I went to see Watchmen today. My one sentence review: stylish, mostly true to the original, well acted, a bit gory and well worth seeing.
I thought about trying to review the movie in some depth, but decided to not take up that challenge. The main reason is that to do so I would have to face the cognitive challenge of removing the influence of the graphic novel from my movie experience. I know I could do that; but lacking the salary of a professional reviewer, I shall not make the attempt. Instead, I’ll ramble a bit about the movie in particular and translating works from print to the screen in general.
One challenge that is faced in making a work like Watchmen into a movie is the volume of the material. In addition to the main story, the graphic novel (or comic series, if you prefer) has numerous side or sub stories that enrich the main story. In order to condense a work down to a length suitable for a main-stream movie, these side/sub stories typically have to be pruned away. Watchmen is no exception; although some of the character’s whose stories were cut or trimmed do make appearances (such as in the scene were NYC is destroyed). The challenge faced by those creating the movie version is deciding what should be trimmed or cut and what should be left. Trim too much and important elements can be removed, thus hurting the plot. Leave in too much and the main story can be shortchanged. Expand the side/sub stories too much and the main story can be altered in unfortunate ways. I think that the movie mostly has things right. While I did miss some of the sub/side tales, they were trimmed in ways that left the main story fairly intact.
In the case of Watchmen, there was also the matter of all the extra material that was not actually part of the comic panels. This material was used to provide background as well as providing glimpses into the world of Watchmen. For example, there are the excerpts from Under the Hood, selections from Sally Jupiter’s scrapbook, letters, and other such items. These things are, obviously, rather difficult to recreate in a movie. Instead, the movie has a series of “shorts” showing various events so as to set the context and alternative history of the movie. Overall, this is done effectively and with considerable style.
Those who transfer works from print to the screen also face a challenging dilemma. On one horn, if they stick to closely to the original, then they run the risk of being accused of “slavishly” following the original. While this charge has been made against the director of the Watchmen and others, it is not clear why sticking to the original is inherently problematic. The main potential problems seem to be that in an attempt to stick to the original, the movie will end up a flawed work. For example, the film might be flawed because sticking to the original results in trying to create something that simply works very poorly on the screen. On the other horn, if they stray too far from the original, then one must wonder why the film is claimed to be a film about the work in question. After all, it seems reasonable that if a film is being sold as being based on a work, then the film had better stick to that work. Of course, there are films that are very good despite the fact that they deviate from the original work (Kubrick’s The Shining, for example). However, one might be tempted to say that such films are imitating or inspired by the original rather than being truly based on the original.
A film has to navigate between those two horns by changing from the original work enough to make the transition from page to screen and by sticking close enough to the original to be actually based on the work in question. In general, I think Watchmen gets through with only a few minor cuts and without any major goring.
There were really only four things I did not like about the film. First, I didn’t like how Veidt’s plot was changed. I can understand why they did that in order to streamline the movie. After all, going through the elaborate details of the original method of scaring the world to salvation would have taken quite some time (then again, they could have trimmed the sex and gratuitous bloody guts down a bit to make room for it). However, this change made the Comedian’s discovery of the plot make less sense in the movie, thus creating a problem in that regards. Also, if the world thought that Dr. Manhattan was able and willing to destroy cities at will, this would seem to have the effect of creating mass fear and panic rather than unity. After all, Veidt would have created the belief that a superpowerful and seemingly unstoppable being was on a killing rampage. The original story presents a much more plausible scenario (although it still has some weak points).
Second, using the concern about renewable energy in the movie seemed to be a bit weak. In the comic, gas powered cars were already obsolete because of the changes brought about by Dr. Manhattan. Oddly enough, the director left in the fact that Hollis Mason specialized in obsolete models (as per the sign). Also, the world of Watchmen did not face an energy crisis that would drive such a concern. I suspect that this approach was tossed in to “modernize” the film to include today’s focus on green and renewable power.
Third, having the business folks coming to “threaten” Veidt and then getting shot by the hired assassin seemed like a unnecessary pander to an anti-business sentiment. A minor point, I do admit.
Fourth, in the original Daniel reluctantly accepts what Veidt has done. In the movie, he is cast as regarding Veidt as having “mutilated” mankin(of course, given the change in Veidt’s plot, perhaps this is now the case). Showing Veidt standing alone in his damaged Karnak also seems to send that message as well.
My view is that this substantially changes the the story. As I read the original, Veidt is taking a utilitarian moral approach: he is killing millions to ensure the survival of billions. Also, he is not in any way “mutilating” mankind-aside from those his plot killed. This is contrasted with Rorschach’s commitment to a form of moral absolutism in which actions are either good or bad (hence his rejection of compromise)-a view that is symbolized by his black and white mask (the colors never merge to create shades of gray). The change made in the film obscures this moral contrast by bringing in the uncessary comments about “mutilating” mankind. Also, if Daniel has that view and thinks that mankind will be horrible damaged by this, then he would seem to have no real reason to remain silent about what happened.
Despite these factors, I rather enjoyed the film.
