Like many of his films, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009) has a polarizing effect. While I can appreciate the aesthetic choices and faithfulness to Alan Moore’s 1986 comic of the same name, I am in the camp that doesn’t care for the adaptation. While one can nitpick the acting and presentation, it is the trepidation to take much artistic license on Snyder’s behalf (except for the lackluster ending and strange mid-air sex scene, which we will get into in a moment) that causes my dislike of the adaptation.
Watchmen the comic is a prime example Alan Moore flexing his prose muscles by intertwining dense narratives with complex characters and the amazing art of Dave Gibbons. The film adaptation, however, focuses more on fidelity toward Gibbons’ panels than any storytelling on Snyder’s part. There is nothing new brought to the table besides slow motion in unnecessary amounts. The pacing is rather stagnant and the movie feels like it drags from visual to visual because that is all that it is; spectacle lacking substance. One of the few changes to the plot is the ending that, in the comic, justifies all of the action and subterfuge up to that point in the story. Snyder’s Watchmen (the characters, not the comic or film. Just clarifying that this wasn’t an oversight of missing italics on my part) effectively talk about how Ozymandias tricked them all and has a cynical view of humanity, then everyone goes on their merry way to live their lives in quiet contentment. The resolution and impact of the comic’s finale are lost, as is any possibility of a successful adaptation.
One of the most talked about, and often balked at, moments in the film is the sex scene in the Nite Owl’s ship. Yes, it happens in the comic, but there is at least a hint of subtlety in the execution. The panels show Nite Owl (Daniel Dreiberg) and Silk Spectre (Laurie Juspeczyk) getting comfortable, let’s say, and then ends with the ship expelling a spurt (gross) of fire from its flamethrower. While I realize that they couldn’t get away with as much sexual content in 1986 comics as they do in contemporary film, the panels serve to imply the consummation of Dan and Laurie’s feelings without getting weird about it.
In the film, however, the copulation is shown with the eerie background music of Leonard Cohen’s baritone crooning “Hallelujah” that still ends with the spout (less gross, still accurate) of flame. The entire inclusion of the intimacies of sex negates the flame and this shows how little Snyder understands about subtlety and implication. The flamethrower alludes to the fact that yes, they are having sex in there; there is no need to show it. I realize that might make me sound prudish, but it isn’t the sex I have a problem with; it is the fact that both are present which in turn makes the allusion redundant and almost cheesy. Rather than being a sort of cinematic wink, the film’s flamethrower shot serves as an unnecessary punctuation to an already awkward scene.
As I stated in Part 1, I believe that successful adaptations will take the source material and embellish or expand upon the plot and descriptions. Snyder has a habit of taking exact frames from the comics and graphic novels that he adapts and putting them in the movie. In fact, his use of slow motion almost makes it seem like he is playing a video game in which the goal is to match up the screen image with that of the graphic novel and he has to slow down the time of the movie in order to help achieve that goal. I, however, award him no points for this match.
While there are certain iconic images that could be included, the entire film shouldn’t be panel for panel, otherwise why even bother making the movie? I suppose the obvious answer is for money, and that is why there is a necessary amount of fan service in a lot of adaptations, especially those of comic books. However, there needs to be a happy medium between a direct translation and something like Starship Troopers(1997), which really only keeps the adversaries and character names of the book it is based on.
Alan Moore made his name in comics writing stories that held emotional weight and serious character studies in a medium that is still today considered childish by some. It is no secret that he doesn’t get involved with the film adaptations of his work, and due to this, that weight is often lost. V for Vendetta(2006) is a successful adaptation because it goes on its own path while remaining true to the source. Is it the intricate piece of story telling that the graphic novel is? No. Though the film has its problems, they don’t negate the argument for reading the source material on its own quite like Watchmen does.
While comic books seem initially to be more conducive to film adaptation than literature, it isn’t enough to copy and paste panels with live action actors. There needs to be something new added to the story or visuals while still paying homage to the source material. Is Watchmen a visually stunning film? Yes, but that isn’t enough to elevate it above what it really is; an unsuccessful adaptation.
Did you both see the movie and read the comic and if so, what do you think? Are my hypothetical questions that I immediately answer in order to make a point annoying? Feel free to comment below.
Previously: On the Subject of Adaptations: Part 1