The Woes of ‘Watchmen’

“I don’t know why Hollywood is fascinated by my book when they never care to film it as I wrote it.”

— Richard Matheson, on the adaptations of his novel I Am Legend

In a 2009 interview for Ain’t It Cool News, Terry Gilliam voiced some of his dissatisfaction with Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009), which he found to be “too reverential,” and claimed that his own adaptation would have been more loosely based on the original comics by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Although fans remain divided on the merits of Snyder’s film, Gilliam lightheartedly teased fans for their reverence to Alan Moore’s text:

See that’s the problem with fans. Fans are terrifying. I have always hated fans, because they have such high expectations … They have such high expectations! I thought “Fuck off, just fuck off. Let me fuck it up on my own. I can’t put the weight of you people on my back!”1

In a Feburary 2014 interview for ComingSoon.net, Joel Silver, who was once the producer on Gilliam’s failed Watchmen project, ignited a brief controversy when he argued that Synder’s adaptation is “too much of a slave to the material” and championed Gilliam’s revisionist take on Watchmen, based on a screenplay by Sam Hamm:

What he did was he told the story as-is, but instead of the whole notion of the intergalactic thing which was too hard and too silly, what he did was he maintained that the existence of Doctor Manhattan had changed the whole balance of the world economy, the world political structure. He felt that THAT character really altered the way reality had been. He had the Ozymandias character convince, essentially, the Doctor Manhattan character to go back and stop himself from being created, so there never would be a Doctor Manhattan character. He was the only character with real supernatural powers, he went back and prevented himself from being turned into Doctor Manhattan, and in the vortex that was created after that occurred these characters from “Watchmen” only became characters in a comic book […] So the three characters, I think it was Rorschach and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, they’re all of the sudden in Times Square and there’s a kid reading a comic book. They become like the people in Times Square dressing up like characters as opposed to really BEING those characters. There’s a kid reading the comic book and he’s like, “Hey, you’re just like in my comic book.” It was very smart, it was very articulate, and it really gave a very satisfying resolution to the story, but it just didn’t happen. Lost to time.2

Silver, who has produced some excellent films over the course of his career, also produced V for Vendetta (2005), a stylish but politically incongruous adaptation of Moore’s graphic novel. For Watchmen, the metafictional scenario described by Silver would have been much further afield than any of the liberties Zack Snyder took with the source material in his film. 

In March 2014, Zack Snyder and his wife/producer Deborah Snyder responded to Joel Silver’s critique in an interview with Mike Ryan for The Huffington Post:

Mike Ryan: Was ‘Watchmen’ the most ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ project you’ve ever been a part of? Now Joel Silver is criticizing you for being a ‘slave’ to the source material while touting a very different from the source material script that Terry Gilliam was going to film.

Zack Snyder: It’s funny, because the biggest knock against the movie is that we finally changed the ending, right?

Mike Ryan: Right, you used Dr. Manhattan as the threat to bring the world together as opposed to the alien squid.

Zack Snyder: Right, and if you read the Gilliam ending, it’s completely insane.

Deborah Snyder: The fans would have been thinking that they were smoking crack.

Zack Snyder: Yeah, the fans would have stormed the castle on that one. So, honestly, I made “Watchmen” for myself. It’s probably my favorite movie that I’ve made. And I love the graphic novel and I really love everything about the movie. I love the style. I just love the movie and it was a labor of love. And I made it because I knew that the studio would have made the movie anyway and they would have made it crazy. So, finally I made it to save it from the Terry Gilliams of this world.3

The Devil’s in the Details

Zack Snyder has often described his film as a love letter to the original comics, but his work represents a struggle between two different industries and two very different art forms. In its initial cut, Snyder’s Watchmen struggled to balance the authenticity that fans expected and the conventions of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking, which favors spectacle and brevity. Snyder expanded his film in the “Director’s Cut” and again in the “Ultimate Cut” but neither of those revisions provided a satisfying amount of character depth, especially with regard to the original “Minutemen” crime-fighters and their role in shaping the story world of Watchmen.

It’s no secret that the adaptation of narrative structure, characterizations, and aesthetics between media inevitably leads to something “lost in translation” but there are some remarkable cases of misguided adaptations. For example, three films have been based on Richard Matheson’s influential horror novel I Am Legend (1954) but they bear little resemblance to the source material. To the question of why Hollywood adaptations of his comics have never lived up to their sources, Alan Moore clarifies:

…it’s simply because they weren’t ever designed to be films. This is what I’ve been trying to explain to these stupid bastards for the past 20 years. They were designed to exploit all the things that comic books can do and that no other medium can. I wanted to give comics a special place when I was writing things like Watchmen. I wanted to show off just what the possibilities of the comic book medium were. And films are completely different. This assumption that if something works in one medium it will work as well or better in another, I’ve got no idea where that comes from.4

A crucial narrative element in the original Watchmen comics is its climactic sequence, in which a grotesque “squid monster” is teleported into mid-town New York City in order to fake an alien invasion. This outrageous culmination of a stylized comic-book-villain scheme was an ironic twist in an otherwise realistic treatise on superhero types, and it worked brilliantly. Whether they were economically or artistically prohibited, the filmmakers who adapted Watchmen decided it must be changed.

