For as long as I can remember, the idea of a book somehow being “unfilmable” has been fascinating to me. It’s a kind of value judgement, isn’t it? That the lofty, printed word can in some special cases still be completely unassailable by the coarse domain of film, at least for as long as it takes for someone to actually end up attempting to do it. The new millennium has so far had adaptations of multiple previously-thought-unfilmable books finally reach the screen, with 2012 being a benchmark that saw the Wachowskis’ adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Ang Lee’s version of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and David Cronenburg’s attempt at replicating Don DeLillo’s dialogue in Cosmopolis.
Three years earlier found another book that up to that point had only existed on the page reach the screen, after decades spent mired in development hell: the classic comic miniseries that spawned an entire decade of grim and gritty stories in its wake, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. Before Zack Snyder succeeded at finishing the project, it passed through the hands of many talented people, including Terry Gilliam, David “Solid Snake” Hayter, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass. Snyder was hot off the heels of another comic adaptation before Watchmen, the massively successful 300, and used many of the techniques developed on that film to fill out the New York City of Moore and Gibbons’ imagination.
Watchmen is a curious film, one that interrogates the very idea of adaptation and who it’s actually done for. Many critics at the time found it to be suffocating in its atmosphere of atomic dread and those who were familiar with the source material felt that it adhered much too closely and didn’t give itself room to breathe. To me, though, the film is a triumph of production design and style perfectly matched to setting, equalling and in many cases eclipsing much more universally praised nerd culture adaptations like Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) or Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.
The mid-eighties world portrayed in Watchmen is a hairsbreadth away from our own, with differences starting when “themed” criminal gangs in the Great Depression led to a reciprocation from masked avengers and mystery men. The most famous crime fighting group was called the Minutemen, who sadly found out that their own hidden vices and the vicissitudes of the cruel world would see most of them dead by the 1950s. The bulk of their story is related to the viewer with great economy and style in what I feel is Watchmen’s greatest achievement: its opening credit sequence.
“The bulk of their story is related to the viewer with great economy and style in what I feel is Watchmen’s greatest achievement: its opening credit sequence.”
It starts off with posed, almost-but-not-quite still life scenes detailing the rise and fall of the Minutemen and their descendants, the 1970s-era Watchmen, intermixed with further events that changed their history from our own. The entire sequence is set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” which is potentially an obvious choice, but a good shorthand for new viewers, and an artist who’s continually referenced in the comic. The same can be said about most of the songs chosen for the soundtrack, really–that they’re a bit on the nose–but I feel that this is crucial to help ground viewers in the story’s altered timeline (the use of Philip Glass’ “Pruit Igoe” and “Prophecies” in the scene where Dr. Manhattan experiences his entire life story all at once is another great melding of visual and sound).
In addition to the great mise en scene on display in the opening sequence, the perfect realization of the fun 1930s costumes, and the beautiful cinematography, the thing I love most about this sequence is the way each scene is punctuated by flashbulbs and the sound of camera lenses, soon to be replaced by film and television footage as time rolls on. In a film that is so tied to its source material, this is an interesting way of using movie shorthand to get across how important these people were, through the fact that they’re constantly being followed by the media. There’s even a sly glimpse from a police chief down the front of Silk Spectre I’s blouse–blink and you’ll miss it–that points to her status as a pinup and sex symbol. The omnipresent cameras also tie into the media-saturated feel of the film to come.
Another facet of the film, one that provoked probably the biggest reaction from critics at the time, was Snyder’s use of speed-ramping during some action scenes. While this technique was used relatively sparingly during the fight scenes in 300, the same effect found mostly derision in Watchmen. I feel that, like the opening sequence and its almost still life images, this is another attempt by Snyder to emulate comic book style without aping it entirely. The speed ramping of Nite Owl II jumping through the air to kick in a thug’s head, or Ozymandias’ swinging of a barrier post through the legs of a potential assassin…these are moments in which film and comic are being combined to make something new.
In the end, I find that Watchmen potentially works better for people who’ve not read the book than people who have. Snyder’s choice to basically use each frame of the book as a storyboard for the attendant scenes in the movie results in a film that is difficult to talk about in most respects without also mentioning the comic source material. It’s a translation, rather than an adaptation, in much the same way as Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City mirrors the original book in almost every way.
“To me, the ideal comic book adaptation is one that leaves you wanting more, wanting to read the original source material and appreciate it as well.”
To me, the ideal comic book adaptation is one that leaves you wanting more, wanting to read the original source material and appreciate it as well, but Watchmen for the most part is a self-contained film (apart from the terrible revision of the ending, but let’s not get into that). I do feel, though, that being in the dark and gritty world of Watchmen was potentially to Snyder’s detriment, although it doesn’t appear to have hurt him in the box office. When he went on to helm last year’s Man of Steel, the apocalyptic imagery and over-the-top violence from his previous film remained in his vocabulary and it didn’t really mesh too well with Superman’s image. Hopefully, this is out of his system now and his upcoming Justice League films can have more of a sense of optimism and awe.