SPOILER ALERT FOR THE GRAPHIC NOVEL AND FILM ADAPTATION. READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.
I’ve been a fan of the graphic novel Watchmen for some time now. Published as 12 separate comics, then collected in graphic novel form in 1987, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen tells the tale of superheroes past and present, particularly the gritty and mysterious Rorschach, the blue giant Dr. Manhattan and the nihilistic Comedian, and a conspiracy that could lead to the downfall of mankind. The comic itself is very heavily planted in real life, particularly basing itself around the tensions between the USA and former Soviet Union, as nuclear weapons became more advanced. However, the timeline for this world was altered very slightly, meaning Nixon remained President, there was no Vietnam War, and superheroes roamed the streets. The comic is considered the best of all time, and even managed to make Time’s list of best English language novels of the past 100 years. As you can see, Watchmen is a property loved and respect by millions.
The writer of the graphic novel, Alan Moore, has always stuck by his idea that his work should not be filmed. He spoke out against 2006’s V for Vendetta, and even refused to see it, and that wasn’t even the first case of the acclaimed writer being fed up of sub-par adaptations of his work. That’s probably why, when Watchmen came to cinemas in 2009, it didn’t look good. Directed by Zack Snyder, at that point best know for 300, the story of Watchmen was mostly just the comic’s story, but there were a few key factors missing, which at points made the film feel very hard to follow. At random intervals in the novel, there would be comic-inside-a-comic sections, called Tales of the Black Freighter, and although I won’t go into detail of its plot, it mostly paralleled the evens of the graphic novel up to that point, making the reader actually think. One of the biggest things the comic book did was make people sit up and realise that comics weren’t just for kids any more, and it changed the industry forever. It is for this reason that some purists believe Watchmen is unfilmable.
Having now read the book and seen the film, I do quite strongly disagree with these claims, but I’m still not 100% convinced that Watchmen is meant for cinemas. The film is nearing 3 hours, and still has some glaring omissions, proving that a comic so dense and rich with political allegory and character-driven narrative may not be suited for cinema. Snyder released 3 versions of the film; the theatrical cut, the director’s cut, and the ultimate cut, running at 162 minutes, 186 minutes, and a crazy 215 minutes respectively. No average cinema-goer is going to be able to sit still and pay their undivided attention to a film approaching 4 hours, which proves that film is not the right medium for Watchmen. I would come up with some alternatives, but let’s save that for another time.
One of the highlights of Watchmen, in my opinion, is the casting. Jackie Earle Haley is perfect as Rorschach, particularly in one of the film’s final scenes, in which he begs Billy Crudup’s Dr Manhattan to kill him. The viewer learns so much about Rorschach over the course of the film, from his troubled upbringing to the masked experiences that emotionally crippled him, so the weight of his decision is really felt at this point. Another of my favourites was Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg, or Nite Owl. His interpretation is nearly spot on the same as the comic, really showing his dedication to the character, and you can really see the way he changes over the course of the film. He goes from a bumbling, socially awkward nerd to a true hero, making a decision that destroyed Rorschach, and more so, living with it. My final standout performer was Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian. Even though most of his story is told through flashbacks, his performance is convincing and sadistic, just like in the comic.
I can’t fault the plot either, because it is mostly the same as the comic, but there were some changes that felt a little weird. In particular, the revelation that Ozymandias was the mastermind behind the masked killings lost its impact, purely because we never really got the time to know the character enough. The problem is all dealt with in a matter of minutes, and the way in which he executes his plan felt far less damaging than in the comic. In this case, substituting the giant squid for a bomb did make sense, but the sheer impact of Ozymandias’ actions were never fully realised.
Like the film, this review is becoming very long, so I’m going to try and be quick. What Zack Snyder has tried to do is transfer the graphic novel, almost frame by frame, onto the big screen, and although the film isn’t always the most faithful or logical adaptation, you can’t fault the effort. There are some excellent performances, stunning shots, and a plot that holds up 30 years after the comic’s release, but there are certainly some factors that didn’t hit the mark. You can tell the studio weren’t 100% confident, because even though the film’s budget was big, there are still some huge CGI disasters, particularly Dr Manhattan in certain scenes and Ozymandias’ pet, which really took me out of the moment. The film loses some of its impact and themes due to the sheer density of the novel, which was never going to be easy to translate to screen, and even though the film is mostly good, it is at times hard to follow, and tends to choose style over substance. This review has barely scratched the surface of the film, and there are still so many things I haven’t mentioned, which is why I recommend watching it yourself. Although, if you plan to go in having not read the comic, you may have a tough time.
I give Watchmen (2009) 7 out of 10.