I recently read Alan Moore's comic Watchmen for the second time, and watched Zack Snyder's film adaptation, also for the second time. Obviously I can't look back on Watchmen without focusing my ideas a little, since it's such a huge and multi-faceted text, so I'm gonna look at the film, and at how well it lives up to the book.
Of course, it's fashionable to be intensely negative about any film adaptation of anything, just for the hell of it. If you're one of those people who, on hearing that another book or comic or whatever is getting the Hollywood treatment, immediately starts whingeing like a baby then I suggest you don't bother reading this, because I think the film of Watchmen is pretty damn good. When I first saw it - in a cinema and full of "it's-finally-here" excitement - I was hugely impressed. The cast is almost perfect; some of those actors even look like the Dave Gibbons's pictures, and both the actors and the writers obviously understand the characters profoundly. With the sad exception of Silk Spectre, the "staggeringly complex psychological profiles" that a New York Times reviewer saw in the book are all present and accounted for.
And more than that, the essence is there: the grimy streets, the distrust and paranoia with which everyone seems to view everyone else, the apocalyptic anxiety, and of course the shadow of the Cold War that gets into every corner of the story. Snyder's film conveys all these things with skill and imagination, never straying too far from the source text but not simply reproducing it verbatim from start to finish. The scene-setting vignettes during the opening credits (set to Bob Dylan's "The Time's They Are A-Changing" - how perfect!) are a wonderful example of this. Even the significantly altered ending doesn't seem in any way unfaithful.
All of which suggests Watchmen the film is a brilliant adaptation of Watchmen the comic. But how good a film is it? Well, I'm not a critic but it's clearly not a bad film. It's well-written, well-acted, well edited, well set-designed, well cast, well lit, well sound-edited, blah blah blah. But those aren't the things that make it really impressive. What makes it really impressive is Rorschach... Dr. Manhattan... Veidt... the giant crystal structure floating around over Mars... the line "I'm not locked up in here with you, you're all locked up in here with me!". Most of all, that essence that I tried my very best to sum up in the paragraph above. In other words, it's technically a good film, but what it really has going for it is... all the stuff that came from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's original text. In a way, unless the filmmakers had been really incompetent or lazy, or had strayed completely from the source text, they couldn't possibly have failed to make a good film. It was Watchmen. It was already great.
That was the impression I got after watching the film the second time. And I was left wondering: "Can an adaptation ever actually be great in its own right?" I'm not joining the "adaptations are pointless" brigade. I'm just wondering how much admiration a group of filmmakers deserve for faithfully reproducing something that was a brilliant, complete and fascinating work of art before they came anywhere near it...
Image by James Brown. http://rabidwater.deviantart.com/