Monday, March 9, 2009

Was Watchmen Watchable?

"Filming a work doesn't make it filmable"--me

" preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.."--Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Jurassic Park

War and Peace and Ulysses are groundbreaking fictional literary works, like Lawrence of Arabia and Citizen Kane are in film. These pieces of art dramatically changed the trajectories of their medium. After each of these works were released, the standards of their respective worlds were raised forever. There are few if any that would dispute that Watchmen falls into that category for the graphic novel. Watchmen redefined the superhero genre and made it for adults and legitimized comic books as art.

When the printed source material is so powerful as to change the nature of the medium like Watchmen and the other works I have mentioned, it poses a unique problem to a filmmaker who wishes to adapt that work. A director can simply try to capture every line, every detail (and in the case of a comic, every panel) on screen as a literal translation of the work. Then, the result is something that nobody whines about, but nobody raves about either. These works are inherently forgettable and inspire the old cliche, "the book was better." For an example of this phenomenon, see Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Why is this true? Because each medium, be it comics, film, oil on canvas, television, radio, or the printed word is unique. One can't simply try to directly translate a visionary work--it would be like faxing the Mona Lisa and expecting the fax to carry the same power as the painting. On the opposite end, a filmmaker can use the original as an inspiration and remain faithful to it while still presenting a unique vision (i.e., Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy). These works occur rarely simply because vision is so hard to come by--it is like being struck twice by lightning. Groundbreaking works by definition are quite rare in any medium. Matching a groundbreaking literary work to a movie director who has a groundbreaking vision for that work is an understandable rarity. It is a wonder that that ever happens. I myself am hard pressed to think of any beyond LOTR.

It always seemed to me that with Watchmen, the nature of the narrative, the nature of the story, the nature of the visuals simply could not be translated to another medium. In fact, much of Hollywood agreed, and the Watchmen project languished in development limbo for many decades and was called 'unfilmable' by many. When it was announced that the director of 300, Zack Snyder would finally be the one to capture the story on film, I was hopeful. After all, arguably he did manage to create a visionary film out of a less prominent graphic novel (300). He was true to the source material and yet brought a powerful and unique vision to that film. Maybe he could do the same with Watchmen!

Was he successful? Well, Watchmen is a great piece of work. Snyder made a compelling film and he presents a strong vision on screen. It is densely packed with complex existential, psychological and sociological themes and is a feast for the eyes. Still, I was disappointed. I was hoping for a transcendent work like 300 the movie was to 300 the graphic novel. There was my fatal mistake--The problem was not that Watchmen did not always fire on all cylinders throughout (the music was terrible and there was one ridiculous love scene that seemed like it came right off of a made-for-Cinemax skin flick), it is that I believe that the Watchmen concept simply cannot transcend on screen the way that it transcends on the page. Snyder made a great film that I hope to see again in the theater and I will certainly buy on DVD (director's cut) and that I hope is very successful. However, it's not a groundbreaking film. Heck, it's not groundbreaking as a comic book film (i.e., Dark Knight). We can't fault Snyder for the power of his source material. He did as good a job on this unfilmable work as I think could possibly have been done, but ultimately the graphic novel far outshines the adaptation in 'relative visionariness'.

So by all means, go see it, but don't expect Citizen Kane in tights.


Like this topic? Here's another great article on film adaptations vis-a-vis Watchmen from Cinematical.


David Dylan Thomas said...

I think that Watchmen could have been transcendent, but required a different approach analogous to its graphic origin. As Watchmen the comic was a comic about being a comic, Watchmen the movie needed to be a comic book movie about being a comic book movie. A small hint as to where this could have gone. Jackie Earle Haley seems to channel Dirty Harry in his performance (not a comic figure, I know, but now we're at least referencing the right medium). These are the reference points a transcendent Watchmen would have needed to hit to achieve for film what the comic achieved for comics. Think of Scream's relationship to the horror genre, only much, much deeper.

As far as The Dark Knight goes, it's transcendent for the opposite reason. It works, in part, because it is a solid genre picture, regardless of the source material. It's a great crime drama/serial killer/action flick and would have been if Batman had never been a comic book.

cg said...

Insightful comments, man. They should have gotten you to direct. Personally I would have liked Watchmen to have been compelling without the source material, I don't care if was in the same way as the comic. I guess that one of the major differences between Dark Knight and Watchmen as well is that Dark Knight had 50 years of source material to draw from, whereas Watchmen has a few hundred pages. With a character like Batman, you can pretty much pick and choose characters and themes to suit your vision. With Watchmen, those choices are made for you.

Also makes me wonder--will there ever be another compelling 'comic book' movie that is completely original--no source material? The Incredibles is the only example that I can think of. Anything else?

upyernoz said...

actually, i don't think any comic book movie has really succeeded. (i'm obviously in the minority on certain films like dark knight). super heroes just work better on the comic page than on screen.

but i was pleasantly surprised by "watchmen". the film is no masterpiece. but it's not a disaster either. i had low expectations going in, mostly because i loved the comic series so much and because my purist friends are all turning their nose up at it. i knew it couldn't be as good as the comic. but i last read the watchmen series around 1991. i wonder if watchmen the comic is as good as the watchmen i remember.

cg said...

Really? No comic book movie ever? I could name several in addition to Dark Knight. Going back a ways, Superman I & II, and the "original" Batman with Jack Nicholson were groundbreaking at the time, though I expect that it would be dated today. More recently, Sin City and 300 were pretty amazing, if only for their visuals, though I liked them both for more than that. Spiderman 2 was pretty awesome as well.

upyernoz said...

yeah, i don't think there has ever been a really good movie based on a super hero comic. (i am clarifying a bit from above, where i just said "comic book movie". there have been some films based on non-super hero comics that i think are really good, like "ghost world" and "a history of violence"). and while there have been plenty of okay-to-good comic book movies, in my opinion, none have risen above that middle level.

oh and i loved superman 1 and 2 when they came out. same with batman. but that speaks more to my changing tastes (there was a time when i loved anything that came from comics. i even defended howard the duck at one point) than something i would consider a strong movie now.

(as for sin city and 300, i really have a hard time with all the frank miller movies. the guy's borderline fascism always seems to come through. it may be a case of knowing too much about the author spoils the work)

cg said...

How much of your Superman/Batman change of heart is about your changing tastes, and how much is about these films being dated? I'd probably enjoy Superman II again, but not any of the other Batman or Superman films because of my changed tastes. But you have to recognize them for what they achieved at the time, right?

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