Comic Fodder

Translating Watchmen to Film

First, a note on my personal history with Watchmen: my first exposure to the Watchmen was not the actual comic. My mom bought comic books at an Air Force base, and Watchmen was not available at the Shopette. My first exposure to them was in the Who's Who in the DC Universe. To a 14-year-old, the entry was out of place. These guys were heroes? No way! They looked a little creepy, the recounting of the major elements of their history were sordid... I moved on to the next entry, wondering how they could even be in the same company as the rest of my heroes. Little did I know that these characters and their environment would infect almost every other aspect of both DC and Marvel comics from that point forward.

I have no idea how I would have received the series itself at that age, but after about ten years or so, I had heard all sorts of laudable statements about the series, so I picked up the graphic novel and finally saw what was going on. It's hard to tell for sure, but I do think it was of benefit for me to have lived in the real world for a time, and be able to appreciate many elements of the book that I could not have possibly been able to relate to at the ripe age of fourteen. It may be a worthwhile conversation to talk about reading comics after the impact of Watchmen while not being aware of Watchmen itself, but let's leave that digression for another time. We want to see if the universe collapsed by turning this work into a movie.

Everyone still here? Phew, reality didn't collapse! I have lost track of the number of people who screamed heresy at the prospect of this work being translated into film. From an artistic standpoint, I can certainly respect Alan Moore's well-known stance, that the only reason to do this is to make money, and he's basically got enough money for his own needs. I tend not to see making money as a horrible reason for doing something in the first place, so the idea "Let's do this to make more money!" is not such an extremely disgraceful motivation. However, there were at least two more reasons for converting this work into a different format: the existing fans, and the future fans.

The Existing Fans

The existing fans like me, we like movies. We like to read comics. We cannot resist the prospect of seeing something close to a faithful adaptation of a comic on the big screen. If it's done wrong, we howl at the injustice with righteous rage. If it is done correctly (such as Iron Man, and most aspects of Spider-Man, for example), we leave the theatre feeling that things are fairly all right in the world, and happy to have enjoyed another good movie. Most of the dread concerning this particular holy grail of comic legend was the precedent of previous works of Alan Moore that were translated into film.

To wit:

"From Hell" - 2001
"The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" - 2003
"Constantine," - 2005
"V for Vendetta" - 2005

I have no idea how much of any of these Alan Moore saw, but I hope he did not watch any of them. We can at least give him a nice honorary mention for some elements incorporated into the Batman movies from his graphic novel, Batman: The Killing Joke. All of these other works make for excellent comic book reading, all with varied topics and characters... and all were butchered on the big screen. Words fail on how disgusted I was with their treatment of From Hell. The League had me snorting out loud in the theatre more than once, Constantine was a pale shadow, and Vendetta was tortured in an attempt to make a modern comparison with recent historical events.

So it was reasonable, and even to be expected, that any Watchmen project should die a fast, horrible death, if only to save it from the ignominy of joining all of Moore's other works on the Hollywood chopping block. The last thing any fan of the series wanted to see was for this tale of deconstruction to in turn be dismantled and re-assembled into a grotesque mockery and paraded in front of people with Moore's name on it, forever souring people on the idea that comics can be good. Then came Sin City (2005) and 300 (2006). Frank Miller's work was slavishly translated by directors who were genuine fans of the work. Sin City was glorious motion of the storyboards lifted straight from the comic. Zack Snyder then duplicated Miller's 300 as closely as he could, with both movies succeeding very well in the movie marketplace, 300 even setting a record for an 'R'-rated film opening at a certain time in the movie-going season.

For a change, we had director who genuinely understood the source material, and simultaneously was familiar with the world of film, and perhaps the differences between that medium and the medium of comics. They were able to put together a good cast, use considerable production values, and toss in the great special effects that we have come to take for granted in film. At the same time, they stayed faithful to the source material, and stuck more to a straight translation rather than a re-imagining. While many people have problems with both these movies, the fact that they stuck to the source material was gold for comic fans, and it changed the game.

