An Extended Look at Watchmen and its Film Adaptation
Watchmen (1986, 1987), written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, is one of the most well-known and celebrated American graphic novels. The story follows the lives and adventures of a group of real-life superheroes in an alternate 1985, where their influence has changed the course of the world: among these significant differences, the United States wins the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon is re-elected for more than two terms. However, that is not the primary focus of the story—the focus lies in how these heroes are picked off one-by-one by an unknown threat, while the larger threat of a nuclear Armageddon, the result of a conflict between the US and Russia, brews in the background. The story begins with the death of The Comedian, an old-school super hero with nihilistic tendencies; Rorschach, a man of unwavering philosophy in his quest for justice, investigates his death, leading to the unveiling of a grand conspiracy to achieve world peace by means of mass destruction.
Throughout Rorschach’s investigation, the rich history of the Watchmen is uncovered. From their origins in the late 1930’s (the original group was known as the Minutemen) to their ban in the 1970’s, the lives and deaths of these “real-life” heroes are explored. With the exception of Dr. Manhattan (the bi-product of a science accident), all of the heroes within the story are completely human and are without true superpowers. In this way, a different approach to the superhero, one that delves deep into his or her psyche, arises. Rather than situate itself in a clear good-versus-evil moral landscape, as is typically done with most superhero stories, Watchmen places itself in a plane of moral ambiguity. As Rjurik Davidson points out in his analysis of the graphic novel (based on Moore’s own explanation), “Watchmen’s attitude to the superhero is not one of approval but of critique” ( 21). By humanizing his protagonists, Moore exposes the sexuality of the heroes; expresses their political beliefs; and examines their social (non-crime fighting) interactions with one another. Rather than come off as flawless men and women, who only do good in the world, Moore makes his heroes complex, sometimes even despicable: the Comedian, for example, rapes a fellow heroine (the Silk Spectre) and later kills a woman who was pregnant with his child; he is a relentless warmonger. Yet, even with this moral plight, Moore manages to develop depth—and perhaps sympathy—towards this character. This is accomplished through the Comedian’s complex relationship with the Silk Spectre (his victim), whom we later discover, gives birth to his daughter. Even Dr. Manhattan, the one superhero who truly is superhuman, is more complex than most other heroes are, as his struggles revolve around his (in)ability to sympathize with humanity. All of the characters throughout Watchmen are given this attention to detail as well as their own unique philosophies on life. However, even while following these serious storylines, Watchmen is not without humor: since it brings the existence of superheroes to a sense of reality, “[t]he graphic novel… is thus filled with jokes about the kinds of problems these superheroes have, and the kinds of world views they need to sustain them” (Davidson 21).
Returning to the primary narrative focus of the graphic novel, the “Masked-Killer” investigation by Rorschach, questions of morality present themselves yet again. At the story’s conclusion, we discover that Ozymandias (the smartest man on Earth), is responsible for the death of the Comedian and the disappearance of Dr. Manhattan, which has enabled him to take advantage of the rising tensions between the United States and Russia. Rather than permit nuclear Armageddon, Ozymandias organizes a fake alien invasion, which in turn, unifies the world against an inhuman threat, presumably leading to world peace. In this process, he kills millions; he claims to have done it for the greater good – did he do the right thing? Or are those who are aware of his role (Rorschach, Laurie, and Daniel), responsible for bringing him to justice? Wherever the graphic novel goes, questions of morality always present themselves, and the answers are never easy.
Like the graphic novel, the film Watchmen (2009), directed by Zack Snyder, manages to ask some very difficult questions; however, this questioning comes less from deep characterization—as done with the novel—and more from the complex situations of the base narrative (Rorschach’s investigation) alone. Rather than present the superheroes in a satirical and self-aware manner, Snyder presents them in a very serious manner. This “serious” effect is partly sourced in the lack of detailed back-stories for the heroes who are still alive, as well as a lack of history behind the heroes who have died. For example, rather than detail the origins of Hollis Mason’s (the first Nite Owl) costume, as done in the graphic novel, where he explains how ridiculous he and the other Minutemen seemed to the criminals, there is simply a quick flash back to his exploits and a short conversation with Daniel Dreiberg (the new Nite Owl). Rather than focus on the finer details, the film focuses on action – the heroes within Watchmen (2009) all seem legitimate, and none of the civilians or police officers they encounter question their sanity or make jokes on how ridiculous they appear.
This focus on action, rather than character building is evident in not only the more “serious” tone and lack of back-stories, but also, the addition of action sequences that are not in the graphic novel. For example, in the scene where Nite Owl and Silk Specter break Rorschach out of prison, the heroes beat several prisoners and corrections officers, while attempting to locate Rorschach. Within the graphic novel, Nite Owl simply uses the sonic features of Archimedes (his vehicle) to disable the police officers rather than actually fight anyone to the death. Although Rorschach’s actions in the film are consistent with the graphic novel, the extended action involving Nite Owl and Silk Specter is not. Again, this combat legitimizes the heroes rather than portray them as heroes who are past their prime, questioning their past efforts.
