Monday, March 9, 2009

Who Watches The Watchmen?

I do.

Now, I know I'm hardly the only one on the internet making that joke, but really... how often am I going to get the chance?

So I screwed with my sleep patterns yesterday to go see Watchmen during it's opening weekend. While I was very impressed by Zack Snyder's faithful adaptation to the source material, I felt it ultimately proved the superiority of the comic format for this particular story. What do I mean? Allow me to explain.

When I first heard that Watchmen was going to be adapted into a movie, I was dismayed. Arguably one of the best comic book stories written was going to be mangled beyond recognition for the silver screen. Hearing that Snyder was heading the movie didn't improve my mood, despite his success with Frank Miller's 300. After all, the original work for 300 was splash page after splash page, largely storyboarding the movie out. In fact, material had to be added to make up for a short run-time... and the additions to the story were all pretty bad. I like 300, but all the scenes taking place in Sparta after Leonidas has lead the 300 out were pretty bad. So I had little confidence in the director, and hadn't ever heard of anyone cast in the principal roles. I felt like my disappointment was imminent.

I was very wrong in that regard.

The movie is faithful to the source material... to a fault. What do I mean by that? My understanding is that Zack Snyder fought to keep much of the characterization from the comic in the movie, resulting in an epic running time of two hours 43 minutes. As a fan of the story, I applaud this decision because I care about these characters and I want to see justice done by them. I want them to be sufficiently deep and realized. But this becomes a problem at the point that characterization interferes with the story. This is where the question of format becomes crucial.

Like much of Alan Moore's work, Watchmen is an extremely dense story. I believe that a large part of that density is due to the serial nature of the story. A lot of people refer to Watchmen as a graphic novel because that's the way that we were introduced to it. Just Bill, an acquaintance of mine online, recently mentioned in his podcast that many of us fail to consider what it must have been like to receive Watchmen as a monthly comic book, issue by issue. I think that's a vital point to remember. When you only receive one issue a month over the course of a year, that issue has to be dense. It ideally should bring to mind the events of the last issue, while trying to tell it's own story and still building on a greater story. Reading individual issues presented the reader with places where the story ended... for awhile. Those breaks were important to let the reader digest the material, re-read it if they chose, and perhaps even discuss it while waiting eagerly for the next issue.

The movie, however, places the whole of the story in front of you in one sitting. And while it's remarkably faithful to the source material, I think that it's nature as a movie is a detriment to the story. It expects you to absorb the whole of the experience in one sitting. All the characterization that makes the comic brilliant drags down the movie. The story is lumbering and slow because of the way it's presented. And a story about imminent nuclear annihilation, where the doomsday clock is poised at four minutes until midnight, should never feel slow.

Alan Moore, the writer of Watchmen, V For Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell, among other stories, has a policy of removing himself and his name from any film adaptations of his work. Until seeing Watchmen on the big screen, part of me assumed it was because filmmakers hadn't shown the proper respect to his stories. Now I think I understand why he's said his stories are written specifically as comics, and can't be successfully adapted as movies. If you sacrifice the enormous depth of his writing, you lose the spark that makes the stories special. But if you refuse to sacrifice the depth, the story doesn't work as something to absorb in one sitting.

When the movie was announced, I clearly remember sitting at a meeting of the Comic Club here in Columbia. Jim Shelley (of Flashback Universe fame) suggested that the story would be better served as an HBO mini-series, a sentiment I agreed with. But I agreed for the wrong reasons. I felt that too much would have to be removed from the story to make it into a movie. Instead, I see that the gaps between new installments are an important part of enjoying material of such depth.

I'm curious as to what others think about my comments. Shoot me an e-mail at and let me know.


Lauren said...

Really good review, well-thought-out and full of the depth I'd expect from you :) I'm glad you slept on it before writing this...I still feel bad because I enjoyed moshing to the ending credits as much as I enjoyed the whole film!! But it was awesome going with Hilly and you to see this...I'd not have seen it myself!

Jovial1 said...

Thanks for looking at the review! I had little choice but to sleep on it first. :)

But as I thought about it, after listening to my friend's podcast, I thought more and more about how you were first experiencing it. The movie really is almost impossibly dense, and it's not hard to see why it might crawl by.

I've downloaded the soundtrack (including the new My Chemical Romance track) on the Zune network. I loved Dylan's song over the opening credits!