For me, there was one scene in the new Watchmen film that summed up its inherent wrongness (spoiler alert): if you’ve read the comic you will know that Rorschach is thrown in jail and escapes (with a bit of help from Dan “Nite Owl II” Dreiberg and Laurie “Silk Spectre II” Juspeczyk) during a riot. As he is about to escape, Rorschach spots Big Figure, the equally imprisoned diminuitive crimelord who had earlier tried to kill him, dart into a toilet. In the comic, you see Rorschach follow Big Figure into the loo, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre exchange a bit of dialogue, and then Rorschach leaves. What exactly happens to Big Figure is left to our imagination, although we are to understand that “bumping” is involved and it is implied in a bit of gallows humour that he “dived head first” into something. It is a tiny, witty scene of the type that the comic is full.
What happens in the film? Well, Big Figure goes into the toilet, Rorschach follows him citing a need to visit the “men’s room” and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre wait outside. But very little is left to the imagination as we see Rorschach descending on Big Figure. The scene ends with blood pouring out of room. Some of the humour is retained, but for the most part it is replaced with horror and gore.
In a nutshell, that sums up Zack Snyder’s approach to the source material. The wit and humanity is pared down to the bone and replaced by a heightened level of gore. In the previous scene where Big Figure’s henchmen are attempting to kill Rorschach, an out of shot throat slit is replaced by a man having his arms chopped off with an electric saw. Earlier still, a scene in which Rorschach sets fire (out of shot) to a child molester is replaced by him hitting the man repeatedly through the head with a meat cleaver. Only Doctor Manhatten is supposed to have superpowers (even if Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt is understood to have achieved near-physical perfection) and most of the characters are meant to be out of shape and retired, yet when they fight they can break bones and walls with their punches, land on their feet from three storey falls and take the most incredible amounts of physical punishment – all in lingering bullet-time (so 1999 – the Matrix was literally a decade ago for Chrissakes).
In short, this is more of a caricature in the public’s imagination of “comic book” violence than the actual comic book. At one point this is made explicit. In the original comic, Ozymandias says at one point: “Dan, I’m not a republic serial villain. Do you seriously think I’d explain my masterstroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome?” In the film, “republic serial” is replaced with “comic book” – in other words, two fingers to the source-medium. Comics don’t tend to have villains explaining their plans, at least not to the heroes – that is cinema (c.f. a typical James Bond film). It is one of those odd libels that persists, and disappointing that an apparent fanboy such as Zack Snyder chooses to join in with the conspiracy. Still, you’ve got to show loyalty to the tribe I suppose (slight tangent, but I remember reading a review of Road to Perdition in which they slagged off Jude Law’s rather obtuse character as “betraying its comic book origins” – that character didn’t appear in the original comic and was created specially for cinema audiences).
My ultimate beef with the him however isn’t that it strayed from the original, but that generally it has blindly gone along with it. The annoying stuff is what they have kept. Why, for example, is there so much in the introductory sequence about the forties costumed vigilante Solitaire being a lesbian? It doesn’t add anything to the plot, that particular revelation isn’t even in the comic (it is relegated to a footnote in the text backup feature), yet we get a scene of her snogging her girlfriend and another scene of the two of them having been brutally murdered. If you are desperate to cut stuff out, why keep that? The only apparent reason seems to be some fanboy frisson about lesbians – which creeps rather uncomfortably towards misogyny. Why, in fact, is there so much about the forties vigilantes at all, given that – for example – the death of Hollis Mason (the first Nite Owl) is not shown and the relationship of The Comedian with the Sally “Silk Spectre I” Jupiter is simplified to the point that we are to understand she was raped but loved him anyway. This is yet more misogyny; in the comic he certainly attempts to rape her, but it is made clear that she is ultimately made pregnant by him by consensual sex.
