Watching the Watchmen

They didn’t screw up.

I’m not sure whether it works as as standalone movie, but seeing the graphic novel brought to life pixel-perfect on a huge IMAX screen – the Gunga Diner, Karnak, the Owlship and the clockwork voyager – was awesome. It’s been getting mixed reviews from people less close to the comic, but I went home satisfied; the boys done good.

For graphic novel fans, Watchmen isn’t just a comic; it is the comic, the standard by which all others are judged. What comes close? Not much; Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’ perhaps.

The measure of a great movie adaptation is how much the fans can forgive it. ‘Lord of the Rings’ trolls forgave the movie trilogy for missing out Strider, because the films were so obviously made by a true believer with love and respect. ‘Watchmen’ is the same. Stunning visuals lovingly recreated. So what is there to forgive?

First: the pacing. A lot of the film’s in flashback, which got a lot of people fidgety during the two-and-a-half hour running time. There’s so much story in ‘Watchmen’ it needs lots of background explanation; it’s set several years after the main characters retired, after all, and to understand their relationships it’s necessary to know their pasts. (One of the book’s themes, of course, is that we can’t escape our pasts.) But with such faithful scripting, such glorious evocations of the 80s, I forgive it the pacing.

Second: the missing scenes. Everyone knew that if ever filmed, this unfilmable book would need a lot of editing. Whole story threads – the pirate comic-within-a-comic, the home life of the psychologist, the island of genetic experiments – aren’t there. But I can forgive these; they add to the richness of the comic, but would have further slowed down the already dodgy pacing. The final scene is also missing a key scaly feature, which makes Bubastis the genetically-engineered pet just scenery rather than a clue. I forgive this.

But there’s one thing here I can’t forgive: Rorschach’s Nietzchean speech to the psychologist. The scene is there, the characters are there, the flashback sequence where Kovacs became Rorschach is there. But if you stare into this movie, the whole point of that scene – the beautiful speech, my favourite quote in all literature – will not stare back at you. It is not there. And since Man’s choosing to shape his own destiny is the central idea of the book, this is unforgivable.

And third: I can just about forgive the biggest change from the book, which comes near the end. Earlier on, the team-reunion meeting being chaired by Ozymandias is a reasonable change; so is the free-energy speech Veidt gives to the men from Detroit. I can see why the New Frontiersman had such a small role; New York sharing the pain with other world cities is also an okay edit post-911. And Veidt’s portrayal as gay is much more blatant than in the book. Both are acceptable for reasons of tightness and pacing. But the Big Change – Dr Manhattan’s role in the major events of the last 30mins – is on the absolute edge of acceptability. You were really, really on Mars here, Zack Snyder. Edge of catastrophe. Four minutes to midnight. DEFCON 1. Damn, you were close!

But overall: sheer brilliance. Even though it wasn’t in the film (probably for rights issues) my mind’s still singing ‘Unforgettable’ remembering the scene between Dan and Laurie in the Owlship, which means the film evokes the book without being a straight copy. The unusual pacing and comic-booky dialogue has jarred some reviewers, but there are so many good things about this movie it’s be churlish to complain. This film is a hand-crafted labour of love by a real fan. And that’s what matters.

“Stood in firelight, sweltering bloodstain on chest like map of violent new continent. Felt cleansed. Felt dark planet turn under my feet and knew what cats know that makes them scream like babies in night. Looked at sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever, and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hellbound as ourselves; go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us. … Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world.” – Rorschach

One thought on “Watching the Watchmen

  1. As a non-follower of the comic I remain unconvinced of the films inherent brilliance however I appreciate the balanced evaluation approach you've taken here.

    One thing – Strider is very much present in Lord of the Rings movies – this is the name of Viggo Mortessens character pre-prodigal son styled Return of the King. Missed your point there.

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