However, despite this lack of deep characterization, as accomplished within the graphic novel, the film closely resembles the visual presentation of its original source material. As academic critic, Stuart Moulthrop asserts in his essay, “Watchmen Meets The Aristocrats“, “[the film’s] general design and visual texture are remarkably faithful to the graphic novel. Time and again, key panels from the comic are reproduced with apparently obsessive precision.” Although some of the finer visual accomplishments may be lost within the film, many of the same sequences are visualized directly from the graphic novel (Molthrop). In this way, the film remains a fairly faithful adaptation of the original.
While considering the distinct differences between Watchmen the graphic novel, and Watchmen the film, several explanations arise for why the film has been adapted differently. As my previous comparison between the graphic novel and the film suggests, the film fails to maintain an equally deep back-story with particularly complex characterization; instead, the overall narrative becomes the driving force of the film. As Rjurik Davidson points out in his essay, “Fighting the Good Fight?: Watching the Watchmen”: “some of the film’s weaknesses can be drawn back to this faithfulness, for the graphic novel form is closer to a television series than a film. Usually a graphic novel is composed of chapters that are published monthly and which each tell a ‘short story’ while maintaining a broader story arc that develops over time. With its origins in a twelve-part comic, the film of Watchmen manages to reproduce the complex plot and backstory by extending to over two and a half hours, and still it shows the strain” (19). Taking this observation further, not only does the periodic structure of the graphic novel present problems in adaptation, but also the novel format itself. As Davidson asserts, the periodic format allows for a significantly longer storyline than can be accomplished with an assessable film length, but the problem doesn’t lie in the length of the story alone: many of the back-stories (which add significant depth to the characters, and thus develop our emotions towards them) come through in a completely textual format. After each chapter of Watchmen, a few written pages of additional information follow. It is nearly impossible to present this content on film without creating many more scenes or introducing lengthy voice-overs and, therefore, adding significant length.
Although the visual aspects of the graphic novel transfer accurately to the film medium, the textual content provides a much greater challenge. Some of the back-stories make their way into the film through flashbacks, but they fail to develop the same significance as they do within the graphic novel; as a result, the structure of the film comes off as choppy and confusing, and many of the secondary characters lose their relevance. Furthermore, the film’s reliance on dialogue that comes directly from the graphic novel falls flat when the actors fail to execute their lines in a believable manner (many of them simply sound like they are reading lines from the graphic novel rather than “performing” the lines).
However, this lack of story depth is not the only significant difference: one of the most profound differences is in the ending. In the film, rather than create a false extraterrestrial force to unite the world, Ozymandias places blame on Dr. Manhattan, and New York is not the only location to suffer from mass destruction, but many other important areas throughout the world are also destroyed in his plot. Bob Rehak claims that this change is sourced in the fact that the film was made in a post 9/11 world. Since one of the primary aspects of the graphic novel is its alternate reality, which involves cold-war fears (relevant at the time of the novel’s publication), Snyder had to decide whether to follow the story’s historical impact directly, or take it into contemporary times. As Rehak asserts, citing the inclusion of the Twin Towers at two points throughout the film, “The post-9/11 change… to one involving New York’s destruction suggests an attempt to bring the ending more in line with contemporary reality” (Rehak 156). Although Rehak goes on to say that the destruction of many other locations, not just New York, suggest a hesitance on Snyder’s part to go all the way with this 9/11 connection, as does his reluctance to adhere to the original ending, which resembles the 9/11 reality more closely, only “in metaphorical form” (157), the presence of the Twin Towers undoubtedly changes the audience’s perspective on the story and brings its element of terror into contemporary times.
The film adaptation of Watchmen fails to capture the multiple story layers of the graphic novel, and instead, places its emphasis on the action (likely to satisfy a wider audience who is unfamiliar with the graphic novel). But despite this failure, it is still successful in emulating the visual dimensions of its source material; it is also somewhat successful in creating a story that has cultural significance in the time of its release, much as Watchmen (1986, 1987), the graphic novel, achieved with its Cold War centered narrative.
Davidson, Rjurick. “Fighting the Good Fight?: Watching the Watchmen.” Screen Education 54 (2009): 18-23. Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Jan. 2013.
Moulthrop, Stuart. “Watchmen Meets The Aristocrats.” Postmodern Culture 19.1 (2008): n. pag. Project Muse. Web. 19 Jan. 2013.
Rehak, Bob. “Adapting Watchmen after 9/11.” Cinema Journal 51.1 (2011): 154-59. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.