Friday, March 13, 2009

Watchmen and the Big Question

The release of Watchmen on March 6th, 2009, came under the pressure of a big question. How faithful would the film be to the original source material: the graphic novel, drawn by Dave Gibbons, written by Alan Moore? I, however, had no way of answering that question when I saw the film that night. I had never read the graphic novel. I knew little about the plot. I went to see the movie mostly because I had seen what I considered a dazzling preview that promised a dazzling viewing experience and an interesting story.

What Watchmen delivers is an unconventional story about superheroes with its thrills and visual dazzle spread thinly throughout a film that feels drawn out and bogged down by … something. There is no greatness here, but once I settled into the film’s leisurely pace and perhaps excessive development of the characters, I found many bits and pieces to be enjoyable.

Playing with the typical trappings of the superhero genre, here the masked crusaders are quirky characters with some hidden issues, but they all do cool things. Working for the Nixon administration, the crass and wayward Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has been responsible for massacre, murder (the assassination of John F. Kennedy?), and attempted rape – but he’s ruthless with bad guys and Commies. His Commie-disintegrating buddy is Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), turned into the Not-So-Jolly Blue Giant by a nuclear experiment gone wrong, and he can fly off to Mars where he’s building a big spiky thing and where he plans to live far away from humans and their foibles. The super-intelligent Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) has retired from superheroing in the guise of successful business mogul Adrian Veidt; but don’t let that slender stature and refined voice fool you, because Adrian has hatched a cataclysmic plot to end the Cold War and imminent nuclear warfare between Nixon’s America and the U.S.S.R.. Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) is a mild-mannered recluse, but he’s got a cool flying machine that looks like an owl’s eyes and he is brought out of seclusion by Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), who helps him get it up whilst getting back to good-deed-doing. She’s cool because she wears a form-fitting black and yellow latex garment, and it looks awesome when she whips her long straight hair around in slow-mo. But truly the most awesome and interesting character is Rorschach – a super sleuth dressed in vintage film noir trench coat and trilby – whose mask is an ever-shifting Rorschach inkblot. He provides the backbone of the plot as he investigates the death of the Comedian.

My favorite parts in the film, however, are the flashbacks, starting with a recap of what happened to the Minutemen – the costumed hero team that preceded the Watchmen. In my very favorite scene in the whole movie, it’s V-J Day at Times Square. You can see servicemen and women celebrating, but it’s the sexy, black-leather-clad Silhouette, whose sexual preference is for women, who gives the white-uniformed nurse a passionate kiss in a tremendous parody of the famous photograph.

In another parody, reminiscent of 50s sci-fi films about the science experiment gone wrong, we learn of Dr. Jonathan Osterman’s touching love affair with fellow physicist Janey Slater and his transformation into Dr. Manhattan – bald, blue, atomic, and very naked – his manhood sometimes sheathed in a codpiece, sometimes left hanging.

Finally, in the film’s most gripping flashbacks, the incarcerated Rorschach, revealed as the spindly Walter Kovacs, is asked by the prison’s doctor to interpret inkblots. For each blot he assigns an innocuous label, but the blots actually elicit graphic memories of a disturbed, bullied little boy who turns into a crusader for justice who deals cruelly with the psychotic murderer of a little girl.

Beyond the interesting characterizations, the clever and dramatic flashbacks, and the gripping performance of Jackie Earle Haley, the film fails to deliver enough wows for its extensive length. As I said in my opening paragraph, I felt that the film was bogged down by … something, and I think that “something” involves the demands on a filmmaker to be religiously faithful to the source material, which seems to be developing into a constraining trend.

Peter Jackson went to great lengths (pun intended) to be faithful to The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, to the extent of creating a trilogy of films that lasts nearly ten hours. Even so, fans of the novel complained that Jackson had left parts out. Many fans were pleased. I liked the films, but I would have preferred a single film – a three-to-four-hour epic covering the whole story – a single creative entity. My wife, who has read the novel (and I do not exaggerate) at least twenty times, is shocked by my wish for a single film that would have left out so many of her favorite parts. Ah, there’s the rub! She’s the fangirl who wants the strictly faithful film version of the novel. I’m the film lover ever searching for that quintessential cinematic experience, and even if it’s a novel I love, and I loved The Lord of the Rings, I will give up fidelity to source material for drama and the movie-viewing experience.

I don’t think it’s the job of a filmmaker to make a moving photocopy of the source material. Often, trying to remain religiously faithful to the source takes away from the film as an entity. Often, radical straying from the source material creates a classic. Read The Wizard of Oz and you will experience an entirely different world than the one depicted in the film. The film borrows the basic elements of the plot but leaves out most of what happens in the book. I love the book, but the film is a classic, a different experience entirely but a perfect entity. The novel The Bridge on the River Kwai has a very different ending, but the film’s radically altered ending is much more suspenseful. I love the book; but I love the film’s ending. In both examples, the filmmakers made creative choices for the sake of composition and drama.

My plea to fanboys and fangirls everywhere is to allow filmmakers creative freedom when it comes to the next adaptation of a much-loved novel, novel series, comic, or graphic novel. Let filmmakers take the source material they have acquired and let them express their vision.

