So after literally decades in development hell, Alan Moore’s epic Watchmen has finally made it to the silver screen. Over the years, the likes of Joel Silver, Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass have been attached to the project with projected casts that have included Arnold Schwazernegger, Simon Pegg, Sigourney Weaver, Daniel Craig, Jude Law, and Joaquin Phoenix. And now in the hands of Zack Synder, it’s finally arrived.
Generally the phrase ‘comic book adaption’ is a bit of a misnomer. Apart from a few movies that are based on stand alone graphic novels such as A History of Violence or Road To Perdition, usually a movie will not actually be adapting a comic but translating a character into cinema. Generally a movie will take the sharacters, villains and props of a comic and then create a new story around them. Sure, some of the comic book movies, such as the X-men or Spiderman franchises have drawn upon story arcs from the books but only rather loosely - they haven’t actually set out to adapt a specific set of issues. ‘Comics character movies’ would be a more accurate description for this type of movie.
However in the case of Watchmen this is exactly what the film makers have done. Rather than using the source material as a template, they have adapted Moore and Gibbons’ work as you would a classic novel or a play. And the key word here is ‘classic’; there are many literary adaptations which play equally as fast and loose with the source material as the average superhero flick and seemingly the effort to faithfully follow the original increases with the work’s perceived status.
Now let me put my cards on the table – I’m a long time Moore fan and originally read Watchmen as it came out issue by issue. Since then I’ve read it countless times, to point that whole sections are now indelibly burnt into my brain. And this is an important point, as I think there’s a big difference in how you view the movie if you are familiar with the original comic.
Knowing the graphic novel so well, I can only really judge the film as an adaption of it. As with most movie versions of classic books, you tend to think that if it’s well made with a decent cast and they stick to the text it should work. However all too often Hollywood thinks it knows better, changes all and sundry, and you end up wondering why they bothered paying for the rights in the first place.
And how faithful is Watchmen? Unbelievably is the short answer. It’s not just the most faithful adaptation of a comic but perhaps one of the most accurate screen versions of any novel. I was frankly astounded to how much of the original was there up on the screen. There are shots that are panel for panel from the comics – they have pretty much used the original graphic novel as a storyboard. The casting is spot on – it’s uncanny how close the actors resemble Gibbons’ art. And there are some wonderful performances that really nail the characters – Jackie Earle Haley is simply stunning as Roschach, he even sounds exactly like how I’ve always ‘heard’ him in the comic.
Yes there are some minor changes but nothing egregious. I’m happy with the redesigned costumes –many superhero outfits they need a bit of work to look good in real life - and inevitably some elements of the original have been compressed in the movie. Even the much debated loss of the comic’s alien death squid is only a minor alteration – in effect the change is only really a cosmetic detail as the ending of the movie is still the same.
This is an incredible adaption. Synder and co have gone to astonishing lengths to translate the comic into cinema. And perhaps the ultimate example of this is Nixon’s nose. One thing that keeps cropping up in reviews is the Cyrano de Bergerac style hooter Tricky Dick is sporting. When you see it, you feel like one of the cast of Roxanne and expect Henry Kissinger to jump up and shout “Keep that guy away from my cocaine!”. Apart from “Christ, you could have some one’s eye out with that!”, the general reaction is to assume the make-up guy lost a bet with God. However, if you look at the original art…
… and you can see that Gibbon’s draws Nixon in an almost caricature style. And rather than having just run out of cash for a better nasal prosthesis, Synder has chosen to follow the original art’s lead.
Naturally there has been a great deal of fanboy carping about the changes, but what has really fascinated me with the critical reaction to Watchmen is the repeated claim that it’s actually TOO faithful! Now what the hell is that about? No seriously, what the fuck is that about?
Now I can understand that if you go to see this epic expecting another Iron Man, you’ll probably come out thinking it was too slow in places and far too long. But should Synder have butchered the source material to deliver more action? Of course not, the fact is it’s not that kind of story and if you think it should be, you’ll have the same pacing issues with in the original.
That said though, I do think the movie misses a couple of beats in its pacing. I did feel that some scenes could have had a little more impact. But this is a nitpicking issue, the scenes still work and mainly the movie maintains a decent pace and flow. And I heavily suspect that the missing beats will appear in the DVD directors cut.
Which brings me to another important point – what is in currently playing in theatres is not the complete package. Essentially what we have here is a similar situation to Lord of The Rings, with the definite version being the DVD cut rather that what was shown in the cinema. Now with regards to Watchmen, remember how much the extra scenes in the DVD version of The Two Towers added to the film, particularly the material about Boromir’s past? Well I’m guessing the disc version of Watchmen will be adding scenes that have a similar strengthening effect to the story and characters rather than dragging for the sake of it (the extended cut of Jackson's King Kong - I’m looking at you!).
Plus aside from a director’s cut, there also going to be an Ultimate cut which will incorporate the Tales From The Black Freighter (which is currently available separately) and God knows what else into the main body of the film. Interestingly when Terry Gilliam pulled out of the director’s chair, he stated that his main reason was that he felt you could only really adapt Watchmen as a 5 hour mini-series … and by my reckoning the Ultimate cut will not be far off that!
So bearing in mind that really the final judgement of Watchmen can only come with the disc release, how does the current version stand up? Well I loved it. It’s not perfect but its damn close. Again I’ll point out that I’m judging this as an adaption – and as such it is an amazing piece of work. Yes, there are some minor niggles but I do think that these will be fixed in the disc version. And also, in true armchair director style, there are things I’d have done differently. But the movie works and there’s more of the original material brought life than I ever thought was possible.
Lord alone knows what the average moviegoer unfamiliar with the graphic novel will make of it, but if you set aside your expectations of the usual super heroics and can go with it, you’ll find much to enjoy and a lot of food for thought. I think it’s fair to say that if the movie doesn’t grab you the graphic novel will probably leave you a bit cold too. And if you have read the graphic novel, I think you’ll be amazed by the adaption they have delivered. Zack Synder is often accused of being a style over substance director and that may very well be true, but in the case of Watchmen, in being so faithful to the book he’s doesn’t need substance – Alan Moore has provided that for him.
I think this movie will find a sizeable audience, particularly when it arrives on disc - like the graphic novel, this is a film that repays multiple viewings. I think Watchmen’s biggest problem is that it’s not just another superhero movie, it’s not even an adult and gritty superhero epic – it’s actually a deconstruction of the whole concept of heroes, not to mention mediation on a host of political and social issues. However its biggest asset is that the movie retains all these elements from the graphic novel.
To draw a parallel, Watchmen is to superhero films what Apocalypse Now is to war movies. It’s eccentric pace and strange blend of action and philosophy may well surprise and confuse audiences in the same way Coppola’s film did - both subvert their genres, moving far away from the usual explosions and ass-kicking into territory that will alienate the pop corn crowd. However, if people can see past the costumes, I’m sure this movie will gain a better critical status than the current mixed reactions it’s receiving. And that may take a while, but if nothing else this movie is going to be a cult favourite for years to come. I just hope that, unlike Dollar Bill, it doesn’t get shot with its cape caught in the door to the bank...
JIM MOON, 13th March 2009