Then, just like one of Snyder's zombie movie remakes (Kidding! He only made the one...), the Watchmen was resurrected. Projects for Watchmen dated back more than twenty years, and the history of development is long and tortured (for some interesting fun, pick up some DC comics from 1988 or 89 and read former publisher Jenette Kahn’s updates on the movie deal progress). Suffice to say, there was always an interest in doing something, and at various stages people commissioned directors and writers and producers, but some element always put a stop to things. After the first few years of this new century, this was seen as a blessing, and perhaps Moore's greatest work would be spared.

Then the announcement came that Zack Snyder would direct the newest attempt. Waitasec. Here's a guy we know is a comic fan. He already has a track record of sticking to translation and remaining faithful to the source material. Special effects are good enough to replicate the more fantastic elements of the story. Most of us enjoyed 300 on the big screen, regardless of what overall 'grade' we would give it. Add in the bonus announcement that artist Dave Gibbons was on board for the entire process to act as a guide. Woo hoo! Could this actually be doable?

Well, they were doing it, whether we liked it or not. Fans continued to pray that the arrival of a director with some common sense might make this the best of all possible train wrecks, at least. And no matter how many people tried to protest that it still shouldn't happen, inside each one of them, a tiny glimmer of excitement grew. Because no matter how much they try to deny it, almost everyone is thrilled at the prospect of the rest of the world getting some exposure to elements of the comic world that we have for so long enjoyed. So making a treatment of Watchmen was not only done for the fans, but the fact that it was made for future fans dovetails with that as well.

The Future Fans

See, the movie project, just by its announcement, drove hundreds of people into stores across the entire country. A movie trailer alone caused temporary sell-outs of the graphic novel in a ton of comic stores nationwide in a matter of days, sometimes just hours after the trailer debuted. For the current fans, taking a 'nonbeliever' to a comic movie is a glorious delight. We get to enjoy our own experience, and we have the chance to witness the conversion of the friend next to you, as they grudgingly admit that it was a good movie, and maybe your hobby isn't so silly after all, and hey, could I borrow that one issue of...

As I have mentioned previously, the comic industry needs more readers. Movie projects, for better or worse, are the largest public relations spectacles to use in modern times to create attention and interest for something. Just the fact that a movie was being made would drive legions of people to check out the original source material, and that was a good thing for comics, and for Watchmen itself, at the end of the day. Which, incidentally, still ends up providing Alan Moore with a little more money from book royalties, too, and maybe driving the new fans to discover other works of his too.

Who Watches the Format?

So the movie is out, it's a blockbuster hit, and although some of the reviews are mediocre, it seems to have accomplished the basic goal. Zack Snyder acted as a sort of inker, tracing the essential parts of the book to graft it onto the movie format enough to convey the general story in a modern film setting. Where some people might criticize him for not being "creative" enough, his work is a blessing to the fans for its attention to the source material (even if he did alter Rorschach’s backstory slightly too much). He can get creative with an original work; for this one, the closer he stayed to "home," the better things were going to be.

Still, there are some issues (pardon the pun). I have dragged my girlfriend to a plethora of comic movies now, and most of them I made sure were the good ones. I was able to do the "I'm not telling you that I-told-you-so" grin several times, and she had to admit she liked each of them. For this movie, it was her least favorite of all of the superhero movies. I do have to acknowledge that her favorite part was easy to spot, as every time a certain aspect of Dr. Manhattan was presented, she started giggling uncontrollably.* I understood this immediately (Her confusion, that is. I understood the giggling, too, but that's not what I'm focusing on right now...), because Watchmen is a deconstruction of the superheroic ideal. If someone went to this movie expecting the standard superhero conventions, he didn't know that he was setting himself up for disappointment. One of the facts that (surprisingly) continually evades a ton of readers is that Watchmen was a commentary on the potential unsavory implications of what might happen in the real world in a superhero environment, and that a ton of it is most definitely not cool, man. This was a warning. It was an exploration of things that are NOT to be desired, but the effect that Watchmen had upon the industry was to create the exact same atmosphere Moore had been warning against. Did that message translate in the film version? My impression is that it was, but not as fully as it could have been, and not nearly enough for those who did not fully grasp the plot.

