Saturday, 5 February 2011

Watchmen - Who Watches the Film Version?

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.


  1. ive never read or seen watchmen but it sounds like they captivated the idea behind the story pretty well, in an attempt to answe your question i would say that i really do admire film makers when they adapt a book for film IF they stick to the plot or turn a mediocre book into a good film. also there was a book i quite enjoyed reading but hated the end of, it was turned into a film and getting to see a character i really liked was awesome and the film stopped short of the crap ending so i was chuffed. oh btw the black, white and red theme makes my eyes go funny when i look away from the screen, maybe its just me but if not then adding migrane like effects to your blogs might not be the best thing since sliced bread

  2. Maybe you're right about making good films from mediocre books... I'm trying to think of cases of that now. Yeah, I always enjoy seeing book characters on film when it's done well. But I guess I think a film with an original story, characters and concept is more impressive than an adaptation.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment. Maybe I'll mess around with the colour scheme.

  3. Sure the line "i'm not stuck in here with you..." was good, but all the lines in the movie were taken directly from the book. I prefer when a movie director takes a truly awesome book and gives it his/her own style so you can appreciate both book and movie in their own rights. Unfortunately this is easier to do with short stories than novels, but it has been done. I just don't think an exact copy of the book is what film adaptations should be.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Well that's exactly my point, that the best things about the film are all the things that came straight from the book. But I think there's a difference between a film that attempts to copy the book exactly (and I agree these are never much good) and a film, like Watchmen, that keeps the essence of the source text intact. Plus, if it ain't broke don't fix it. Most of the dialogue in the book is so perfect for the characters that changing it, even to something equally powerful, would change the characters.

  6. I approached this whole thing backwards - I saw the movie and now have a copy of the comic. However I think that saying the movie is great simply because of the source is a little unfair and I must admit to complete bafflement regarding why the ending was changed - they kept it close enough that it wouldn't have mattered too much if they had used the random squid ending. just a thought!