Saturday, March 07, 2009

Watchmen: A Lesson, but for What?

Watchmen is finally in theaters around the country, and I've been one of those annoying Internet presences who read the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel in high school and has been anticipating it for years and blah blah blah.

From the beginning though, I had a heavy heart when it came to the film adaptation. Alan Moore himself once said: "You get people saying, 'Oh yeah, Watchmen is very cinematic,' when it's actually not. It's almost the exact opposite of cinematic...I didn't design it to show off the similarities between cinema and comics, which are there, but in my opinion are fairly unremarkable. It was designed to show off the things that comics could do that cinema and literature couldn't."

The very act of writing Watchmen was one of hubris, an act to define comics as an essential medium for telling stories, and here we are twenty-three years later with an even bigger act of hubris, condensing and translating that work into film. I remember reading Watchmen and thinking that it would take at least $120 million to make this movie, which is essentially a dour character study. Not only did a studio pay $120 million for exactly that, studios fought over the right to do so. And as audacious a business move as that is, even though it breaks the record for most shots of blue genitalia, Watchmen ends up feeling safe.

Previous record-holder for M.S.o.B.G.? The Wings of the Dove.

So I really like this graphic novel because of its operatic scope and ponderous themes of identity, sacrifice, and heroism against the tense backdrop of the end of the world. Why wouldn't I like a film version for which a capable action director commits to a two-hour-forty-minute cut of a hard-R adaptation that stops at nothing to please fans of the original?

Because, no matter how faithful a film version is to the book, there's no reason for a film version to exist.

That was the overwhelming sensation I was left with as Snyder's Watchmen faded to black. Objectively--aside from a different but still satisfying ending--nothing was cut out that I missed. I had smaller problems with it: Malin Ackerman's performance was wooden, most of the music cues were obvious, and there's not an ounce of subtlety in the whole thing. Unless you call bloody severed limbs and an ass-clenching, laughable sex scene subtlety.

Could have been worse.

That being said, it's a pretty great movie. Synder's frame rate juggling adds some palpable explosiveness and momentum to the action, the tone is consistent--even as the film jumps across characters and time periods, and there's an almost anal-retentive attention to detail that re-creates the dystopian alternate reality that Gibbons fashioned so well.

But what does the movie achieve? I don't see the value in directly translating one version of a story to another; yet, ever since X-Men in 2000, that seems to be Hollywood's goal: be as faithful as possible to remain sacred to the fans and then rope in everyone else with name recognition and the buzz those fans bring. 

Is there anyone who loved the book but somehow felt incomplete until he saw the same exact thing on the screen? Is this more of a tactic than anything else? If you don't change anything, you can't be criticized? Is that your plan, Snyder?

Let's not shit ourselves about Snyder's artistry. He directed this too.

The fans Watchmen is trying to reach seem happy, which is what's important in the end. Plus, Warner Bros. and Paramount (and Fox now) are making money, which is important to them. But what do carbon copies of other properties say about cinema? On one hand, the movie version of a story is treated like the ultimate validation of it, as if a story isn't worth telling unless you can tell it in a movie. On the other hand, treating the original property with such absolute reverence that you don't alter it at all short-changes cinema. We'll always have the original book, TV show, earlier film, or board game. With all the dedication and money behind Watchmen, we're still left with very little art, very little exploration. I'd like Zack Synder to be judged on his own vision, not the one he has recreated.

Throughout its journey to movie theaters, Watchmen was treated as if it was sacred, but by claiming that it wasn't good enough as it is, that sequential art was not the perfect medium to tell its story, aren't we admitting that nothing is sacred?


Will said...

You're just jealous that Dr. Manhattan is hung like a horse.

Rex said...

I thought that was exactly the problem with the movie, and as you said, it stems from a broader flaw in the way our culture seems to approach storytelling these days.

It's too bad they stuck so close to the comic book. Though to be honest, I think the movie's biggest flaw is that the comic book plot just doesn't hold a candle to the complexity of the characters. I guess that's part of the point,'s just never worked for me.

Reves said...

I loved some of the scenes - the opening montage, Dr. Manhattan's sojourn on Mars - and some of the acting - The Comedian, Nite Owl - but felt ill at ease as I left the theater. A confusing experience. Part of me wants to rewatch it, and part of me wonders what the point was.

Nothing lasted long enough to resonate. My favorite part of reading comics is the pause, when you set the book down, lean back, and think about the last scene.

Laminated Fragments said...

I thought you might appreciate this being quite a film buff.