Text-to-Screen Ratio: Watchmen

March 10, 2009

(Editor’s note: Perhaps more than any other article I’ve written, this is an article is going to be rife with spoilers for the both the book and the film, as both are so rich with references and points of discussion they have to be mentioned. If you haven’t experienced both, I strongly suggest you save this post until afterwards.)

watchmen_film_poster1It seems that adapting Alan Moore to the screen is something that needs a few tries before it’s done right. 2003’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” was an embarrassment, defanging the dark Victorian steampunk into a spectacularly laughable action film; while “V for Vendetta” completely converted the political story but kept concept and aesthetic intact (as I’ve said before). Last year’s “The Dark Knight” got even deeper, adapting Moore’s interpretation of the Joker from “The Killing Joke” and proving the mainstream would eat up his twisted vision.

And if there had to be a few missteps, it’s best to get them out of the way before the filming of Moore’s magnum opus, “Watchmen,” the dystopian tale of superheroes who have more issues than their enemies and a world always five minutes from a nuclear holocaust. Hailed as the greatest graphic novel ever and the only comic to earn a place on Time’s “100 Novels,” adapting it seemed like the sort of thing that could only end in tears for its fans – but history seems to be learning, as “Watchmen” is the most faithful of the Moore adaptations and also the best.

watchmen_book_cover1From the beginning “Watchmen” has seemed untouchable by cinema – each character, from the sociopathic Rorschach to the conflicted Nite Owl to the otherworldly Dr. Manhattan, has such a detailed back story and course of action that any cuts would detract from the characters. The book is littered with inside references that would never survive the transition, and recurring themes that demand multiple readings and even a three-hour film couldn’t hope to replicate. Directors from Darren Aronofsky to Terry Gilliam have abandoned the project, the latter even declaring it unfilmable (and when the man who made “Brazil” thinks your story is unfilmable, that’s a pretty impressive indictment).

The project is left in the hands of Zach Synder, no stranger to film adaptations with his admirable conversion of Frank Miller’s “300,” and he has carried over his experience in working with the source material. Each of the book’s chapters are presented in order, retaining the right sequence of events and the related flashbacks, and while the darker color scheme is closer to “300” then the “Watchmen” comic panels it’s still easy to recognize scenes and dialogue as copied straight from the text. Details large and small survive, from the use of thematically relevant billboards in the background to the growling text of Rorschach’s journal. It does lack the original soul in some places – particularly in early scenes where the dialogue has been rewritten – but those points serve as connectors to the truly important scenes, such as the awakening of Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach.

Of course, with a story as convoluted as “Watchmen’s,” some compromises have to be made. Virtually all the side characters – Bernard the news vendor, Rorschach’s therapist, the police detectives, the New Frontiersman editors – are featured briefly if at all, and the histories of Rorschach and Ozymandias are still there but trimmed to one scene. The original history of the first-generation Minutemen heroes is also trimmed, but they make up for it with an excellent opening montage of the heroes in American history set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” All wonderful elements in the book, but as presented their loss doesn’t cause a major problem.

The most notorious change in the book, the excision of the giant squid “alien” that Ozymandias uses to frighten the world into complacency, actually seems to work in the adaptation’s favor. By casting the attacks as if they come from Dr. Manhattan, it shifts focus to the main characters, making their final decisions as more of a personal choice than a reaction to an arbitrary conspiracy theory. For a book which is built around the personalities and worldviews of six people, an edit that adds to their characterization earns a tip of the hat.

On that note, the main casting of the film is appropriate on all counts, free of big-name actors and giving the roles to people who actually seem to give a damn about correctly interpreting the characters. Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian has the perfect swaggering brutality, wonderfully depicted in all the flashbacks from the graphic novel, and Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl nails the character’s resigned insecurity. Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan are driven more by their special effects (excellent effects by the way, a constantly shifting mask and ethereal blue physical perfection) but Jackie Earle Haley and Billy Crudup carry their respective characters very well in voice and unmasked performance, with Haley’s growl channeling Christian Bale’s Batman. Malin Ackerman’s Silk Spectre is less forceful but still convincing in her relationships to Manhattan and Nite Owl, while Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias is the weakest of the roles as he’s a touch too beatific for the role.

As it’s still a comic-based film, there’s as much emphasis on the characters in action as there is on their development. “300” showed Synder is no stranger to gore, and the film has quite a few bones poking out of skin and red-black blood spraying the walls. Some may say the scenes may be a bit gratuitous, but I diffuse that by pointing out: a) all the fight scenes were originally in the book, and b) if you seriously object to watching Rorschach beat police officers to a bloody pulp or Nite Owl and Silk Spectre teaming up on a gang then it’s time to re-evaluate your standards.

Of course, like “Lord of the Rings,” final judgment on “Watchmen” has to wait until the DVD director’s cut, which will incorporate many of the supplemental bits (“Under the Hood” and “Tales From The Black Freighter”) and are also likely to expand character roles. As it stands though, for a story whose creator is on record as saying it “could only work in a comic, and [was] indeed designed to show off things that other media can’t,” it makes the transition better than anyone could have hoped for.

Final adaptation score: 9 out of 10. I’m actually scoring this one a bit higher as while it does have many excisions, the amount of what they kept is so surprising and so well done that it overshadows the majority of the changes. Something that will please the devotees with only a few minor twitches.