Monday, March 14, 2011

FACE OFF: Page to Screen – Watchmen

When it was first published as a standalone twelve-issue series in 1986, Watchmen (1986) took both the comic and literary world by storm. Written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons, and colored by John Higgins Watchmen (1986) stands as a landmark in the field of comics and along with Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) marks the birth of the graphic novel. Watchmen brought a heightened scope and impact to the world of comics, primarily through Moore’s mature approach to the writing and Gibbon’s non-conventional illustrations, which countered the typical superhero archetype of the time. Watchmen went on to win a Hugo Award (Science Fiction Award) in the ‘Other Forms’ category in 1988 and has the distinction of being the only graphic novel on Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels list. All of those accomplishments and it still took almost twenty-five years to bring the story to the screen.

For almost two decades executives and filmmakers were failing left and right at putting together a big screen adaptation of Watchmen. Lawrence Gordon, the films producer, acquired the film rights in 1986 and offered Moore the chance to adapt his own work. When he declined Sam Hamm, who penned Batman (1989) was hired to adapt the graphic novel. In the early 1990s Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys (1995)) was hired to direct the film, but left the project claiming that the material was “un-filmable.” Watchmen sat in development hell for an entire decade until Gordon paired with Lloyd Levin (co-producer) and they hired David Hayter (X-Men (2000)) to write and direct the film. Hayter would only accomplish half of this task before moving on with his career. In 2004 Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan (2010)) was attached to direct before leaving to work The Fountain (2006). Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy (2004)) stepped in briefly before the producers finally settled on the films actual director, Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch (2011)).


Fresh of the critical abomination that was 300 (2007), Zack Snyder rose to the challenge of filming the “un-filmable.” Utilizing the same approach he did on 300, Snyder used the actual graphic novel for his storyboards. This insured an accurate depiction of the novel on the screen. As for the story itself, Snyder’s adaptation remained fairly loyal to the source material, which was so strong that he would have had to go out of his way to screw it up. The final film presents about 50% of the overall material contained in the graphic novel. Many subplots and the extensive back-story that Moore provided at the end of each issue was appropriately cut out or condensed, as presented in the film’s opening credit sequence.

- SPOILER WARNING -

There were still liberties taken with the material that made it into the final film. Some were small, like Rorschach’s first confrontation with Moloch. In the novel Moloch returns to his crummy apartment where Rorschach lunges out of his fridge and assaults him for information about his relation to The Comedian. This scene is combined with a later scene in the novel where Rorschach follows-up. For the sake of pacing it was a wise decision, but they still should have had him come out of the fridge. Another small liberty was the omission of Captain Metropolis as the host and head of the ‘Crime Busters’ meeting where The Comedian mocks the idea of joining forces and then sets fire to Ozymandias’ map. Again, this was a good decision to keep the focus in the film on the Watchmen and avoid wasting screen time on irrelevant back-story exhibition.

The main difference between the graphic novel and the film is the elimination of a subplot leading up to, and including, the climax. Throughout the graphic novel there is a parallel story told through a comic within the comic (Tales of the Black Freighter). The author of this comic, Max Shea, along with several other artists were duped into designing a creature that is used by Ozymandias to simulate an alien attack in NYC. They are all killed and the creature is transported to Manhattan, killing millions. This kind of effect worked fine in the comic, but would have never translated to film with the same impact. Turning the presence of Dr. Manhattan into the mutual threat that unites the world was a good move because it substituted the need to include a lot of additional material and still arrived at the same conclusion. Simulating Dr. Manhattan’s power and using it as a weapon was not only more appropriate, but it also translated to film better than a gigantic monster. It made his character more plausible and significant, while maintaining the credibility of the setting and story.


Among the many liberties taken between the novel and the film adaptation, there are two that come off as overly gratuitous and add nothing to further the plot. The first is the sex scene between Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II in Archie – Nite Owl’s airship. What takes up minutes on screen is only a couple of discreet, tasteful panels in the comic. Despite being fun to watch, this extended display of penetration completely derails the story and has all the emotional tenderness you would expect from a thirteen-year old boy. The latter actually changes the perception of one of the key characters. Once he is captured, Rorschach recounts the tale of how he came to fully embody his vigilante alter ego. While working a kidnap case he uncovered that the perpetrator was actually killing the kids after he molested them and then hacked their bodies up and fed them to his dogs. In the novel, Rorschach handcuffs the criminal to a stove, sets the place on fire and tosses him a hacksaw – implying that if the guy cuts off his own hand he may survive. In the film, Rorschach repeatedly buries a cleaver into the criminal’s skull, murdering him in cold blood. In one scene, Snyder manages to turn the (anti-) hero of the film from a sociopath into a psychopath. By committing murder, Rorschach crosses the line that separated him and his cause from the lowlifes he put away. Had Snyder let it play out the way Moore had written it, justice still would have been served and Rorschach’s heroic integrity would still be intact. These choices are typical of an adolescent minded director, who is still developing at the expense of his audience.

Watchmen (2009)
Directed by Zack Snyder
The film was released on DVD in both a theatrical version and director’s cut, which restored many deleted scenes including a subplot featuring the murder of Hollis Mason (the original Nite Owl). An Ultimate Edition DVD was subsequently released which featured the Tales of the Black Freighter (2009) animation edited into the director’s cut of the film to give it more of a complete presentation when compared with the novel. Also included in the Ultimate Edition were additional supplements that filled in the pre-Watchmen back-story and a twelve-episode motion comic version of the graphic novel.

Snyder’s next film, Sucker Punch (2011), which he co-wrote, produced, and directed, will be released on March 25th, 2011. He is currently signed to direct the next installment of the Superman series, The Man of Steel (2012), with Christopher Nolan producing and David S. Goyer writing. Hopefully, with Nolan holding Snyder’s leash, there will be a greater presence and influence on the filmmaker’s visual storytelling. 

1 comment:

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