV series The Outer Limit entitled “The Architects of Fear.” Moore was encouraged to change is story so as to distinguish it from these earlier works, but would or could not bring himself to do that.

Directing the film adaptation, Zach Snyder made the changes that Moore would not. Snyder dropped the alien threat and transferred those parts of the story to the character Doctor Manhattan.  And it easy to understand why Snyder may have felt compelled to make these changes.  This is easily the most difficult part of the story; it is strange – even for a science fiction graphic novel.  And while purists may have wanted him to adhere to the original material, the film sought a wider audience.  The alien threat was changed to reflect a more natural (though the use of that word is very relative) threat, and one that reflected the post 9-11 fears of the audience. The climactic scenes of the film are reminiscent of those images seen by so many after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York in 2001.

To adapt one work of art into another medium is to make difficult choices.  The choice of what material to include or to exclude in the film version of Watchmen was guided by many factors: the film’s running time, budget, ability to translate visually, and perhaps the perceived ability of the audience to appreciate the ‘weirdness’ of the story.  Snyder had to balance all of these factors against an appreciation of the original material.  The film version of Watchmen that he created is visually appealing (as are all of his films) and is a fair, if bastardized version, of Moore and Gibbons’ original work.

If I were put into his shoes and responsible for making these choices, I’m not sure what I would have done.  There is so much great material in the book; to include it all would necessitate an incredibly long film and would be cost prohibitive to produce.  Additionally, not all of the material would even be translatable to film.  The mediums are just too different.

Alan Moore is somewhat notorious for not appreciating adaptions of his work.  In addition to Watchmen, film versions of his graphic novels From Hell, V for Vendetta, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen have been made, much to his displeasure.  And this isn’t just because he’s grumpy or an overprotective crank.  He is reluctant to have his work adapted by Hollywood because he recognizes that the differences between the graphic novel and film mediums are too different to do justice on film to his stories.  Speaking specifically about his Watchmen he said, “There are things that we did with Watchmen that could only work in a comic, and were indeed designed to show off things that other media can't” (Gopalan 1).

While I enjoy watching the film version of Watchmen it is only a thin version of the novel.  What it gains in visual appeal in its terrific costuming, exciting action sequences, and spectacular photography, it loses in complexity, depth, and literary structure.  It is a fine and exciting film – a decent adaption of the original source material.  But it is not a great adaption. It can’t be, the differences between the mediums are just too great. 



Goldstein, Hilary. "Watchmen Distinguished in Time". IGN. October 17, 2005.
Retrieved on November 14, 2014.
Gopalan, Nisha. "Alan Moore Still Knows the Score!" Entertainment Weekly.
Retrieved on November 14, 2014.
Moore, Alan, Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York, NY. DC Comics. 1986.
Watchmen. Dir. Zach Snyder. Warner Brothers. 2009.

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