Interestingly, some critics have been a bit upset that the director did not change the story from a US-USSR conflict background to one involving radical Islam and terror. While a case can be made for updating stories to match the time, the setting and time seem to be an important part of the Watchmen story. Changing these would most likely require making significant plot changes as well-perhaps to the detriment of the story. In any case, it is not clear how such a change would be a gain-except to those who think that a film must be relevant specifically to today. That does not seem like a reasonable aesthetic requirement.
I’ve also noticed some critics obsessing about Dr. Manhattan being naked. While there really was no compelling need for such full frontal nudity, the point of having him naked is not because it is erotic or sexual. Rather, his ever shrinking clothing seems intended to show his ever increasing distance from concern about human cultural biases. Roughly put, the less he is connected with humanity, the less he worries about offending cultural sensibilities about proper attire. But maybe I’m just guessing here and the novelist and director just like to show off blue junk.
Good review, non the less…
In comparing what you have said in comparison to Alan Moore’s other masterpiece–V for Vendetta, I see some of the same things happening with the Watchmen screen adaption, though not to the same level.
I really liked both graphic novels–V blew me away when I was in college. But the Wachowski Bros. seemed to be speaking through the movie, telling me about their own political beliefs. One need only know that Larry Wachowski is a cross-dresser to guess where his political loyalties lay. Really, I could care less that he likes to wear pumps; The Matrix was awesome. But don’t preach in your movie, especially when you’re adapting other people’s work.
Even though Alan Moore is a dyed-in-the-wool Liberal, and according to an article in The Guardian “A mysterious, imposing character who rarely leaves his home town, he is a practising magician with an all-black dress code, a wizard-like mane and rings on every finger.”, even he was upset by what the Wachowski Bros. tried to do in V For Vendetta:
Here’s Moore: “[The movie] has been “turned into a Bush-era parable by people too timid to set a political satire in their own country… It’s a thwarted and frustrated and largely impotent American liberal fantasy of someone with American liberal values standing up against a state run by neoconservatives—which is not what the comic V for Vendetta was about. It was about fascism, it was about anarchy, it was about England.”~Alan Moore: The Last Angry Man. MTV.com 2006
also he says: …the central question is, is this guy right? Or is he mad? What do you, the reader, think about this? Which struck me as a properly anarchist solution. I didn’t want to tell people what to think, I just wanted to tell people to think and consider some of these admittedly extreme little elements, which nevertheless do recur fairly regularly throughout human history.”~The Alan Moore interview, The Beat, 2006.
It seems that Moore’s thought these things out more then the movie directors. I respect that he was not telling–he was showing. The weapon primus of the good writer.
Director Zack Snyder did a great job with 300, too.
Tight work, well said. The follow up comment was outstanding too!
I still miss the original ending with the squid:
Michael LaBossiere says
I also miss the “squid.” Also, I think the “alien monster” approach makes more sense than the “rogue Dr. Manhattan” approach. What seems to be an alien attack would tend to unite humanity. Also, people would think that such a war could be won so that the fear would not be overwhelming.
Having a seemingly indestructible super being as an enemy would seem to inspire mainly just fear and despair. After all, the evidence of the destroyed cities would show that “Dr. Manhattan” could kill everyone on earth and there would be nothing that could be done.
Alexander Acosta says
I had a chance to see the film last night… Although I never read the comic, I really enjoyed the film.
I felt that the music in the film was a bit cliche… Other than that, I felt that it was a pretty solid film.
I admit, I do not know the original ending, I felt the ending with the journalist recovering Rorschach’s journal was fitting. In essence, Rorschach had the final “laugh”.
Michael LaBossiere says
Much of the music was taken from the comic (the author often quoted song lyrics) which might create some of that effect. You should read the original comic-it is one of the best novels written.
I’m going to try to see it today.
I read yesterday in Stars and Stripes that people are walking out of the movie because the brought their kids to what they thought was a “normal” super hero movie, like Iron man or Fantastic Four. One theatre in New York had a third of the audience leave in the middle.
“R” rating folks: “An R-rated motion picture, in the view of the Rating Board, contains some adult material. An R-rated motion picture may include adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements, so that parents are counseled to take this rating very seriously. Children under 17 are not allowed to attend R-rated motion pictures unaccompanied by a parent or adult guardian. Parents are strongly urged to find out more about R-rated motion pictures in determining their suitability for their children. Generally, it is not appropriate for parents to bring their young children with them to R-rated motion pictures.”
Michael LaBossiere says
When I went I did see a couple people leave during the film.
I agree with your hypothesis: I think many people who leave went to the movie expecting something like Iron Man and did not take the “R” rating seriously. Perhaps they also did not check the reviews to see what the film was about.
It is definitely not a film for kids-it has some rather brutal scenes and has some rather “mature themes.”
I’ve noticed similar reactions over the years to the comic. Some people think it is an excellent novel that deals with the super hero genre in an adult way. Other people do not like it at all-perhaps because it is a bit odd and rather serious in ways that some people think comics should not be. So, I expected some similar reaction to the movie.
While Watchmen has super hero characters, in many ways it is not a super hero comic or movie. Then again, maybe it would be better to say that it broke out of the usual genre limitations of the super hero.