There’s an argument that some works, no matter how beloved or remarkable they are, cannot and should not be adapted to film. Sometimes that argument is proved wrong (as with ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ or ‘Angels in America’), sometimes proved entirely valid (as with ‘His Dark Materials’ and the many attempts at ‘Dune’). Sitting somewhere in between though is one of the more curious acts of book-to-screen adaptation: Zack Snyder’s sprawling attempt to adapt ‘Watchmen’, a graphic novel titanic in scope and reputation. The initial reaction to the film was confused - some thought it daring and thrilling, others misguided and bloated, some visionary, some obnoxious, some better than they imagined, some worse than they imagined. In the past ten years since its release, it’s also hard to know what its legacy is, though the general consensus seems to lean more towards the positive. Even after all this time, it’s hard to tell whether it was an unexpected success or a fascinating failure.
In many ways, Snyder’s film was doomed before the cameras rolled, due entirely to the fact that its source material is the apex of its storytelling form. The graphic novel from writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons is a masterpiece, not only one of the finest works in the comic book form, but one of the great works of 20th century literature. It reimagines the superhero mythology in startling fashion, crafting an alternate history (contemporary when it was published in 1986-1987) where masked vigilantes and superheroes actually exist, and the logical social, historical, political and philosophical effect that would have. Moore and Gibbons’ vision is utterly complete, setting their dense epic in a version of the 80s where the Cold War has escalated rather than moved towards resolution, where nuclear holocaust is almost a certainty, where Nixon is still president, where the Vietnam War was won, where vigilantism has been outlawed, and where the existence of a superhuman figure destabilises our concept of our own existence. ‘Watchmen’ is a work of such staggering complexity and so passionately loved that any attempt to move it into a different medium could only fail, inevitably unable to contain its staggering narrative and thematic scope, and placed under the most extreme scrutiny.
There had been many attempts before the 2009 film, but even now, it seems so incongruous that Zack Snyder, of all people, would be the person to pull it off. His previous films ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (2004) and ‘300’ (2006) had demonstrated his skill as a visualist, but neither (especially ‘300’) showed him capable of the thematic depth or storytelling pyrotechnics necessary to bring ‘Watchmen’ to the screen. And yet, both at the time and now revisiting it, I can’t help feeling that Snyder may have gotten closer to achieving the impossible than anyone could have. There are many flaws to the film (some Snyder’s indulgent tendencies, some a consequence of being too faithful to some of the more problematic aspects of the novel), and the changing of the ending will always rile fans up, but I’d argue there are far more things to celebrate about this film than there are to condemn. There are even moments I’d go so far as to call sublime.
Working from a screenplay by ‘X-Men’ writer David Hayter and emerging screenwriter Alex Tse, ‘Watchmen’ sticks very closely to its source material in terms of its visuals, dialogue and narrative, for better or for worse. For better, it finds a way to keep the more iconic elements such as the careful intercutting between narratives, the moral ambiguity and the internal monologue of sociopathic vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) as narration (something that really shouldn’t work on screen but somehow does). There are times where you feel like Snyder and his team (especially cinematographer Larry Fong and production designer Alex McDowell) are simply using the novel as a storyboard, just as he had with ‘300’, but these recreations feel dynamic rather than static, often finding a logical reason to land upon that image rather than shoehorn it in. The film doesn’t rely on visuals to tell the story as much as the novel does (even though at times some hammy dialogue could have been avoided by doing so), but for the most part its fidelity to its source feels more considered than simply following it blindly as a roadmap, even if that fidelity often results in annoying or obvious decisions. There’s a sense that both the journey between destinations and the destinations themselves are understood.
However, it’s the moments where ‘Watchmen’ stops trying to be the novel and instead embraces its cinematic form that it becomes something startling and truly special, and no moment encapsulates that better than its jaw-dropping title sequence. Considered by many as the finest title sequence of any film, it’s a mini-masterpiece in itself, a startling succession of tableaus tracking how this alternative history of the twentieth century came about, from the 1920s through to 1985, all set to Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’. Snyder takes iconic imagery from history and subverts them in often shocking ways, mixing them with the history of the Watchmen themselves and establishing in five minutes a degree of world-building that’s basically unparalleled. I will never forget seeing that sequence for the first time at a midnight IMAX screening. You could feel the whole audience go silent, see jaws drop agape, hear intakes of breath at each successive surprise, feel our collective stomachs drop as history was being rewritten and the characters were coming to life before our eyes. There’s absolutely no question that the opening titles of ‘Watchmen’ are Snyder’s greatest achievement, and one of the great moments of American cinema of the last twenty years. The fact that the rest of the film never quite manages to reach the same level of sophistication and awe hardly seems to matter after watching a sequence as astounding as this.
