In hindsight, it seems strange to have given so much credence to the conventional wisdom that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen was an 'unfilmable' comic book. As Zack Snyder's version proves beyond doubt, the book is its own screenplay, not only in the sense that it storyboards its action scenes and provides an aspiring adapter with a wealth of memorable images and set pieces, but because its narrative is a step by step guide to weaving together its interlaced plot strands of past and present into a single coherent, comprehensible story. All that was required to bring Watchmen faithfully to the screen was a filmmaker with sufficient courage to do just that, not to mention a judicious sense of what to cut away.
This is not to downplay Snyder's accomplishment. For one thing, to have had that courage, and what must have been a monomaniacal dedication to the original work, to undertake such a task is no small thing. More importantly, Snyder's Watchmen is a stunning visual achievement, on par with Peter Jackson's recreation of Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings films. Vividly and faithfully detailed, it perfectly captures the visual sensibility of the graphic novel, the clutter of objects through which Moore and Gibbons convey the alienness of their alternate history and the effect that superheroes have had on it. It's hard to imagine the effort, dedication and attention to detail that had to have gone into transforming Gibbons's relatively small windows onto this world into a fully-realized, three-dimensional version, or the amount of work it took to capture on film even a single one of the novel's kinetic scenes. Still, this seems to be paying a greater compliment to Watchmen's producers, set designers and art directors, as well as to Snyder's technical skills as a director, than it is to the film as a work in its own right. It can't have been easy to bring Watchmen to life as faithfully as Snyder did, and his success in this endeavor is to be lauded, but at the same time, there's nothing in his version of the book that persuades me that such an effort was necessary, or that it brought anything new into the world.
If I look at some of my favorite literary adaptations--Andrew Davies's Pride and Prejudice, Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility, Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence--I find that beyond bringing their source novel faithfully to the screen, they also add some ineffable component of their own that makes them more than the novel translated into another medium. Partly, this is due to the wider gap between written fiction and the filmed or televised kind. The fact that actors, sets, lighting and music are used to bring a story to life rather than words on a page and our own imagination means that any adaptation, no matter how faithful, is a creation in its own right. What sets The Age of Innocence--or even Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, for all the liberties it takes with original novel--apart from faithful yet lifeless adaptations like the Harry Potter films is that a good screenwriter has an idea of what it is that makes a novel special, and of how to convey that specialness with completely different tools than the ones used to achieve it. It is here that the character of the film, as distinct from the original work, is established. Scorsese's The Age of Innocence is joined in the small and rarefied group of successful Edith Wharton adaptations by Terence Davies's The House of Mirth, and though the two films are based on the work of the same author and set in similar surroundings, they are completely different in their emotional tones, in their visual palettes, in their directorial style, even in their musical choices. They represent two different, and equally successful, approaches to bringing Wharton to the screen, each the labor of love of a different reader with different ideas of how to convey that love.
There haven't been many adaptations of self-contained graphic novels so far, but the one that immediately comes to mind, Marjane Satrapi's animated version of her own comics memoir Persepolis, also came under a sort of half-hearted criticism for being essentially a moving version of the book. Which leads me to wonder whether the problem isn't baked into this scenario. When not only plot but visual sensibility are dictated by the original work, where can a director and a screenwriter leave their own mark, and make the work more than an homage to someone else's vision? There's only one sequence in Watchmen in which I felt Snyder's hand, rather than Moore or Gibbons's, at the tiller, and it comes depressingly early--in the credits, in fact. These are made up of tableaux which chart important moments in the rise and fall of superheroes in Moore's alternate America by showing us iconic moments being captured in photographs. It's a brilliant use of the film medium, which seems to promise to take the original work's static images and build upon them. The first Minutemen stand stiffly for their official portrait, smiling widely and fixedly. Then the flashbulb pops and they all relax. Silk Spectre laughs, looking every bit the 40s dame, while The Comedian leers at her. The scene of Silhouette's gruesome murder is shown. Then the camera pulls out, and we see policemen milling about, setting up lights for a crime scene photo, going about the mundane details of their job. (The use of music in this sequence is also inspired. For the most part the film's use of contemporary-or-earlier popular music is a little on the nose--"All Along the Watchtower" when Dan and Rorschach travel to Veidt's stronghold, etc.--but the choice to use Dylan's "The Times They Are A'Changin" in the credits is different both from what you'd expect from an ordinary superhero film and from the type of music that Watchmen itself seems to call for.)
