Friday, February 01, 1985

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

(This is a review I wrote for the movie Watchmen, and like other reviews on my blog, I wrote it without having seen the movie, back in early February of 2009. While this was written at the request of a friend and published elsewhere, I doubt there will be any legal complications with republishing it here.)

If you read much on the history of the production of the upcoming Watchmen movie, a common phrase that comes up is some variation of "mired in development hell." As this film project passed around for over twenty years from studio to studio, director to director and screenwriter to screenwriter, fans of the original graphic novel have wondered for some time if it was a movie that would ever come to be. Many others, including author Alan Moore, have wondered if it was even a good idea. Of course, Moore is partially biased by his disappointment in previous adaptations of his work to the screen, including The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta.

While the silver screen has at various times managed to give us excellent adaptations of stories originally told in the medium of comics, there is no guarantee that the two visual media are a match made in heaven. While bold visual effects can easily enhance our enjoyment of watching Spider-man or Batman in action, no medium is better than any other as a vehicle for character development. It's got to be a lot easier to outline Bruce Wayne's childhood in a fifteen-minute exposition than it it will be to expand on the forty-plus year history of about a dozen superheroes who all play a part in the unfolding of Moore's multilayered comic masterpiece. One of the challenges for a cinematic adaptation of this work is the condensing of over 300 pages at nine panels per page into Hollywood's required less than three hours' screen time and not lose anything significant in the translation. Director Terry Gilliam, one of the people attached to the project in its earliest negotiation stages, eventually declined to direct the film for that very reason. Suggesting it would be better as a television miniseries, he simply couldn't see it reduced to two-an-a-half hours. Watchmen, a story taking place in a parallel 1985 in which superheroes are real, America won the Vietnam War, and Nixon is still in office, follows the investigation of the murder of the Comedian, one of the few masked heroes still active after the passage of a law outlawing them in 1977. Along the way, the characters come to life, the plot unfolds into a complex conspiracy, and a number of philosophical questions arise that will challenge the readers' sense of morality. Is there a screen big enough to hold that?

The story is an intricate web of interconnected plot threads and dialogue with double and even triple meaning and visual effects that by their nature would not lend themselves to any other medium but comics. While some comics seem to mirror the conventions of cinema, Moore and artist Dave Gibbons crafted a book that virtually made its own conventions, exploring comics (and the comic-book genre of super-heroes) as only comics can do. While some movies have managed to play with the convention of a plot that moves fairly uniformly forward in time, it is the nature of comics that since time is represented spatially from panel to panel and page to page, and thus the reader can choose interactively to go backwards and time and review a scene they have already experienced to gather more information. Actually, in one chapter of the book, the character Dr. Manhattan reveals that, in his ability to see the future, all of time seems to him more like a series of still pictures than a continuous unwinding of a thread, no doubt a veiled reference to the very medium of comics. Moore seems to be saying through his character that it's better to have the whole story at once in the palm of one's hand than to see it speed past past completely out of one's control.

Still, what with everything, the fact that Watchmen is not likely to live up to the book is hardly something that makes it unique. How often does one hear a moviegoer exiting the theater and saying, "The book was better."? It's almost an essential part of the movie experience for every movie with an adapted screenplay. No true fan of the Narnia, Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings books went to the movies based on them and found them to be completely faithful and worthy adaptations; yet they went, and enjoyed them immensely. Movie adaptations are just that: adaptations. It's simply not possible to put a novel on a screen, because that's not what a novel is. Perhaps Moore doesn't like film adaptations of his work because he hopes to see his work on the screen, but it's not there; and it's not there because Moore wrote a comic book, not a screenplay.

Fans of the comic book who are wary of the movie adaptation perhaps need to remember this themselves. A little less than a quarter-century ago, Watchmen the comic came out, and in less than a month, Watchmen the movie will come out. They are two separate entities that will likely bear a strong resemblance to one another, but by their nature cannot be the same thing. For some time, comics fans have raved about Watchmen as one of the greatest comic books of all time. Does this reflect on the upcoming movie? Come early March, moviegoers will be able to judge for themselves.

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