But who will watch the Watchmen?

Andrew Stephens, Wednesday the 10th of September, 2008

I have just finished rereading the comic book graphic novel Watchmen This post was automatically imported from my old sandfly.net.nz blog. It may look a little weird since it was not originally written for this format.. It's a cracking read, filled with Big Ideas and it uses the comic graphic medium to great advantage - telling the story in a way that really wouldn't work in a traditional written novel. The artwork is visually stunning with many pages containing no dialog, content to just let the pictures tell the story.

The producers of the upcoming movie will have had some hard choices to make. It is the density of little details that makes Watchmen so interesting, and any film will have to cut a lot out. I find filmed adaptions of novels interesting for their own sake so I have decided to take a stab taking note of what I would change if I were in charge of production (the following paragraphs contain both plot information and uninformed speculation - avert your eyes now if you don't want to be spoilt and/or bored.)Of course the film came out years ago, and I saw it and wrote . If you are reading this rubbish you may be interested in that rubbish as well.

Some things I think will be different in the film

Having the attempted rape in the film could work, but it would be a brave producer that would include an attempted rape where the victim actually has regrets about it and ends up with her would-be rapist. My guess is that this plot point will be cleaned up a little, or even removed entirely.

The lengthy sub-sub-sub-plot with the boy reading the graphic novel comic book about the pirates is just a love letter within a love letter to EC Comics. It does thematically compliment the main story but could be omitted without anyone noticing the hole.

For such a visual work, there is surprisingly little action in Watchmen. Vast numbers of pages are spent while characters talk more-or-less to themselves, reminiscing about past events. This looks a little silly on the page, but would absolutely kill the momentum of a movie, so I guess most of these scenes will be dropped. Sometimes such monologues give hints as to the direction of the plot, but other times they just seem like padding. Origin stories are the bane of all super hero movies, and Watchmen will have to find some other way to flesh out the characters.

I am also willing to go out on a limb and predict that the filmed version will contain 100% less atomic blue scrotum.

Some general comments about the story

Watchmen has aged remarkably well despite being mired in 80s sensibilities. During my recent rereading, I was caught myself wondering if the recent adventurism in Georgia and associated cold war rhetoric is actually part of the Watchmen movie marketing campaign. Even the forthcoming (and undoubtably awful) The Day the Earth Stood Still remake fits right into the plot. Everything old is new again.

One of the basic themes of the book is that in Watchmen's version of events America got everything it ever wanted; costumed heros, a tame atomic demigod, and an emphatic victory in Vietnam. Instead of this America being a capitalist utopia, it is even more deranged and cynical than ever, turning against itself even as it rages against the world. As one insanely violent character puts it: the american dream came true, and he is it! Current events in the US and Iraq show that this idea still has legs.

It is unfortunate that the novel's idea that an horrific event involving thousand of deaths in the heart of New York City would lead to peace on Earth was proved to be false when somebody with the opposite aim put his similar idea into practice. Watchmen's epilogue rings a little hollow since the days of 9/11.

Watchmen is filled with visual symbols and symmetries that I think could go over well in a film. Some of them, like Laurie destroying the complex on Mars (as well as her own complex) with a bottle of Nostalgia would actually work better in motion - in print it comes across as extremely heavy handed while we are all used to seeing visual metaphors in film.

The whole subplot of The Comedian finding out what is happening on the island is kind of glossed over in the novel, alluded to in pieces at various times. This was a wise decision by the authors because it makes no sense. Why did The Comedian investigate the island when he had only glimpsed it from an airship? Perhaps he consulted The Lonely Planet Guide and it mentions this island as well suited for nefarious plans. And exactly how did he find out what the project on the island was for when even the people working on it didn't know? How dumb were those supposedly geniuses anyway - did they all really believe they were working on a movie prop?

The villain's plan is pretty half-baked anyway. It relies on total secrecy even though it must involve hundreds of people - people that must be killed when the plan succeeds least they spill the beans. A giant telepathic creature teleports into a major city months after world experts in teleporting, genetic engineering and psychic phenomena disappear - once the dust settles people are going to get suspicious!

This is where I think the film is going to have the most difficulty. The meat of the story is not what the villain is planning to do but his motivations, something that hard to get across in film. The novel has the indulgent luxury of including the false documents at the end of each chapter. My guess is that the film will replace some of these with "archival footage" illuminating aspects of the characters in the same way.

The otherwise excellent detour to Mars also has the same "it makes no sense" problem. Surely the good doctor would not be fooled by such an sketchy ruse; he would be the first to point out that he has had close contact with hundreds of people who were not dying of cancer. His conversation about predestination is great, as is his clockwork castle thingamabob, but these do not move the plot along.

Laurie's revelation about her father is not well handled, it comes out of nowhere and doesn't even make much difference. The film would be better if they foreshadowed this information a little more clearly, or at least made it matter more, its not like Laurie's ignorance of her true father was holding her back.

Although you might expect a story about costumed crime fighters to be an action-packed romp, almost nothing actually happens in Watchmen. There is a flaming roof rescue that would make an exciting scene in a film, a prison breakout which take about 2 minutes, and a couple of short fights but that is about it. The ending is not exactly the stuff of high action either, with a couple of brief philosophical conversations leading to a consensus instead of a big showdown. One of the bigger problems with the ending as written is that half the cast suffers from Anakin symdrome, allowing themselves to be persuaded to go against their better judgement by a quick speech. Even in the novel this feels terribly rushed.

Three Ways To Go

Good adaptions of complex novels are like coke in green glass bottles, they don't make them anymore. There are three ways a film can go when faced with such a source work. It can try to turn itself into an action movie, cutting the dialog and backstory to make room for lengthy action sequences. This can work (the Lord of the Rings films did this to some degree), but the result is usually unmemorable.

The second avenue is to make a low budget adaption with few spectacular scenes. This has the advantage that the producers can claim to have had their vision hamstrung by the inevitable lack of money, but still have some credibility with fans of the original material. Watchmen has a large budget, so I don't see this approach working.

The third option is the "glorious mess", where the produces gamely try to capture the scope of the source in a different medium without compromising their vision by doing sensible things like rewriting dialog for the screen. Dune is a perfect example of what can happen when a dense book is stuffed into a movie without making some adjustments, the "what the hell did we just watch?" factor is very high.

Hopefully the producers have avoided the common pitfalls with Watchmen, it certainly seems to be a labour of love if the trailer is anything to go by.

I guess we will find out next year.