The “missing squid” is one of the most popular questions I receive about Watchmen: Midnight. Unfortunately, the ending sequence in Zack Snyder’s film, in which of Dr. Manhattan assumes the role of a patsy in Ozymandias’s plan to trick the US and Soviet Union into peace, is nested too deeply in the movie narrative be removed entirely. Further, it is impossible to cohesively recreate Moore’s original ending scenario in the film due to insufficient filmed material. Like Zack Snyder’s “Ultimate Cut,” Watchmen: Midnight is an experiment, and the challenge for me as faneditor has been to achieve a closer approximation of Alan Moore’s narrative and characters on screen.

Manipulating the fabric of this film has been a rewarding experience but it has also provided me with a practical demonstration of the pitfalls of adaptation, especially the formal disparity between comics and cinema. As a writer of some notoriously “un-filmable” comics, Alan Moore is well aware of that incompatibility:

If we only see comics in relation to movies then the best that they will ever be is films that do not move. I found it, in the mid 80s, preferable to concentrate on those things that only comics could achieve. The way in which a tremendous amount of information could be included visually in every panel, the juxtapositions between what a character was saying, and what the image that the reader was looking at would be. So in a sense… most of my work from the 80s onwards was designed to be un-filmable.5

From Moore’s perspective, the ironically titled Watchmen: The Motion Comic (2008-2009) could be described as the strictest rendering of Watchmen as well as the most abominable. Using limited animation based on the original comic book panels drawn by Dave Gibbons, the motion comic succeeds in cinematically representing some unique aspects of the comic book (e.g. speech bubbles) but its uncanny, constrained animation seems to prove Alan Moore’s theory of “films that don’t move.”

In the following video, let’s compare the ways Watchmen: The Motion Comic and Zack Snyder’s live action film visually represent the first page of Moore and Gibbons’s Watchmen.

Fundamentally, cinema is temporal. Like music, a film begins and proceeds, unceasing, until its conclusion within a set period of time. Today, video technology provides viewers with the means to pause, rewind, zoom, and so forth, but films usually are not designed for that kind of viewing experience. Considering his affinity for the free reading experience of graphically dense comic book panels, it’s unsurprising that Alan Moore has been less than supportive of film adaptations:

I find film in its modern form to be quite bullying … It spoon-feeds us, which has the effect of watering down our collective cultural imagination. It is as if we are freshly hatched birds looking up with our mouths open waiting for Hollywood to feed us more regurgitated worms. The ‘Watchmen’ film sounds like more regurgitated worms. I for one am sick of worms.6

Disavowing Hollywood renditions of his work, Alan Moore refused to let his name appear in the credits of V for Vendetta and Watchmen, arguing that he’ll never watch Zack Snyder’s film just as he has never seen From Hell (2001) or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003). I’m often asked if I think Alan Moore would like Watchmen: Midnight, but I don’t expect he would have much interest in it. Moore intended Watchmen to be a comic, not a film. Watchmen: Midnight is primarily an editing experiment to continue the revisionary work in previous releases of Zack Snyder’s film and provide a more reverential adaptation of the original comics by Moore and Gibbons.

 

  1. Quint. 2009. “Quint chats with Terry Gilliam about THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS, WATCHMEN, Pixar, Ledger and much more!” Ain’t It Cool News, August 23. http://www.aintitcool.com/node/42118
  2. Ervy, Max. 2014. “The CS Interview: Producer Joel Silver (Literally) Talks Non-Stop.” ComingSoon.net,       February 26. http://www.comingsoon.net/news/movienews.php?id=115185
  3. Ryan, Mike. 2014. “Zack Snyder Strikes Back.” The Huffington Post, March 3. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/03/zack-snyder-batman-superman_n_4886277.html
  4. Dent, Nick. 2009. “Alan Moore – Writer of Watchmen.” Time Out Sydney, January 21. http://www.au.timeout.com/sydney/film/features/4187/alan-moore
  5. The Mindscape of Alan Moore. Directed by DeZ Vylenz. Shadowsnake Films, 2008. DVD.
  6. Boucher, Geoff. 2008. “Alan Moore on ‘Watchmen’ movie: ‘I will be spitting venom all over it’.” Hero Complex, September 18. http://herocomplex.latimes.com/uncategorized/alan-moore-on-w/