The second problem is the same as with every other original translation of a work into a movie, whether it's a comic, a novel, or a Broadway play: you have to leave stuff out. Snyder recognized this, and packs the pirate comic back into an animated movie for the DVD, with plans to interlace it with the main story in a future Absolute Watchmen DVD. More than that, though, the original work is almost always better than the movie version, because a movie by nature can only portray so much. For comics in particular, one of the big differences that movies cannot capture is the relationship of the images to each other. For a sense of the detail that Dave Gibbons put into his art, see this video, and understand that unless you're able to freeze-frame and instantly teleport to any desired frame using a DVD and a computer, you cannot come anywhere close to the level of examination and discovery of details the way you can by reading an actual comic book. Alan Moore has pointed out certain elements that just cannot be duplicated, such as in the recent Spirit movie (which I have tried not to go see so far for this very reason).

The third problem is related, and reflects Moore's opinion on the inherent limitations of a film: the observer becomes lazy, and loses a necessary component of imagination. When you are reading a book or a comic, your mind contributes to the story, deciding for yourself how a construct might look, or how a character might sound. This involves you, and makes you a participant in the piece, enhancing the experience. Go to a movie, and you sit there just absorbing things, making no effort to exercise your mind, hence the stereotype description of movies as “mindless entertainment.” You get the sense that some of the derision reserved for the comic industry, Moore in turn feels for the movie industry.

From the report of my girlfriend's experience (and others I have spoken with since), this is an accurate observation. She could not wrap her brain around the entire story, and she took the special effects for granted. Using none of her imagination, the imagination that was visually represented to her had almost no effect upon her at all. Whatever intent of stimulation or prompting for her mind to engage in some form of use of imagination, the movie failed in this regard. For readers familiar with the work, it was just a pleasure to see the translation, already knowing every aspect that was about to come. For us, the meaning was greater as a nostalgic sense, mashed up with the child-like glee of seeing our favorite characters represented bigger than life. A nice little bonus to our enjoyment, but perhaps not as effective for some of the rest of the audience.

So what is the verdict, anyway? The ending of the movie was changed, but in a way that made more sense for the format of film, so I was not upset about that. The studio should be happy with the box office receipts, so for the pure sake of making more money, this will go down in the win column. The rapidly falling receipts mean it will take a long time to pay for itself, but the income will be enough to pay the fees of everyone involved in the process, and that should make enough extra money to satisfy most of the participants. For the existing fans, it was mostly positive. For the new fans, there are some problems, but we still end up with an increased readership of the actual comic series, so I'm giving the edge to the side of victory for that, as well. As for Alan Moore's statements, I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with him in principle with every single one of his points, but still not opposed to seeing the film proceed.

Granted, I'll switch to his side every time somebody does something like From Hell or The Spirit, but for this picture, for which true fans wanted so desperately for it to be handled in a respectful manner, I think things turned out okay. It may be one of those things where it has to be judged on an individual basis, and we will always have the problem that we cannot make a final determination until it is too late, and the final product has already been delivered. Until then, we must settle for production rumors, getting a sense of the project's direction, and alternating between the dread of another disaster

...and the hope that they will get things mostly right.
Tpull is Travis Pullen. He started reading comics at 5 years old, and he can't seem to stop.

*Note: I have had the most surprising number of people coming up to me and asking me about Dr. Manhattan’s lack of pants, so I may have no choice but to –ahem- focus on that for an entire article, just to reflect the most popular subject of discussion.