With the publication of Watchmen in 1985, comic books took a sudden, dark and grity turn, similar to police drama after Steven Bochco’s ‘Hill Street Blues’. Like Grant Morrison’s ‘Doom Patrol‘, and later, ‘The Authority‘ and Marvel’s ‘Ultimates‘, ‘Watchmen’, the book is not about about capes and tights, but rather the misfits who choose to pursue auperheroics. In ‘Watchmen’, Alan Moore seizes upon the idea that great power might produce monsters — individuals devoid of values and restraint even as they fight the ‘good’ fight.
Terry Gilliam attempted to bring ‘Watchmen’ to life twice, once in 1989 and a decade later, in 1999. He gave up because he felt that the story couldn’t be adequately covered in 2 hours’ time and that the material might be better dealt with as a miniseries, Though there is no Gilliam ‘Watchmen’, I credit ‘Watchmen’ and it’s alternate-apocalyptic 1985 for the rich visual landscape of thr film that Gilliam went on to produce in the mid-’90′s, ’12 Monkeys’ (1995).
Moore’s ambivalent heroes were a sea-change for comic book industry back in 1985, but Zack Snyder’s 2009 film stops far, far short of of Moore’s moral revisionism and even further from the Watchmen send-up that was Brad Bird’s ‘The Incredibles‘ (2004).
Anyone attempting to translate Moore’s 12-issue, 264 page graphic novel — a would-be 4-1/2 hours in screenplay-time — into filmed entertainment had a daunting enterprise ahead of them.
Snyder’s ‘Watchmen’ fails as an adaptation because the writers failed to adequately adapt the prosaic storyline to suit the 2-hour commercial format. The David Hayter/Alex Tse screenplay, hews too close to the dramatic beats of the original novel. At full length, those beats have their place because they furnish Moore’s 8 protagonists with engaging backstories, however, even at 166 minutes, the 264 page version of the thing fails to be fully satisfied.My other problem with the movie — besides the length — was the writers’ decision to comp so closely to the comic books’ dialogue and Snyder’s tolerance for some very average performances. I often felt as though the actors were reading their lines off of a teleprompter rather than inhabiting their characters. That and 2009 is not 1986 — people like Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca have neither standing or relevance, 23 years later after Chrysler has been bought, sold and is in the ditch once again. I’m certain that 90% of the cherished 16-24 viewing audience drew a complete blank the movie’s reference to Iacoccoca.
As a fanboy, I generally like to see my favorite stories faithfully reproduced for the screen. However, as an audience member, I saw too many rich characters crowding the screen, only to see their potential wasted. Each and every one of Moore’s Minutemen team were not only superheroes, but also tragic figures, trapped in their own peculiar hells. Silk Spctre (Sally Jupiter) is a 2nd-generation hero, having inherited her title from her mother, Sally Juspeczyk. Similarly, Nite Owl aka Daniel Dreiberg wears the costume of a legendary Silver Age hero. But the most formidable dysfunctions are to be found in the older heroes — Dr. Manhattan, the original Silk Spectre, Ozymandias and the Comedian because their idealism and nostallgia poison their daily lives.
Like Oliver North, The Comedian sees himself as a formidable patriot, despite the fact that his marching orders came from questionable quarters. When the one super-powered being, Jon Osterman, transmigrates into Doctor Manhattan, he leaves his humanity behind.
From my writerly perspective, Watchmen ought to have been Rohrshach’s picture — as with ‘Taxi Driver’, we ought to have had a good long taste of Rohrshach’s daily, hard-luck P.O.V., down to stealing Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl’s beans. The rising action of the Comedian’s death should have allowed Rohrshach to recount his troubled relationship with the man, but deciding to investigate the matter nonetheless.
There was no reason for this movie to run almost 3 hours. If you’ve got 246 pages of comic book script to turn into a movie and only 120 minutes to tell the story, then you’re going to have to cut some pages. Sometimes this happened, but we lost lots of important character development along the way. This is especially tragic because Watchmen is a character-driven piece. Like ‘Rosebud’ in ‘Citizen Kane’ we had an opportunity to see Jon Osterman’s childhood obsession with watches, but that didn’t play out in this film, even though it showed up on ‘Heroes’ (and then, was wasted).
I’m sure that the Snyder’s choices will justify themselves upon the 2nd and 3rd viewing, but the name of the game in moving works of literature into film is adaptation. Though I’m a huge fan of Carla Gugino, they ought to have diminished her role more and given Malin Akerman more space to explore being a 2nd-generation hero and Dr. Manhattan’s forgotten love interest, precisely because the Osterman/Janey Slater subplot doesn’t pay off as well as it does in the book.