Watching the Watchmen

>> Saturday, March 07, 2009

It's all too easy, but it's also irresistible: nobody was watching the Watchmen, that's who. For a 7:40 showing on opening night, the theatre was half-empty when the lights came up, not an auspicious sign at all. Whether it's the middling reviews the movie's received so far, or that the graphic novel's fame and fanbase don't translate into a mass-movie audience, or something else, it doesn't bode well for the movie's box office.

Unfortunately, too, "nobody" may be exactly who Watchmen was made for: fans of the Moore/Gibbons graphic novel are likely to obsess over what's missing from the film, and people who haven't read Watchmen are likely to feel that they're missing a great deal of what's in the film. Out of the crowd I went with Friday night: Scott, a lifelong comics collector who in happier days owned a limited-edition print of the novel said he "really wanted to like it"; Nathan, another fan of the novel, thought it was "meh"; Jessica, who's read the book, didn't really say anything; and then Rose, Lily and Madison--who haven't read Watchmen--felt there were a lot of things going on they were missing out on. As for my own feelings (since that's what this post was about): I thought the whole thing was "nifty," and I can't think of a better word than that--it was neat that they got as much of the novel on screen as they did, and I understood the changes that they made, and there were some things that translated remarkably well and some things that really didn't work, but overall it didn't leave me sans socks the way Spider-Man 2 or The Dark Knight did, or even giddy like Iron Man or X-Men 2 or even Superman Returns. Watchmen was nifty, I look forward to the extended DVD that's supposed to come out (with the "Black Freighter" sequences folded into the main movie) and I'll buy it, but my advice to anybody who asks is: if you haven't read the book, spend the money at the bookstore instead of on a movie ticket and popcorn.

Oddly enough, director Zack Snyder may have accidentally proven the thesis that Alan Moore in general and Watchmen in particular is unfilmable. If Watchmen, the movie, isn't entirely a jaw-dropper or fails on some levels, it's not because they didn't put the page on the screen. Much of the movie looks like it was storyboarded from the original comic itself, with angles and details and actions matching the original frame-for-panel, and quite a lot of the dialogue is pulled directly from the comic as well (sometimes unfortunately, since there are inevitably lines that scan very well on the page but clunk when they come out of a living person's mouth; Watchmen is far from the first adaptation of a story or novel to run into this problem, indeed it's possible that books whose text naturally flows into dialogue are the real exception and not the rule--The Haunting of Hill House is one of the few that comes to mind, along with William Goldman's The Princess Bride1). There is absolutely no way, of course, that moving images can carry the depth of information a static panel does (a hallmark of Moore's work is that he gives his artists tons of things to put into each frame; when this was brought up after the movie, Rose said it sounded like "Where's Waldo" and it's actually an apt analogy--many panels in a Moore collaboration reward hours of "did you spot...?"). Furthermore, Watchmen (the movie) has to compress a twelve-chapter story spanning forty years into a two-hour-forty-minute film; things are inevitably lost and pared down. But Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse made a heroic effort to get everything brought over into the film that they could: this is a remarkably faithful adaptation as such things go, and any lack of success can't really be blamed on the source material or on the adaptation itself, but rather on the loss of detail that occurs between the formats.

Well, mostly--I do have to say this about that point: Alan Moore's comics tend to be nearly multimedia experiences (LXG: Black Dossier was even meant to ship with a 45-RPM record, although that plan was scrapped near the last minute), or at least multilayer experiences--comic-book sequences alternate with prose and poem sections, "excerpts" from in-world books and samples of postcards and alternative print media (e.g. Watchmen the novel includes a copy of Rorschach's rap sheet and psych evaluation stuck between chapters), etc. The eventual Watchmen extended DVD is expected to have something along those lines by including the comic-within-a-comic Tales Of The Black Freighter (starring Gerard Butler) as an animated movie cut within the movie. But I expected that perhaps where the movie might have exceeded the book would have been on the audio side, specifically with the soundtrack (books don't usually come with their own scores, obviously). Watchmen's soundtrack is undeniably excellent--it features possibly the best use of Leonard Cohen's oft-used "Hallelujah" ever--but it seems surprisingly light on the thematically-apt '80s music aside from Nena's "99 Luftballons." This is an unfair criticism on my part--licensing something from The Police's or U2's catalogue was probably out of the question (even if the band was willing, the royalties would be extortionate), but it did cross my mind.

I also feel obligated to point out, especially to people unacquainted with the book, that Watchmen isn't exactly a conventional superhero story (this is its claim to fame, really, so I hope fans will forgive me for stating the obvious here). There are significant stretches where characters pretty much just sit around and talk, or where there's action but it's a bit subdued (i.e. Rorschach might be running around and climbing fire escapes with Jackie Chan-esque grace, but this isn't a movie where a tractor trailer flips end-over-end or somebody fights a guy with six arms on top of a runaway train). I mostly enjoyed these character scenes, but then I had some sense of what was in the characters' heads and the way those scenes echoed the same scenes in the book. In other words, I don't know if somebody who's never read Watchmen can take seriously a Smurf-blue naked dude looking at stars while his internal monologue unspools in voiceover. It's either sublime or ludicrous, depending, or maybe it's really both.

