Lost in the generally well-deserved praise for The Dark Knight and the subsequent chatter over the million kabillion dollars it’s raking in at the box office is the fact that it featured a trailer for Zach Snyder’s Watchmen. Interestingly, it looks like the long-awaited/feared adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s seminal 80′s graphic novel (which is generally–all though by no means universally–regarded as the greatest comic book ever made) may not suck. If that turns out to to be the case, I’m guessing this is why:
Many in Hollywood have tried to get Watchmen on the screen and failed, including directors Terry Gilliam (Brazil), Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain), and, most recently, Bourne Supremacy director Paul Greengrass. In 2005, Greengrass was deep into preproduction on a present-day, war-on-terror-themed adaptation by David Hayter (X-Men), when a regime change at Paramount Pictures led to its demise. Enter Warner Bros., which acquired the rights in late 2005. Snyder was working on 300 for the studio at the time, and he was alarmed when he heard about the deal. After some soul-searching, his fear of seeing a bad Watchmen movie trumped his fear of trying to make a great one. ”They were going to do it anyway,” he says. ”And that made me nervous.” Over many months, and many meetings, Snyder persuaded Warner Bros. to abandon the Greengrass/Hayter script and hew as faithfully as possible to the comic.
Debates over fidelity to source material in adaptation have been around about as long as the movies themselves. The filmmakers‘ position has always been: “the logic of what makes a good movie isn’t necessarily the same as what makes a good (fill in source, usually a book). My first obligation is to the film and the viewer, not the author or the fan.” And properly so, there are plenty of examples of adaptations that not only honored the original but transcended it. Often, the need for filmmakers to veer from the source stems from inherent differences in media: books are made of words, while movies are made of sounds and images. You can linger over words, which excel at revealing the inner lives of characters, while the sounds and images in movies force their pace upon you, and excel at evoking an emotional response in the viewer. Experiencing them is different, and so translation can be hard.
Comic books occupy a middle ground between books and movies: they’re about words and images. This argues for a default filmmaking approach closer to faithful adaption, since presumably the unusually compelling or skillful use of sequential images is one of the big reasons the comic book is adaptation-worthy in the first place. The extent to which this is true, however, will vary by comic book. As we discussed previously, work by a primarily visual and purposefully cinematic creator like Frank Miller more or less demands panel-by-panel adaption, an approach Snyder used to great effect in 300. Alan Moore is a more interesting case. His particular genius is for understanding and manipulating the way readers experience words and pictures simultaneously, or in extremely close proximity. In most comic books, the words simply communicate what pictures can’t: human dialogue. In Watchmen there’s a constant and often subtle interplay between the words on the panel and the images behind, before, and after them, and that extends to both the foreground action and background settings. A lot of this isn’t obvious on the surface; like most great books, Watchmen benefits from multiple readings. That’s why Moore said “‘There are things we did [in Watchmen] that could only work in a comic, and were indeed designed to show off the things that comics can do that other media can’t.”
That’s also why the greatness of Watchmen is kind of hard to explain; Maureen asked me about it while we were walking out of Dark Knight, and I was reduced to something along the lines of “Well, it’s nominally a murder mystery but really kind of an exploration of the underlying tropes and themes of traditional super-hero comics seen through the lens of real-world cold war paranoia…ah, you really have to just read it.”
And it’s why there’s never been a really good Alan Moore comic book adaptation to date. In League of Extraordinary Gentlemen they took the basic premise, threw out half the characters and all of the story, and made an phenomenally bad film. Their mistake was thinking that–as with Superman, Batman, and Spider-man–the premise was the thing. It’s not; it’s what Moore and Kevin O’Neil did with it, and what they did is close to untranslatable. From Hell, by contrast, was a pretty decent movie (scripted by Matt Yglesias’ father, if I’m not mistaken), because the filmakers realized that the extremely long, dense, visually stylized (and tremendously good) comic book is wholly infilmable, while the premise (Jack the Ripper) is very strong. So they made a semi-adaptation that works pretty well on its own terms. V for Vendetta was more faithful, and thus was pretty good; there I think many of the shortcomings derive from the source material itself.
The value of Watchmen is clearly not the premise (see my lame explanation to Maureen above). Thus any huge divergence from the source, e.g. a “present-day, war-on-terror-themed adaptation” is doomed to fail. But unlike From Hell it may actually be filmable, and if so the key will be the work of artist Dave Gibbons. Like many of the best British comics artists (Preacher’s Steve Dillon is another good example) Gibbons is first and foremost a great storyteller who avoids the temptations of stylistic flashiness and focuses on composition, drama, character, inter-panel transition, background detail, etc. And back in the 80s, Moore himself (who provides elaborate descriptions of every panel; the Absolute edition of Watchmen contains his script for the first page, which consists entirely of a single seven-panel fixed tracking shot, and yet the script is like 2,000 words long) was still writing comics using more traditional visual grammar.
All of which makes Snyder’s decision to hew closely to the source look like a good one–those shots of Dr. Manhattan striding across the killing fields of Vietnam and his glass palace rising from the sands of Mars look pretty darn cool. Maybe, just maybe, Watchmen will be worth watching.