Monday, 19 September 2011

Watchmen: Comic Book vs Film

When it comes to book to film conversions, I seem to always have something to say. But I will readily admit to not having a clue when it comes to comic book to film convertions. So with that in mind please welcome Scott Inkson to Film vs Book. Here is his first post, taking a look at the 2009 film Watchmen, based on the comic.

Guest post by Scott Inkson

Cinematic Wallpaper
Who watches the Watchmen? Well, I did just now. It is probably now someone else’s turn, I can’t watch it all the time; I have a life...sometimes. Watchmen is, of course, the 2009 Zack Snyder film based off the seminal graphic novel by Alan Moore (and Dave Gibbons) of the same name which deconstructed superheroes by placing them in a real-life context. By creating an alternative history diverting from the year 1938 (when Superman was created), it speculates on life if “superheroes” had actually emerged and what they would possibly by like. In this timeline, Moore explores the various anxieties which were quite palpable in the ‘80’s, here the US and Russia are now on a collision course for an all-out Nuclear war which provides much of the nihilistic backdrop of his worthy superhero critique. Due to the numerous subplots and rich-themes, and in a text which at times even deconstructs its own medium of comic-books, many had proclaimed Watchman as simply unfilmable in the face of the suggested adaptations in development. After several false starts and many years however, finally in 2009 we were given an R-rated, largely faithful, two and a half hour movie that made a rather good go of it in light of those valid concerns.

The film charts the progression of the alternate chain-of-events, explored largely in patches by
Moore in the book (largely through supplementary material), in a breathtakingly stylish and concise
credits sequence to the tune of Bob Dylan’s ‘Times they are a’changing’. A fulfilling sequence both
assuring and impressive with the novel in mind, as it is surprisingly dense with information all while
being far from disorientating for those coming in cold.

For those uninitiated, the main plot is instigated by the murder of “The Comedian” Edward Blake
which prompts the only remaining unretired and unsanctioned superhero “Rorschach” (A highly-
paranoid sociopath reflective of the popular anti-heroes of the time), into investigating, drawing ex-
team members out of retirement and slowly unravelling a far-larger conspiracy. All the ‘heroes’ are
incredibly flawed characters, not one is without a severe disorder, neurosis or psychosis of some
kind, exploring what heroes would be/have to be like through the prism of pseudo-reality. It’s not
without its fantastical elements however, with its chief one being its analogous super-man, the
demi-god like, superpowered, no-longer-human - Dr Manhattan.

The film doesn’t play up the mystery-element as much in my view; the ‘villain’ of the piece might as
well be twiddling the elaborate moustache he doesn’t have soon as he hits the screen. This slightly
ties into the paradoxical nature of the film, its greatest strength and arguably greatest weakness is
its largely-incredible reverence to the book. Reverence is next to godliness when it comes to direct-
adaptations however most of its shortcomings come from its slight-dependency on the viewer being
familiar enough with the source to fill in the cracks and paint in the edges. Obviously for the sake
of running-times, a lot of ‘superfluous’ scenes/events had to be trimmed, however, anyone whose
read the book can tell you these smaller-asides all serve to inform the main story or cement its
themes in ways which leaves it a slightly less whole affair without. Its largest omission is no doubt
the understandable, but slightly saddening exclusion of the ‘story-within-a-story’ Tale of the Black
Freighter, a comic read by a child within the story – a tale which mirrors the trajectory of Veidt,
crystallising the themes of the wider-story in a wonderfully succinct way. Incidentally Warner Bros
made this available as an animated straight-to-DVD release, providing the option to play it ‘in movie’
on the special, super-duper, never-to-be-repeated-until-next-time edition of the DVD. The exclusions
wouldn’t necessarily be an issue if it had been flexible and bold enough to try and compensate for
its omissions within its narrative/dialogue, often refusing to in defiant determinism to play out the
scenes precisely.

Its only major (well, slight in essence) deviation is funnily enough the ending. In the book, Veidt’s ‘masterplan’ involves uniting the world through an alien threat, albeit a fake one and, in the face of possible planetary invasion and untold destruction, the superpowers have little choice but to join forces for the sake of humankind. The film presumably dropped the squid/alien threat on grounds it would seem completely “out-there” in a film where one of the main characters is a naked, blue man who can do anything. Navigating this, the film instead has Veidt ‘frame’ Dr Manhattan, making him the ‘alien threat’ that unites the world. While its fidelity to the book is one of its chief strengths throughout and to change the ending borders on heresy, within the context of the film and for general audiences I think the change holds up better than it has right to in theory, or purists will ever like admitting. It’s the films only bold deviance and whenever rewatching the film I sometimes find myself wondering if they perhaps should have been braver to tweak other portions as well to make it stand alone more.

The brilliance of the book, which the film largely retains, is its morally-grey and challenging ending.
Superhero-stories are often Manichean tales of good and evil, we always know who to empathise
with and that a rightful equilibrium will be restored for the most part. Watchmen’s ultimate villain
is the one with the widest purview and best intentions; blinded by them he commits acts which
are utterly-reprehensible. Powerless, all the ‘heroes’ can do in the end is to be complicit for the
sake of damage limitation. The most unhinged of them all ends the least ethically compromised,
even though this costs him his life. As these events unfold, we are forced to contemplate our own
moralities and ethics, rather than following the guidance of the text as superhero stories often do.

In essence, while far from perfect, Snyder has managed to make a (largely) coherent film from a
landmark graphic novel proclaimed unfilmable. While there may be some discrepancies between the
source and film (like with any adaptation), it is clear this film went out of its way to be as reverent
as possible and it is hard to be too judgemental with such honourable intent on the part of the
film-makers. It is a great companion piece to the book, however non-converts be warned it might
seem quite inaccessible and haphazard without the weight of backstory provided in the graphic
novel behind it. However, it is another consolidating comic-book movie helping to liberate the ever-
growing sub-genre from the stigma attached due to its often lazily-done, lighter examples, hopefully
helping to demonstrate there is far more weight to this source-medium than, say, The Fantastic Four
might demonstrate.

Book – 5 out of 5 – The Citizen Kane of graphic novels.

Film - 3.5 out of 5 – A stylish and solid attempt of the near-impossible.

1 comment:

  1. Scott clearly knows his stuff? I have to say I admire anyone who can deduce all that from a comic or should I say graphic novel? Good read - thanks :)