Saturday, March 3, 2012
Day 94: Watchmen
"Miracles by their definition are meaningless. Only what can happen does happen."
There are lots of ways to go about adapting a novel, graphic or otherwise. The most prevalent way of late has been to do a slavish recreation, particularly when adapting graphic novels. The trend started with Sin City which was such a slave to shot for shot recreation of the book that it was all style and completely devoid of content. Director Zack Snyder adapted another of Frank Miller's graphic novels, 300, two years later and infused the slavish recreation with his own stylistic touches like slow-motion and homoeroticism.
A film adaptation of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons' immortal 12-issue limited comic series Watchmen had been languishing in development hell since it was first published in the mid-1980s. Many directors had come and gone, among them Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass, & Darren Aronofsky, most of whom wanted to drastically change the novel in one way or another such as updating it to modern times. When Snyder wrapped 300, the property landed in his lap, and his radical idea for adapting it was, you guessed it, slavish faithfulness to the source material.
I had read Watchmen when I was a teenager, and while I liked it, I was certainly not a rabid fan, and I was willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt. I went to see it when it was released in the theaters, and about the best thing I could say was that I was underwhelmed. It felt bloated and the only thing that Snyder himself seemed to add to the proceedings was a lot of graphic violence. There were a lot of things that I liked about it. Some of the cast was very good: Jackie Earle Haley was brilliant as Rorschach, Patrick Wilson was an excellent Dan Drieberg & Billy Crudup was also very good as Dr. Manhattan.
A lot of the smaller roles were well cast too like Matt Frewer (Moloch), Stephen McHattie (Hollis Mason) & Carla Gugino (Sally Jupiter). The opening credits were mind-blowingly good, the best opening credits sequence of the decade. I'm also one of the only people that actually prefers the ending they chose to the giant squid from the comics.
My issues with the film were equally strong however. Some of the cast were terrible: Malin Ackerman was god awful as Laurie Jupiter, Jeffrey Dean Morgan played The Comedian as too much of a douchebag & not enough of a psychopath, and Matthew Goode removed any suspense from the fact that Ozymandias was the villain all along, he oozed of evil from his first appearance. The sound design was bombastic and unrelenting & some of the song choices were misguided at best (The Sound of Silence? Really?) And overall, I felt that Snyder was too devoted to recreating images from the book that he missed the opportunity to say anything new and original with his composition.
Time has reversed my overall opinion on the film though. My gripes with the film are still the same, but I am actually able to enjoy the film more at home than I did in the theater. It's a film best digested at your own pace, and that's actually its strength as a film. I've seen three different versions of the film now, the theatrical cut, the director's cut and the ultimate cut with Tales of the Black Freighter edited into the film and my preferred version would be the director's cut. The additions add weight to the film that the theatrical cut didn't have, such as the death of Hollis Mason & Dan's freak out in the bar afterwards.
It also gives the lion's share of its additional running time to Rorschach and Manhattan, who are arguably the most compelling characters in the film (I always found Ozymandias to be the most compelling in the novel). I'm fine with Tales of the Black Freighter being a separate entity from the film, it really doesn't work as a part of the film. Under the Hood is also a great bonus feature, and I'm glad they didn't attempt to edit any of it into the film.
So what are we to glean from this, if anything? I think that the film Watchmen is a great, three hour incentive to get people to read the original novel. It's more than likely the only attempt anyone's going to make at adapting it, so we may as well get used to that. Personally, I like The Incredibles more as an homage to Watchmen than the film Watchmen as a direct adaptation. I'm of the belief that a film doesn't need to be an all-inclusive tour of your favorite scenes from the book. Look at how much better the Harry Potter series of films got once they stopped trying to put everything from the books into the films. Even Deathly Hallows didn't try to include everything and they split that up into two films.
When The Beatles broke up, John Lennon said the most profound and pragmatic statement about art that I've ever heard. He said "It's just natural, it's not a great disaster. People keep talking about it like it's the end of the Earth. It's only a rock group that split up, it's nothing important, you know. You'll have all the old records there if you want to reminisce." The creation of new art does not by its nature destroy what's already been created. Zack Snyder's film of Watchmen does not replace Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons' graphic novel. It didn't rape your childhood, or do something drastic like that. As far as I can tell, Jesus Christ is the only person who's ever torn down the old law and replaced it with something new, and even then, the zealots of this world don't want to get rid of the Old Testament because it gives their barbaric ideals credence.
Just like Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris, you'll always have the graphic novel if that's what you want. Nobody can take that from you. Watchmen as a film is nothing but a minor success to adapt an unadaptable novel, and if nothing else, it gives hope to a generation of filmmakers who might want to attempt the same in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Now somebody get to work on A Confederacy of Dunces. It can be done.