Watchmen

[spoiler-free until warning]

It’s a few years since I read Watchmen, so I went into the film knowing roughly what happens, but fuzzy on the details. I find this a good way to be, as spoilers don’t work but there are still plenty of ah-yes moments. This certainly helped, although what helped more was the film being utterly goddamn excellent.

And not even slightly too long. The backstory was necessary for the thematic elements to work, and nothing was too drawn out. The visuals were gorgeous, the line between comic-book exaggeration and character drama nicely balanced, and the translation of the ‘unfilmable’ graphic novel exemplary in both plot and spirit. Did I mention I thought it was great?

Obviously you lose a lot on-screen. Although the film packed in an impressive amount, there’s still a lot more going on in the graphic novel. I remember that it’s possible to figure out Rorschach’s identity if you look carefully, for example, and there’s lots more characterisation and symbol-based play. But you gain plenty: spoken dialogue puts different interpretations on familiar lines, actions scenes have a visceral excitement, and the story flows that much more smoothly. This needn’t be the case, and it’s clear the filmmakers put in a hell of a lot of work. For example, the visuals were obviously painstakingly authentic, as I kept recognising panels – pretty impressive given the small, different-aspect-ratio originals. It’s certainly one of the better comic -> screen adaptations, and easily the equal of Sin City.

The soundtrack was curious. I’m not interested in the critics’ opinions, but I should imagine they’ve laid into the frequent use of 80s music. I thought it worked ok with the general 1985 atmosphere, but it’ll be interesting to see how it resonates in a few years. I shouldn’t think it’ll be a problem, actually – the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced it was a worthy touch.

I think it’s by far the best adaptation of any Alan Moore book, and it’s a shame his name was nowhere to be seen. I can understand his hostility to the studio system, but after this and Frank Miller’s success with Sin City, it’s a shame he hasn’t taken a different approach.

Ok, that’s the end of the spoiler-free section…

I re-read the last chapter after hearing rumours of plot deviations, and the ending is indeed subtly different, with large consequences. In the graphic novel the NYC attack is blamed on an alien, and the planet comes together to face this exterior threat. In the film the (much more extensive) devestation is blamed on Dr. Manhattan, and the planet comes together in fear of him. The latter has obvious parallels with religious ideas: mankind needs the fear of a higher power in order to behave properly – it’s not a perfect analogy: the cities were actually destroyed by a higher power, but the statement is clear nonetheless. That’s fairly different from the original story, and possibly less interesting. Psychology seems to show that human relations are heavily weighted by Us and Them, where We are friends, and to be protected from Those People. Alan Moore’s exterior threat places all of humanity into the Us pile, shifting the Them to an alien race. This isn’t unreasonable as a psychological strategy for peace. But the world uniting in fear of a Higher Power? Wouldn’t work. Humanity’d get uppity, and look for ways to kick its ass.

The new ending does, however, exponentially increase the awesomeness of Rorschach. He’s my favourite. Ok, so he’s a right-wing psychopath, but I love it when he walks away at the end: ‘never compromise, not even in the face of armageddon’ is still one of my favourite lines in comics1. When he walks into the snow in the graphic novel, it’s an incredibly difficult moral decision: even Rorschach knows he can’t do what he needs to do, and Dr. M will have to kill him. But he does it anyway, and I try to decide whether I agree. In the film, I’m with Rorschach. Ozymandias wants to save the world by having everyone live in fear of a vengeful god? Screw. That. Rorschach’s mask shifts into a solid blob of moral certainty as he dies a hero. Night Owl II / Silk Spectre II sink into wussery.

It’s still a fascinating ending. For me it’s a little less satisfactory than the original, but not enough to get worked up over.

In conclusion: yes, very much yes. Do see it.

  1. I’d noticed this line hadn’t been foreshadowed, and I was worried they might have cut it – but it was there, and delivered just right []