The different ending is, I have to admit, a slight improvement on the original. It never did quite make sense that you could achieve world peace simply by teleporting a big lump of meat in the middle of Times Square, giving everyone in the vicinity a lethal headache in the process. But changing it creates its own problems. For one thing, if artist Max Shea didn’t help design the “squid monster,” then how is this all tied in with his creation Tales of the Black Freighter (on sale in all good DVD shops soon)? Similarly, if Ozymandias isn’t working on a masterplan that requires genetic engineering to work, then why does he walk around in the last 20 minutes of the film with a hoofing great GM lynx. It is a total non-sequitor, a kewl-looking thing you can pay a CG-artist to animate, but something that otherwise has no relevance to the plot.
Even more problematic is the murder of Edward “The Comedian” Blake at the start of the film. He’s killed because the discovered Ozymandias’ plans, but he only discovers these because he is a spy working for the CIA who is sent to investigate what he believes is a Sandinista Base on a desert island. If there is no desert island, there is no rationale for him to have made the discovery. No discovery, no murder. No murder, no plot.
The main thing that is stripped out of the adaptation is humanity. The reason you care at the end of the comic when New York is wiped out is that for eleven issues you have got to know a small cast of characters who gravitate around a completely unremarkable newstand. It is upsetting when they all die at the end. In the film version, they are just cyphers. We don’t get to know the cops, or the staff at the New Frontiersman. We get to see Nite Owl and Silk Spectre have some really bad movie sex (in far more lingering detail than the comic), but we don’t get to see them cathartically make love at the end. At the end, we see Dan and Laurie grinning ear to ear as if they have somehow won something – they haven’t even had to change their identities as in the comic – but not the poignant moment at the end when we see Sally Jupiter, alone, kissing Blake’s photograph.
The final thing the film gets wrong is the pacing. Time is a constant motif – the atomic clock, the “Minutemen”, the “Watchmen”, Doctor Manhatten’s father’s career as a watchmaker, etc. Its famed nine panel grid works to mark time, with pretty much every frame indicating a similar time period. When larger and smaller frames are used, they are used very deliberately. It is a textbook masterpiece in graphic storytelling.
The film, by contrast, has very little in terms of pacing at all. It retains the episodic nature of the original but because so much is chopped out some of those episodes are very long indeed while others are shortened down to a single scene. As such it all feels disjointed and random where it should feel measured with the scenes following each other in a logical progression. Could this have been fixed? A TV mini-series might have worked better. But ultimately it rather shows film up as a flexible medium. You can tell a different story in a comic simply by changing the shape of the pictures and varying them throughout the story (see Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics for much more on this). With cinema, you have widescreen, very widescreen and very little flexibility within each film (interestingly, this is something that Ang Lee at least experimented with in The Hulk, but that film is not generally regarded as a great success).
Ultimately, Watchmen is a comic about comics. Originally based on the Charlton superhero universe, the decision to not use these characters themselves ultimately freed Moore and Gibbons up to tell a more universal story. So it is that Rorschach is not just a reinterpretation of The Question, but a satire on the oddness of his creator (and Spider-Man’s), Steve Dikto. Making Captain Atom Doctor Manhatten enabled them to explore wider themes about how superpowers would change the world if they really existed – not necessarily in good ways. The Tales of the Black Freighter interludes, aside from containing yet more nods to Steve Ditko and his contemporaries, explores the essential randomness of how superheroes came to dominate the medium. Stripped of all that, you can still tell a story but you lack much of the essence of the tale that Moore tells.
The Watchmen film isn’t a total disaster. As a tribute to the original it is very flattering. Much of the set design is fantastic. There are little snatches of brilliance here and there where you just wish they’d gone down more in that particular direction. Jackie Earle Haley’s portrayal of Rorschach is inspired. I’d rather a film maker treated the source material with reverance than with contempt (as is the case of From Hell and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). But V for Vendetta, by no means a great film, was better and more memorable than this because it was ultimately prepared to take more risks with the source material.
Is respectful-but-not-slavish to the original too much to ask? The trail of good comic book adaptations is growing quite long now so the answer is surely “no”, yet the quest for a good Alan Moore adaptation remains elusive. My personal tip for a good Moore adaptation? Skizz directed by Danny Boyle. I’d really like to see that.
UPDATE: Andrew Hickey points me to an article by screenwriter David Hayter which sums up what a misogynist little turd he is, and at least partially explains the thoroughly negative attitude to women in the film.