Never having read Watchmen, I can’t evaluate the effectiveness of the film as a faithful adaptation, so I consulted various fanboys and one fangirl at the high school where I teach and got the following comments:

As a tribute to the graphic novel, it is excellent. But as an adaptation, it has flaws. The ending is changed and that changes the tone of the story.

This was the best adaptation possible for a movie version of Watchmen. What annoyed me, however, was that they tripled the gore and extended the sex scenes – and that seemed to be done to get the R-rating.

There is a lot of stuff going on in the book that is left out of the movie, but the essential message is preserved.

Watching the film, I sometimes wished I hadn’t read the book, because the faithful adaptation sort of distracted me and pulled me out of the film into my memory of the novel.

I have great praise for how the cinematography followed the comic book frames.

My favorite part is the opening credits showing the history of the Minutemen to the tune of Bob Dylan’s song.

My favorite scenes were the ones with Rorschach, and the film does the best with him as far as the adaptation: everything he is in the graphic novel is captured in the film. One of my favorite moments in the film is Rorschach’s monologue as he approaches the Comedian’s grave.


Daniel said...

Great that you did some on-the-ground research to validate your thoughts. I've never read the book either but I sensed some of the same weaknesses of the film as you did: a great idea gone...merely good?

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comment. It was fun asking students their opinions. Other students have expressed their opinions since then. Just today, one of them expressed disappointment. He felt Dr. Manhattan spent too much time complaining about humanity. I guess I felt the film was lacking a driving energy.

Joel Bocko said...

In addition to your objections to religiously faithful adaptations, which I generally share, I have problems with filmmakers trying to "mimic" the effects of comic books in movies. They're different mediums; one can "borrow" from or inspire the other (as has certainly been the case going from movies to comics) but one shouldn't try to transpose what's unique about form to another.

Sometimes, watching current blockbusters, I get the sense that their makers don't know anything about cinema history or about the potentials of the medium beyond being a delivery vehicle for symbols and a kind of gliding, one-dimensional spectacle. I can't imagine this is actually true - I'm sure these folks as well-versed in film history and technique (as distinct from TV ad technique) as the next guy, but it speaks volumes about their obstinance that their work reads this way.

Don't know yet if this applies to Watchmen, though I'm inclined to think it does. I may or may not see it tomorrow, so I'll elaborate after that.

Richard Bellamy said...


My biggest peeve about the film industry nowadays is all the factors that seem to take away from or not encourage originality and new stories.

I feel that remakes and sequels just take away from the number of original films or first-time adaptations to see out there. When I go to the movies, I want something new. With the remakes - I might see the wisdom of a remake of a very old film - but then we have versions of TV shows and graphic novels and computer games - and I wonder - don't they want to create something new?

A remake might work, but then being strictly faithful to it robs the movie of its best potential to work as a movie.

Go see Watchmen. There are fun things in it. And looking at the new releases this weekend, there's not much else to choose from.

Joel Bocko said...

What's most disturbing about the trend you point out is that it suggests an art form in decline - a cinema which is no more than the repository of other cultural tomes, one link in the vast merchandising effort, and not the most important one at that.

Yet I shouldn't be so pessimistic about that, since Hollywod has ALWAYS had a penchant for adaptations, even its golden age. Still, this bothers me more, partly because of the knee-jerk slavish faithfulness to the source, partly because the source being borrowed from is a similarly pop (and visual) form - when movies were borrowing stories from literature, even trash literature, it was a case of snobbery - a new art form looking for prestige from a supposedly "higher" discipline.

But now with the comics adaptations, that excuse can't be used, and it seems more like the over-the-hill medium looking for street cred with a younger, hipper form. And being that the comics are a visual medium, there's less wiggle room, less chance for cinema's own unique qualities to come to the fore, as there was even when adapting a book. Also, since audiences seem to favor these slavish comics adaptations, it suggests that the phenomenon is not just a consequence of middlebrow snobbery, of pretentious folks demanding watered-down "Art" while the masses go for film's unique qualities rather than what it's "borrowed" from elsewhere.

No, in this case it seems to be the masses only interested in movie if it corresponds to their other interests or is legitimized by some connection (i.e. not for its own sake). All of which suggests the decline of movies as a cultural touchstone, a mass art, something which has arguably been occurring since television, but never so markedly as in this decade's pronounced slump.

I hate to see this happening. I grew up with the idea of movies as THE medium and could take pride that my own private interest was shared by the public at large. I don't want my art form to be a niche art, something that caters to a niche coterie like the theatre or literature, with the wider public merely dropping by on occassion to pick up something distracting (a Broadway revival spectacle in theatre, a trashy paperback in literature).

But it seems television has finally and completely stolen the movies' thunder as the touchstone medium of the age...check out your non-movie buff friends' Netflix queues sometimes and I suspect you'll see mostly television DVDs.

Richard Bellamy said...

... the masses only interested in a movie if it corresponds to their other interests or is legitimized by some connection.

Yes, this seems to be a trend. Star Trek fans want to see yet another rendition of the same story. Teenage girls - reading and re-reading the Twilight series at this very moment - want to see it all visualized. They want to see what they know and love. I want to see what I don't know.

Yes, TV is big. So big that they show previews for TV shows at the movies.