Watchmen Examination and the Problems with Direct Adaptations

In an age where every single comic book and young adult novel gets a big budgeted film, there is one annoying trend that I still don’t get. It happens every time I ask someone who’s read the books what they think and I always hear the same reply.

“I just hope they keep everything! (Whatever the last thing I saw, usually a Harry Potter film) didn’t have this character or this scene. It RUINED it for me! I hope this one is better and that they keep everything from the book.”

Every time I hear this, I just shake my head. Don’t they realize what they are asking? They are asking that Hollywood sell their imaginations to them with no changes. That says a lot about a person and they’re creativity.

It also shows that they are unable to recognize how things that work in some mediums will not work as well in others. Usually, when an adaptation of a book is a strict translation, it ends up coming across as slow and meandering. Characters are shallow and flat, as they are only able to communicate via dialogue. The first two Harry Potter films were the most accurate to the source material. They were also barely watchable and felt like a director was just going through the motions. The adaptation had nothing to say about why these works were so special to the public. But that’s what people are expecting – and so, such films are getting worse.

If I had to pick one film that perfectly shows why filmmakers should not do a straight adaptation of any work, I would pick Zack Snyder’s take on Watchmen. On one level, it is successful – it is a shot for shot version of the legendary graphic novel, with almost all the characters and all the dialogue. But is nowhere near as good. Not all of this is Snyder and cast’s fault. There was never a chance that any film would create the same sort of revolution that the book did. But at the same time, it didn’t even try. Snyder thought he only need to take Alan Moore’s work and not share his thoughts about it. He practically used panels from the comic as his storyboards and the dialogue is such a direct translation I’m surprised there were even screenwriters credited. Taking a different approach is smart There are plenty of reasons that the film adaptation of Moore’s V for Vendetta is not as good as the book, but at least it tried to take a different approach and showed a modern audience why that novel and its philosophy mattered and how it was still relevant.

One problem is the fact that it takes place in 1986. Well, that’s not so much a problem, but it is wrong that they kept all of the Cold War tension ideas that were in the original comic. And that was EVERYTHING about the comic – all of the characters were motivated to bring world peace and prevent the USA and the USSR from nuking each other. Originally, Moore and Gibbons were responding to what was happening in the world. But by keeping it, the 2009 film seems hopelessly out of touch. An entire generation had passed since the fall of the Berlin wall and a new threat had grown. But the film could not respond to it, because “that was not in the original novel.” But the original Watchmen dealt with a specific time and place. It’s a time that has passed.

Also, there are narrative tricks that only work in the context of the comic. The most notable example is the scene that explains Doctor Manhattan’s origin as he hides on Mars. The whole point of the character is that he can perceive time all at once and constantly speaks in the present tense (note the first panel in the picture). For that moment in the comic, we are allowed to see that. We can see all the panels at once and we can also see how events Doctor Manhattan describes are leading to the future. The transition between present and past is seamless. That is utterly impossible to replicate on film. By its very nature, film must flow in the same way as past to present. The story comes across not as an invitation to see the world as Doctor Manhattan sees, but as him merely recounting his origin to no one in particular. Why keep it? Because “it was in the novel,” I suppose. But it doesn’t matter how much music you borrow from Koyaanisqatsithe sequence was never going to work on film.

There are a lot of small moments like this. One scene, also from the comic, has Rorschach being instantly transported away from Dr. Manhattan’s laboratory. It’s an instant move, that disorients readers. In the film, there are flashes of electricity and we see the teleportation – which defeats the whole point that the move was “instantaneous.”

Also, because the cast is announced at the beginning of the film, the small cameos of Rorschach without his mask do not have any dramatic impact. Why preserve these moments? It would have been better to experiment with the medium you were working in to try to create the same impact as the comic. You know, kind of like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did in the first place. The film DID get some flack for changing the ending, but frankly, I was pleased that the filmmakers even thought to experiment. And that destruction actually recalls 9/11, with everything covered in a grey pallor and having people stand by and watch the disaster unfold, not realizing what’s happening or what it will do to them. Other than that, it was “we have to do this because Alan Moore did it,” without realizing the whole point was that this sort of thing had never been done before.

Watchmen was a film that had been in development since the comic was released. A lot of directors came and went and most of them had different ideas about how to film it. One script would have ended with a parallel universe being created in which superheroes never existed – our universe. Far fetched? Maybe so, but at least it was an original idea and demonstrated why the novel was considered important. The whole point of Watchmen was that superheroes, if they existed, would be political tools and would be fallible. That idea has influenced countless artists across all mediums. By no means is the film bad (as I said earlier, it’s about as effective as a straight adaptation can be), but it feels pointless. People were familiar with the original work and the film needed a different approach to seem fresh and exciting. A straight adaptation didn’t work, just as it won’t work with the Hunger Games sequel. Or Ender’s Game. Or any popular work. Those things became popular because they were (for the most part) a new idea that had a lot to say about where we were as a society. But society is always changing. If art will not, then how can we expect it to say anything about us?

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