Today I saw the Watchmen movie, with some trepidation. I wasn’t afraid, as Ferrett Steinmetz is, that the film version would overwrite my own internal imagery developed from reading the graphic novel. I understand his fear–his example, in the comments at the link, of the Harry Potter movie actors overwriting his own internal voices when he read the later books in the series is something that happened to me too, to some extent. But for Watchmen it would be impossible. The character voices and motions of closure that I cast between the panels are indelible. The book is part of my personal canon (what Sarah Miller refers to as a sacred text), and I’ve read it often enough and from an impressionable enough age that my own relationship to it is ossified, inviolable. (Ever since I read Sarah’s review I’ve been thinking about trying to explicate the core of my personal canon, and knowing that Watchmen would definitely be on it has been making me feel self conscious. I’m not used to the things I value being as big a part of the zeitgeist as Watchmen is right now. Somewhere in the past week I read someone exhorting to the world, “Movie reviewers: no one cares about your deep personal relationship to the graphic novel!” and I have to say I knew how s/he felt.)
So it wasn’t fear that my relationship to the book would alter that made me hesitant to see the movie. It was fear that it would be as big a train wreck as the other movie adaptations of Alan Moore’s work have been. From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen both bore so little relation to their source material that they could more accurately be said to be inspired by the books than based on them. And the former was forgettable and the latter execrable. Almost worse was V for Vendetta, which was a greater abomination despite being a better movie. It was as though the flesh and outward appearance of the book had been flensed and draped over the philosophical skeleton of a completely different story. From some angles the beast looks attractive, and even beautiful (such as the scene with Valerie’s letter, lifted word for word from the book and powerful in any medium), but as soon as it begins to move it is revealed to be a ghoulish chimera, and the vitality of book’s conflict between fascism and anarchy comes through as merely a sickly sendup of modern American politics. What I feared was that the same grusome surgery might have been performed on Watchmen.
It wasn’t. The movie is fully Watchmen, and what flaws it has are stumbles and missteps, not spasms born of a fatally rotten core. It is easily the best adaptation of Moore’s work so far, and I think it may even be a good movie in its own right. What follows are my ruminations, incomplete and still developing, about specific elements of the adaptation. If spoilers are a concern for you, for either the book or the movie, stop reading now.
The biggest change to the story, and the one that people will probably discuss the most, is the change to Ozymandias’s plan. No longer does he teleport a genetically engineered giant monster with a caustic psychic payload to New York to explode, kill half the city, and traumatize the world with its death throes. Instead he simultaneously attackes major cities all around the world with an energy weapon based on the powers of Dr. Manhattan. Of all the changes from the book, this is the one I have the least problem with; I actually think it is an excellent solution to two problems that Hayter/Snyder had in adapting the story for the screen. The first problem is length. Terry Gilliam famously said that Watchmen was unfilmable unless you made it five hours long, and the movie to be successful was going to have to be under three. The way to make the story smaller was pare down the side characters and world building. The story had to get smaller, and the giant monster was heavily reliant on side characters for its creation. Black Frighter, it’s reader, and crucially it’s author: gone, and with it the caustic psychic payload. The other problem that had to be solved was 9/11. If Ozymandias just attacks New York, the act would be seen as derivative to a post-9/11 audience, so the attack had to get bigger. For the story to get smaller and the attack to get bigger while somehow retaining Ozymandias’s core plan of bringing about world peace by uniting humanity against a terrifying external enemy, it was necessary to have his plot revolve around something from the primary narrative. Dr. Manhattan is the obvious, sensible choice, and given that even at the end of the graphic novel the majority of the world thinks that he left the Earth in a rage and never returned, it’s a fairly elegant one as well. Making Dr. Manhattan the external enemy that humanity unifies in fear of works, I have no problem with this change. I might even like it.
Other things I especially liked:
The opening credit sequence was brilliant. In fact, it may have been my favorite thing about the movie simply because it was not in the book, and yet was utterly tonally consistent with the book–so it was just more Watchmen. I liked getting more Watchmen.
The Comedian was brilliantly cast. I sometimes questioned the direction during his scenes–in particular I felt that the interaction between he and Dr. Manhattan in Vietnam after he shoots the pregnant woman should have been far more visceral–but there is no question that they got the right actor for the role.