'THE WATCHMEN' OPENING TITLES
And yet, it comes close, and in particular in the way it uses music. Many of the musical choices in the film are bordering on genius, such as the opening fight sequence set to Nat ‘King’ Cole’s ‘Unforgettable’, the Comedian’s funeral accompanied by Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’, or most of all, the history of Dr Manhattan set to sections of Philip Glass’ score to ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ (the only other sequence almost as sublime as the opening titles). Not only do the musical choices give context, they allow Snyder the room to justify many of his more indulgent tendencies, such as excessive slow-motion in the fight sequences. In short, they allow the film to be a film. They lend it a sense of narrative and emotional scale, especially when the music works in stark contrast with what you’re seeing. There’s no question that Snyder often seems out of his depth in ‘Watchmen’, but the result is a director acting on instinct rather than trying to be clever most of the time. In many ways, the moments where ‘Watchmen’ works best are the moments where the film submits to its material, where it aims impossibly high and goes for the craziest, ballsiest ideas it can think of.
In many ways, the moments where ‘Watchmen’ works best are the moments where the film submits to its material, where it aims impossibly high and goes for the craziest, ballsiest ideas it can think of.
Unfortunately, not all those decisions work, and they often threaten to destabilise a film that for the most part seems to be working. Some of them are too incongruous to even make any sense (the ridiculous sex scene set to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is just too stupid for words), but the most uncomfortable and problematic aspects of the film are mostly problems it inherits from the novel but doesn’t have the awareness to interrogate. The novel engages in acts of extreme violence, often directed at women, and its depiction of women is highly fetishised. On the page, this is part of Moore and Gibbons’ very dense examination of the link between violence and sex, and while still highly uncomfortable, works to make some thematic sense. The film however doesn’t filter these aspects through a thematic lens, instead simply recreating them, often heightening them. Revisting the film, I found the level of violence almost too much to handle and highly distracting, incongruous to the more elegant elements of the film. In many instances, both in the graphic nature of the violence and the fetishising of the women, Snyder pushes it even further than the novel, meaning that moments of ugliness so necessary to the success of the narrative become repulsive. In that way, ‘Watchmen’ is very much a product and a victim of its time, that period in the early 2000s where straight white bro filmmakers dominated the landscape (Snyder being chief among them), and the presence of such a texture in the film works totally against it. Today, that level of sexual violence and misogyny would be unacceptable, regardless of whether it was in fidelity to its source material, something than Damon Lindelof has promised to address in his upcoming HBO reimagine of the novel.
Perhaps most contentious of all for fans of the novel is the ending of the film, the only significant departure from its source material. Snyder’s argument was that the original ending would not have made as much sense in the context of a film, and his argument is pretty sound. The end of the novel is utterly insane, and maybe Gibbons’ most startling work in it, but it succeeds because of all the secondary texts Moore weaves into the narrative to lead us there. The ending is earned in a way a film simply cannot do. While I’d argue that the new ending in the film still works and the decision to change entirely justified (its failure is more to do with lacklustre execution rather than intention), it goes back to the fact that, no matter what, ‘Watchmen’ was an adaptation doomed to ultimately fail. No film can bear the same narrative and thematic weight as a work as complex as Moore and Gibbons’, even with all the material made to accompany it (such as the animated ‘Tales of the Black Freighter’, the short mocumentary ‘Under the Hood’, the motion comic or both the Directors and Ultimate cuts of the film). ‘Watchmen’ was always going to feel inadequate, and considering the impossible task ahead of it, it’s a surprise the film turned out as well as it did. I’d even go so far as to say that Snyder’s ‘Watchmen’ might be about as good as anyone could have hoped for.
I can’t argue that ‘Watchmen’ is a misunderstood masterpiece in need of reassessment, because I don’t believe that it is. And yet, there’s something about it that I just can’t shake. For all its flaws as a film and its inadequacies compared to its source material, it’s still a film that I genuinely love. It comes close at points to capturing the sense of awe I felt when I first read the graphic novel, but more importantly, it’s a film capable of moments of awe all its own. Of course it’s Zack Snyder’s best film by virtue of the fact its competition isn’t exactly strong, but that shouldn’t discount it as a genuinely impressive achievement in its own right. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ masterpiece is eternal, and no adaptation can possibly ruin that (as is the case with any adaptation of anything). That this film of ‘Watchmen’ exists at all is surprising enough. That it is as genuinely great as it is might be something of a miracle.