Saturday, April 4, 2009

Warning: Heresy Ahead

I went to see Zack Snyder's film adaptation of Alan Moore's legendary graphic novel Watchmen last night with my girlfriend. I've read the book; she hasn't. We both really enjoyed the movie, which I have been looking forward to since the first trailers hit the internet. It's rare any more that I anticipate movies with the same fresh-and-eager verve as I did fifteen years ago, and rarer still that those few that I do look forward to deliver, so last night was something of a pleasant surprise.

The film hews quite closely to Moore's original work, with one very prominent exception that I will attempt to sketch here sans spoilers. Basically, the villain of the piece has an Evil Plan that he endeavors to execute. The Evil Plan in Snyder's adaptation is notably different from the Evil Plan in Moore's graphic novel (although its ultimate aim is identical, as it must be).

Here's the promised heresy: I like Snyder's revised ending better than Moore's original ending. The Evil Plan concocted by the villain in the movie is both more feasible (in terms of its ability to actually be executed in the setting) and more dramatically satisfying than Moore's original.

I've enjoyed the vast majority of what I've seen from Snyder as a filmmaker. Speaking with respect to Watchmen and his 2004 remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, he seems to have a talent for making shrewd decisions when it comes to changes from the source material. (In the fast-zombies-versus-slow-zombies holy war, I fall strongly in the fast zombies camp. Fast zombies can chase you down and kill you unless you can barricade yourself in a strong shelter. Slow zombies can be easily avoided by backing carefully away. 'Nuff ced.) At the same time, crucial details are preserved. Dawn of the Dead isn't Dawn of the Dead if the survivors aren't hiding in a shopping mall.

Similarly, Watchmen isn't Watchmen if it doesn't take place in Moore's brilliant alternate-universe '80's. The movie wisely preserves the original setting--it is set in 1985, Nixon is still President, and the U.S. and Soviet Union teeter on the brink of nuclear war. I guess I would hope that this was a no-brainer, but I would be unsurprised to learn that at least one studio executive pushed to have the setting switched to the present day. ("We can fill the soundtrack with contemporary music! Think of the iTunes tie-ins!") The looming shadow of nuclear holocaust fuels the narrative of Watchmen...without it, the story goes nowhere.

I was also very pleased to see that the ending--by which I mean the very ending, the very last frames of the graphic novel--also makes it to the screen almost entirely intact. A lot of people, even fans of the book, seem to regard the very ending as just sort of a clever last twist, but I've always felt that it is an indispensible part of the story, summing up the story's fatalism and contradictions in one act that is simultaneously perfectly logical and completely insane.

More heresy:

I love Alan Moore's comics (I actually feel that The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is his best work, and furthermore that Volume II of that story is superior to Volume I), but in light of this successful adaptation of Watchmen, it is difficult to see Moore's assertion that the comic is "inherently unfilmable" as anything other than self-aggrandizement. I have a mental picture of him, drawn in a comic frame in pen and ink, rising up with a mad look in his eye, with a dialogue bubble above his head declaring "I have created a comic that is inherently unfilmable!", in the way that a comic-book villain might announce the creation of the ultimate doomsday machine. The only works of fiction that are inherently filmable are, I suppose, screenplays. Anything else must be adapted, and Watchmen weathered adaptation just fine. It transpires that it was not any more inherently unfilmable than, say High Fidelity. In fact, I suspect the writers of the latter may have had more work to do to bring that particular story (successfully) to the screen.

Of course, in the end it is his story and he has the right to disapprove of the movie and remove his name from the credits (which simply say "Adapted from the graphic novel") if he chooses to do so. Cool. But if he can't enjoy a film adapation of one of his books, and the expansion of one of his best and most relevant stories from the relatively narrow base of comic-book readers to a broader audience, then his life as an artist must be somewhat gloomy.

And even if he doesn't like how the movie turned out, I have a feeling Rorschach would.


  1. Chris,
    nice idea for a blog. I read the review of Watchmen which I've been reluctant to see in the theater. of course, I read the graphic novel more than 20 years ago but it was so specific to the time period (nuclear war etc) that I didn't think it would translate to modern times. I'll see the film eventually.

    Speaking of zombies, have you picked up left 4 dead on the xbox? it advertises 4 player capability and it could make for a fun night at the next gamer session. with a couple extra controllers we could have most of the group playing as a team.


  2. The movie *is* set in 1985, like the comic. I think my original post may have been phrased poorly, and I've revised it to make this clearer.

    I haven't bought Left 4 Dead yet. You're right, that could be a fun one to have around.