The most substantial change from the book, and the one that was most controversial within my gang of friends, was to the movie's ending and big reveal: without spoiling anything, I can say that the major denouement of the movie and book are similar while radically different, that is the motives and immediate and long-term effects of the plot are nearly identical while the execution of said plot turns out to be fundamentally different and requires additional sacrifice from a character that recalls the final moments in The Dark Knight. Scott and Nate kinda hated the change, but I'll be honest and say that (1) I found the denouement of the original book to be one of its weaker points, (2) the book version requires a dozen pages of additional setup and an ongoing mystery involving a series of artists' disappearances that would have probably added an extra half-hour or more to the movie to set up and explain at little benefit to the rest of the movie and (3) there's a kind of inspired elegance and storytelling economy in the movie version that I admire. Moore's work doesn't necessarily suffer when it lacks economy--his baroque plots are actually kind of fun and mind-blowing in mostly good ways, and are one of the reasons to read Moore in the first place. But I appreciate what the screenwriters were able to accomplish by cleverly distilling one of the book's most tangled and bizarre plot-threads into one character. I may be completely and utterly wrong on this score, however: interestingly enough, when the "Watchmen-illiterate" members of Friday's movie expedition had the change explained to them, they all said, "Oh, see, that would have made more sense."

I feel like I'm sounding a bit negative about a movie that I mostly liked--again, I thought it was pretty nifty. There's a great deal to be enjoyed in Watchmen: viewers who are familiar with the book but can separate and appreciate the book and movie as related-but-wholly-separate experiences ought to enjoy seeing the comic panels given motion. And while some of the acting is a little wooden and clunky, by and large the casting is surprisingly perfect. The movie's visual design is excellent, and the fact that the visual cues are drawn from the comic only enhances the effect--it really is like seeing still frames come to life. And I suspect, from the way Snyder set things up in his shots, that the DVD may even reward repeat viewings and freeze-frames in much the same way the original comic panels reward study, that Snyder probably crammed in as many visual references as he could get the set designers and CG crews to cram in.

I suggested, when talking about the previews, that Watchmen might well prove to be made of awesome. I think, and I'm a little surprised to be writing this now that I've actually seen it, that it might indeed be made of awesome--the surprise being that if it is made of awesome, it also has to be considered an utter failure. You can, I think, slide those two points closer together like tab and margin sliders on a typewriter or word processor tab-bar, and maybe even make them overlap; the less of a failure you deem the movie, the less awesome it is in its successes. If your reaction, like my friend Nate's, is "meh," then surely the sliders are on top of each other and I can't argue the point. Watchmen has the makings of a cult classic, I suspect, a movie that will simultaneously be revered and reviled by geekdom while the square world ignores it or occasionally shoots it a confused glance. It would actually, for better or worse and notwithstanding Alan Moore's refusal to cooperate with the film in any way2, make a nice bundle with the graphic novel, since I don't really think you can appreciate what the movie gets right and what it can't pull off without reading the book first. Not that Moore would ever agree to it, but I can actually imagine a very nice slipcase edition containing the novel, the DVD, and maybe an additional companion volume going into the making of each and helping draw comparisons and contrasts between the works as an example of the advantages and disadvantages of the respective media.

I don't know what else to tell you. Again, if you haven't read Watchmen, I think your money would be better spent on the book, nor can I imagine you getting much out of the film. And if you're familiar with the source material, I suspect you'll find yourself not-quite-loving and not-quite-hating it. Perhaps (like my friend Scott) you'll want to like it, or (like me) you'll think it's neat but not exactly exciting, or perhaps (like Nate) you'll just feel "meh" at the end of the nearly-three hours. While my own reactions should probably be characterized as positive, I actually don't think Scott, Nate and I are really that far apart in our responses, and that's really a bit of a problem with the movie overall since it might be more successful on some kind of terms if it inspired loathing from everyone (and if it inspired devotion, well, needless to say...). It's not a waste of money, and you may (like me) find yourself looking forward to the expected DVD release despite the fact that it's not likely to be "better" in any kind of objective sense.

1The latter not being much of a surprise in that regard, since William Goldman--who adapted the screenplay for Bride from his own novel--is the same guy who won Academy Awards for the screenplays for both Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and All The President's Men. While I'm not a big fan of the Oscars and really think they're a bit of a joke, I don't think anyone can argue Goldman doesn't know his way around a screenplay.

2Having been burned too many times by comics adaptations, Moore refused to allow his name in the credits, which charmingly say, "Based on the graphic novel co-created by Dave Gibbons"; Gibbons did work extensively with the production. Moore apparently did take a look at the screenplay at some point and allegedly said it was as close as anyone could get to an adaptation before going on to add, essentially, that Watchmen was inherently a comic and unfilmable--a rave review in Moorish terms.


Anne C. Sunday, March 8, 2009 at 2:40:00 PM EDT  

I have not read the book, but having seen the movie, I will seek it out. As you noted, I *knew* there were great quantities of things that I was missing.

Eric Sunday, March 8, 2009 at 5:59:00 PM EDT  

By way of an update: it looks like Watchmen took fifty-five million this weekend, so the lack of people in the theatre Friday night may have been atypical after all. Which is generally good news if you're a geek like me: it hurts the tribe when a SF or fantasy movie doesn't do well, since it means the good ones are less likely to be made along with the less-good and bad ones.

mattw Monday, March 9, 2009 at 7:39:00 AM EDT  

I was thinking about checking it out next weekend. We'll see though. Generally, Brandi doesn't care for SF or comic book movies, and I doubt she'll find anything she likes in Watchmen.

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