The one thing we knew from 300 that we could rely on Snyder to get right was the visuals, and he didn’t disappoint. I had great fears about his ability to communicate subtlety–fears that were to some extent justified–but the film is beautiful, and as excellent a translation of the art of the book as anyone could reasonably ask for.
People are sometimes cavalier in talking about act structure in movies. I’m not really comfortable doing it, because I don’t think I really know what I’m talking about. Maybe I should read McKee’s book one day. But I think that, by sticking so closely with the issue arcs of the series, the movie deviated from traditional big blockbuster structure. All of the issue opening and closing images were retained, and the issues themselves have their own tone. The first issue with Rorschach unmasked and in prison is very tonally distinct from the issues around it, and that section of the movie has a shift in tone as well, that comes in a place where I didn’t really expect one. I kind of enjoyed seeing a big budget movie that had the emotional beats in nontraditional places.
Things I found mildly irritating:
Perhaps it would have been too big of a tonal shift of the type I was just talking about, but I wish that the nonlinearity of Dr. Manhattan’s ruminations on Mars had been more fully retained. They flirt with it enough to make it recognizable to someone who has read the book, but don’t really capture the character’s perception of time the way the book does. Maybe the only way that was ever going to happen is if they got Christopher Nolan in to guest direct that section.
I understand, given the change to Ozymandias’s plan, why they took out the electric car infrastructure made possible by Dr. Manhattan’s effortless nuclear synthesis. But if he isn’t filling the “yeah, I’ll make whatever atoms you want me to” role in this version, then what is the explanation for the airships?
If Dr. Manhattan’s Mars citadel isn’t all one big piece of glass, the whole thing shouldn’t shatter like that when Laurie hits it.
Has there ever been a movie that included a slow motion “Nooooooo!” that wouldn’t be improved by its omission? I suspect there has not. I am certain that one did not need to be added to Watchmen. (In fact, Dan seeing Rorschach’s death at all was an unnecessary and ultimately pointless change.)
Things that I think are actual flaws:
From the time Dr. Manhattan leaves the planet until the time of Ozymandias’s attack, less than two days pass. And during those two days everyone in the developed world thinks that nuclear annihilation is imminent and they are very likely to die. That motivates, to one degree or another, the actions of every character in the movie–save perhaps Rorschach–from that point in the story on. And I don’t think that background is effectively communicated, which makes lots of the following action, especially Laurie and Dan’s growing recklessness, feel unmotivated. I think part of the problem might be that Hollis Mason’s death scene is left out, and so we don’t get to see that rioting, senseless violence that is effecting people as they panic about the state of the world.
Ozymandias’s character is pared back considerably, making him much more of a stereotypical villain than in the book. I think his is the least successful character transition, and the ending suffers for it. In the book when he says, “I’m not a republic serial villain,” the line works, but when movie Ozymandias says “I’m not some comic book villain,” my though was, “then why have you been acting like one the whole movie?” A character as smart as Ozymandias is supposed to be should be more self-aware than that.
The ending also suffers from being rushed. Ozymandias “killing” Dr. Manhattan, then Laurie shooting Ozymandias, and then Dr. Manhattan’s return all happen without any emotional downbeat between them, and as a result run together. I’m not sure if it was a matter of the editing/directorial choices, or if the scene just needed to be longer, but we definitely don’t have time to process Dr. Manhattan’s disappearance before he is back again, or to really appreciate what the conflict with Laurie and Dan says about Ozymandias’s character–yet another way in which that was mishandled.
Trying to have Sally Jupiter explain and give a reason for why she ended up loving the Comedian was simply wrong. There is no feel-good philosophy behind that aspect of the story. There is nothing there but an assertion that people can be this complicated, that we don’t, regardless of what some characters maintain, live in a world of explicable moral absolutes. There can be an attempted rape, and decades later a kiss planted on a photograph, and the world keeps going on. Trying to use that aspect of the story as a mother/daughter bonding issues and dress it up in romantic notions about parenthood was a drastically misguided idea.
I’m still processing this movie. I probably will be for a while. But I think I can say that it is the first Alan Moore movie adaptaion that I may, eventually, say-unqualified-that I like. I doubt it will ever be part of my list of favorite movies, the way the book is a part of my personal canon. The two texts will never be interchangeable for me, though I am eager to see the director’s cut of the film. But I think it is probably a reasonably good movie, I think I liked it, and I think it was much, much better than I, at my most pessimisstic, feared it was going to be.