I should start by saying that I don’t regard myself as in any way an expert on movies. I’m not here to talk about scene construction, editing, lighting or even acting. As a viewer I thought that Watchmen was a little long, but aside from that I’m going to talk almost entirely about the relationship between the movie and the original comic series.
I also hope that I don’t come over wholly negative. I don’t watch many movies, but seeing Watchmen was a reasonably enjoyable experience. I thought that V for Vendetta was a much more powerful movie, and I suspect I will also like Coraline a lot better. I wouldn’t put Watchmen in the same category as, say, City of Lost Children, or anything by Kurosawa, but at the same time I didn’t regard the few hours in the cinema as wasted and I will be buying the DVD when it comes out.
That said there are a few specific things that I particularly regret about the movie. Firstly I have already seen people complaining that the only LGBT characters in the movie are killed off in the opening credits. That’s Zack Snyder’s doing, or maybe Hollywood’s, not Alan Moore’s. In the comic gay rights is a recurring issue throughout the narrative. Yes, Silhouette is thrown out of the Minutemen and murdered, but the whole point of that was to make a “that was then, this is now” statement, not to simply write LGBT people out of the story the way that Snyder and/or his bosses have done.
Next up, the funeral of The Comedian is a gaping plot hole in the film. In the comic it is the clue that leads Detective Fine to crack the secret identity of Nite Owl. In the film the absence of that consequence is glaringly obvious. And finally, I regret the absence of the murder of Hollis Mason from the film, as it is one of the most poignant elements of the original story. However, once I have explained the real problem with the film, you’ll see why it vanished.
The real problem? Well yes, there is a reason why a whole bunch of people are unhappy with this movie, and it is nothing to do with the squid. Snyder has stuck slavishly to the original plot, and has used great heaps of the original dialog. The revised ending is, in some ways, an improvement, and it certainly no less believable than the original. If anything the film is too faithful. Rorschach’s dialog, in particular, is very clever when you see it written down and have time to reflect upon it, but appears horribly pretentious when you hear it live. The only bit that really works well is “you’re locked in here with me.”
So, not much in the way of changes, and yet fans of the comic are unhappy. Why? Because the movie manages to excise just about everything that is good about the original, leaving only the silly comic book story at its heart.
There are three things that are exceptional about Watchmen, the comic. The first is Moore’s mastery of the medium of the traditional 9-frame-page comic book format. That’s something that simply cannot be transferred to screen because it is a technical issue that applies only to comics. Even simple things like the way Moore cuts between the TV interview with Dr. Manhattan and the attempted mugging of Dan and Laurie can’t transfer to the screen. The second is the relationship between the Watchmen characters and the history of comics up to the point at which Watchmen was written. Movie goers will doubtless recognize something of Batman in Nite Owl, but how many will, for example, recognize elements of Nick Fury in The Comedian? And that’s not even going near the really subtle stuff such as the way that the relationship between Hector Godfrey and Seymour at the New Frontiersman riffs off the relationship between J. Jonah Jameson and Peter Parker.
The main glory of Watchmen, however, the thing that makes it a graphic novel and not just a comic book, is the way in which the story is set in the real world. In the comics, the textual sections, the interrelationship with the Tales of the Black Freighter comics, and the host of minor characters such as the comic book kid, the newspaper seller and Joey the dyke cab driver are essential to the narrative. We don’t see the murder of Hollis Mason because it is carried out by minor characters who have been excised from the movie, and also because it would be very hard for the movie to reproduce the cutting between Mason’s memories of his time as a crime fighter and his helplessness as an old man confronted by a mob that makes Moore’s original so powerful. In the film, because there is never enough time to transfer an entire novel to a movie, almost all of supporting material is lost, and we are left with nothing but a silly story about superheroes.
So yes, Snyder has produced a film that faithfully follows the story of Watchmen, but by taking it out of context and removing all of the extraneous detail he has eviscerated the original. It is like making a series of cartoon sketches of panels from the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel and showing it to someone who has never read the Bible. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad movie, because after all there are plenty of worse superhero films out there, but it does explain very clearly why Alan Moore claimed that his work was “unfilmable”.
I’d like to finish by giving the movie a bit of praise, because there were some parts that worked very well. Lots of people have remarked on the opening credits, and they are indeed very good. They are a part of the film in which Snyder felt free to tell the story in his own way rather than be shackled to the comic as storyboard and script. I also loved the costumes. In the original Dave Gibbons makes a brave stab at contrasting the amateurish look of the Minutemen costumes with the somewhat more modern Watchmen, but he is still stuck in the 1980s. The stark contrast between the Minutemen and Watchmen costumes in the film makes the same point in a much better way. The only complaint I have is that the original Comedian costume riffs off Captain America as well as Nick Fury, and the movie loses that reference.
The other thing that is really great about the movie is the soundtrack, and that is because if Watchmen is “about” anything it is not disillusionment with the superhero comic, but about using that disillusionment as a metaphor for the way in which the public attitude towards government and nationality changed between the 1950s and 1980s. (That’s one of the reasons it keeps riffing off themes about time.) Watchmen is, in many ways, a period piece, and I very much wish that I’d had a chance to interview some of the teenagers who saw the film with me to find out what they made of it. Personally I think that if you hadn’t lived through the 1960s and 1970s then the emotional impact of the story will be considerably lessened. I understood, and consequently I was able to enjoy the film. For younger people it may just be an historical curiosity.