Unfortunately, the promise of these credits is belied by the rest of the film. When Snyder does give us the connective tissue between Moore and Gibbons's panels it is never any more or any less than what we'd come to expect from the novel itself. Just about the only places in which Snyder expands upon the novel after the credits are the fight scenes, but these are frankly a disappointment, technically superb but devoid of thrills or neat visual moments except for an over-reliance on quick changes in the fight's speed, the better to focus on a single image such as The Comedian's tooth flying out of his mouth after a punch. This, of course, is a trick the movies borrowed from comics, and which has already become an overused cliché.
All of which is to say that Watchmen is so faithful an adaptation that I'm frankly at a bit of a loss to imagine why it was even made. This faithfulness is particularly unfortunate because it means that, like the original graphic novel, Watchmen is good without actually being very good at all. Ever since the film became a palpable, coming-soon-to-a-theater-near-you reality, I've been telling myself that I ought to go back and reread the graphic novel, to refresh my memory of it and maybe gain a greater appreciation for it. I never got around to doing this, and Zack Snyder's Watchmen is a pretty good illustration of the reasons for my reluctance. There are a lot of things that the original Watchmen does incredibly well. First and foremost, it is a groundbreaking examination of the whole idea of superheroes, and of the primarily negative effects they would have had on the American century had they actually existed. Secondly, it is a masterful evocation of a time and place, a grimier, meaner, more violent and more reactionary mid-80s America on the brink, and utterly terrified, of nuclear war, which is brought to life as much through talk radio, television interviews, newspaper headlines, and conversations between people on the street as it is through the novel's actual plot. Thirdly, it is a master-class in narrative construction, moving from past to future, from plot-driven to character-driven, all its elements synchronizing perfectly into one plot.
As I wrote just a few months after reading Watchmen for the first time, there's a problem coming to it in the mid-aughts, at a time when its ideas about superheroes have been so completely subsumed into popular culture, and when its hysteria over the imminence of nuclear war seems almost quaint. What's left once these elements have been devalued is the still-superb construction, and the story itself, which isn't really that good. The plot is trite (again, because it relies so heavily on the fears prevalent in the mid-80s), the dialogue is indifferent, the characters, with the exception of Rorschach and possibly The Comedian, are barely even there, and the ending is so absurdly over the top that it seems almost intentionally humorous. And that, more or less, is what's wrong with the film Snyder has produced (except that he's cut out most of the background detail that establishes the story's nightmare world, such as the conversations between the newsstand salesman and his customers or most of the talking heads). He hasn't taken the opportunity to update the original story's fears to something more relevant to the present day, or make the characters a little more rounded. His film recreates Watchmen's flaws as faithfully as it does its strengths while leaving out sizable chunks of the original novel.
(Actually, there is one point in which Snyder's Watchmen deviates from the novel, and that is that the film's ending isn't nearly as cynical and hopeless as Moore's was. I'm not talking about the absence of the giant squid--see my previous comment about its absurdity--but about the note on which the story ends. In the novel, the best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity. Dr. Manhattan stands idly by while Adrian Veidt kills millions, and Dan and Laurie, after making some token objections, walk off to make love and fall asleep in each other's arms, abdicating their responsibility to the world in exchange for mundane pleasures. Even if you think that Veidt was right, the fact that Rorschach's journal is about to be discovered makes all of the deaths he caused meaningless. No matter how you spin it, there's no pleasure or triumph to be wrung out of this ending. Snyder keeps more or less to the form of Moore's ending but desperately tries to transform it into something feelgood--mainly by reversing Dan and Laurie's abdication of their roles and ending the film with them excoriating Veidt and resuming their superheroic duties. The imminent discovery of Rorschach's journal is thus a hopeful note--the truth is about to come out and justice will be served.)
All of which is to sound a lot more negative towards the film than I actually am. Whether you're a devoted fan or hadn't even heard about the book before the film became news, there's no reason not to go see Watchmen. You'll probably have a good time--though, I suspect, less than you might have expected given the obvious care and effort that have gone into making the film a one-of-a-kind spectacle. It is, ultimately, a good film--how could it help but be, given that it so closely follows a book that, despite all my problems with it, is also quite good? There is, however, nothing in Snyder's film that wasn't there in Moore and Gibbons's original novel, and a great deal that's missing. And that, to me, is an even greater tragedy than the film being terrible would have been. It means that all that effort, all that time, all that skill and love and attention to detail, were wasted in the attempt to create something we already had. Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars recreating it shot for shot, couldn't we all just have read the book?