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.