(Except where marked, this is a spoiler-free review. Read with confidence.)
Alan Moore said somewhat famously now that he would never watch the movie adaptation of his very own Watchmen.
In retrospect, I can see why.
Not necessarily because it’s bad – in fact, it’s actually rather good. I think. More on that later. Instead, because of how incredibly well-crafted the original graphic novel is. Its pace is plodding, but that’s because more than anything Watchmen is a character study, not an action thriller. The most significant point of the entire story is the observation of six core characters and how their entirely separate – and separately, entirely valid – viewpoints on the world dictate their morality, their actions, and their ultimate fate. As such, the book’s structure alternates chapters between exploring backstories and pushing the main story forward, something which works quite well given that were one to simply explain the present-day plot of the story, it would not take terribly long at all. Every detail of the original graphic novel amplifies these discrepancies and reconciliations of viewpoints in subtle, intuitive ways – ways which take time to sink in and become a part of the mythos. In addition, the careful rate at which the novel proceeds enabled Moore to slowly immerse the reader in this world of Cold War paranoia on the brink, where everyone knows death is imminent and yet is so paralyzed by that notion that they don’t know where to begin dealing with it.
It’s in these details that the film ultimately loses. Unlike an adaptation of, say, Lord of the Rings, where many of the plot details are dispensable without loss of significant information, any adaptation of Watchmen short of a seven- to eight- hour drama is bound to lose these subtleties, the elements that made the original so precious. Personally, while watching the film, I found myself constantly second-guessing it, trying to piece together why this piece of dialogue or that bit of information was cut out in the attempt to streamline it. As such, I find myself completely unable to judge the film from an objective standpoint. I can’t tell whether or not the film is good on its own merits. Try as I might, it will always be merely a beautifully and lovingly crafted shadow of its source material, nothing more.
I can, however, offer critique. Foremost is the observation that perhaps the sheer reverence with which Snyder and Hayter treated the original source is as well its downfall. There are a million tiny character arcs in Watchmen that are haltingly and haphazardly included in the film, making it busy without substance. Some bits are included that vanish without explanation in the film – Laurie’s dislike for the entire ‘hero’ing lifestyle, for instance, or the life and death of Bubastis, which is reduced to a contextless (and therefore confusing to the uninitiated) easter egg in the film – which are neatly tied off on the comic. Other details are lavishly expanded upon while perhaps more important ones are left in the dust – there is a dream sequence which takes a whole minute or more of screen-time which could be adequately and poignantly summarized in less than fifteen seconds, leaving more time for some of these other conversations to breathe a little.
Which is another problem. In their streamlining process, a lot of things were changed, but ultimately it felt like the characters had no room to breathe. Extreme stereotypes they may be, but they are all still people, and at times this fact didn’t carry well in the film. Especially Veidt – the story of his past is just as important as the other main characters, and yet very little time is devoted to it.
Another victim of time was atmosphere. The impending doomsday and the resulting paralysis was a key element in setting a context for the original. I mentioned that it’s a character study: it’s a study of how these characters react in the face of armageddon; in the face of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. This overbearing sense of dread is critical to understanding these characters and understanding why Watchmen is such an incredible work. Whereas the book reinforces this sense by exploring the world through the eyes of a number of ordinary citizens, in particular a news vendor on the street who appears in the film for a number of seconds, the movie does it rather bluntly – with President Nixon in his war room. While I very much appreciated the Dr. Strangelove reference in the design of the war room, this blunt approach ultimately fails at its task. With the film’s approach, the fact of Armageddon is delivered to the audience; in the original, the essence of it is instead conveyed. In a sense, the lack of knowledge of what the governments were really doing throughout the novel only reinforced the Cold War paranoia which pervaded so well throughout.
And then there’s the ending. For those who don’t know, the ending of the film was changed. For the better? I do not know. The original was rather difficult to swallow, but perhaps it was this indigestibility which made it such a viable means to the end of the story. I don’t know if the new one is better or not.
Nits to pick – Spoilers be here!
One of the absolutely most poignant moments of the original to me was when Veidt, near the end, appeals to Dr. Manhattan, reduced to a mere human, his intellect useless, asking him if what he did was right. This was left out. Also, on the subject of Veidt, and due to the victimization of his origin story as I mentioned earlier, he seems simply evil at the end of the film rather than the justifiable sum of his viewpoints and convictions. There are more, these are the ones that bug me most.
So, ultimately, should you go see this film when it opens tomorrow? For both the fans and the uninitiated alike, yes, yes, yes. As a fan, it would be doing yourself a disservice not to see the sheer visual lavishness of how the book comes to motion. As a newcomer, perhaps it will convince you to read the novel – if nothing else because of how incredibly confused you are after watching it.
I hear it’s confusing.