Warning: Spoilers ahoy!
As is always the case when someone takes a cult story and makes it into a film, there’s going to be problems. All creative endeavours are open to dislike, but beloved masterpieces are trickier still. It’s not just about fidelity: it’s about emphasis, interpretation. One Watchmen review described this phenomenon thusly: that “every adaptation must be some kind of betrayal.” It’s a poignant observation, and one which applies equally to the act of criticism. More than at any other time, reviewing such a film declares our own biases, our own view of the original narrative, and lays the issue open to yet more disagreement, emotive or otherwise. I’ve come quite late to the Watchmen party – just in time to ensure that my husband, too, had read it before today’s screening – but even so, my attachment to the story is considerable. I went in feeling sceptical, but lightly optimistic. I hated 300, director Zack Snyder’s other big comics-originating blockbuster, with a fiery vengeance, but for reasons of plot as much as for the ludicrous stylisation. Then again, Sin City (by 300‘s Frank Miller) and V for Vendetta (by Watchmen’s Alan Moore) are two of my favourite narratives ever. In other words, I was ready to be persuaded.
The opening scene of Watchmen – the murder of Edward Blake, the Comedian – made me angry. Being a long-time connoisseur of trashy action flicks, I’m hardly averse to either gore or gratuitously choreographed fightscenes, but this one left a sour taste. Apart from Dr Manhattan and, to a vastly lesser extent, Ozymandias, none of the watchmen are anywhere near approaching superhuman. Rather, they’re a squad of Batman-men: fit, fast, experienced and well-trained, but physically human. More importantly, Watchmen itself is a dark and gritty tale which, despite several violent protagonists, never makes violence seem cool. Combine these two facts, and Snyder’s lengthy, stylised combat betrays a profound misunderstanding of the source material, not just in the opening scene, but throughout the film.
It’s worth mentioning that Watchmen closely follows the arc of the graphic novel: precious few scenes are displaced from their original order, while a vast majority of the dialouge comes straight from Moore. The casting, effects and costuming, too, are brilliant: Billy Cruddup is excellent as the otherworldly Dr Manhattan,while Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach is chillingly superb. Nonetheless, for every moment of narrative satisfaction – Archimedes, Mars, the journal – there is another of jarring dislocation. The bizarre, overlong sex-scene between Dan and Sally is one such offence; the introduction of the energy crisis plotline is another. The most awful moment, however, comes as a giant Dr Manhattan stalks the fields of Vietnam, exploding VietCong to the thunderous chords of Ride of the Valkyries, at which point the desire to strangle Zack Snyder and demand to know why anyone, even the man who made 300, would think that Good Morning, Vietnam! was an appropriate point of reference. If a single scene could be said to epitomise the failings of Watchmen, then this is it.
Even so, it still came as a shock to reach the end and realise that, despite their by-and-large adherence to Moore’s work, the writers had taken it upon themselves to change the ending. I don’t mean millions of people didn’t die: I mean there was no psychic blast from a giant, dead, genetically-modified abomination of science. Rather, Ozymandias simply harnessed the power of Dr Manhattan and disintegrated citizens in cities around the world. From a distance, perhaps, this might seem neater, more personal, but up close, it robs us of the dead. It mutes the horror of cataclysm into something clinical, devoid of corpses, and instead of the world realistically banding together against the threat of creatures from another dimension, they unrealistically band together against a single American who, up until that point, had been publicly vaunted as both patriot and weapon. The psychology simply doesn’t hold: crazy and mad-science though the monster was, its purported origins ensued that no world power could be blamed for spawning it, while the choice of America-as-target humbled not only that government, but all who’d previously fought against them. Following the logic of Snyder’s version, given that multiple nations were attacked by (they believed) an essentially rogue American weapon, it seems decidedly counter-intuitive that they sue for peace rather than place blame. After all, Moore’s Watchmen is nothing if not a study in human nature. Take away his understanding of people, and you rob the story of its soul.
Which, ultimately, is the film’s real problem. It looks, speaks and sometimes moves like Watchmen, but with every misstep, the realisation grows that some other, vastly less subtle intelligence is steering: even Rorschach’s name, phoenetically spelled in the book as raw shark, is mispronounced as raw shack. Great adaptors understand the betrayal of their actions, such that, rather than merely echoing form, they build on substance. Their changes respect the heart of the story, acknowledging that appearances, no matter how important, are still secondary. Snyder, by contrast, effects his changes clumsily, keeping the veneer at the expense of structural integrity. In this sense, his dedication to replicating Moore feels less like tribute and more like an acknowledgement that his own interpretation isn’t strong enough to stand alone. Scenes run long, slow and awkward in the transition between mediums, introducing cameo characters whose roles, though apparent to those of us who’ve read the comic, would doubtless confuse and frustrate a novice audience. As in recent adaptations of other books, notably the Harry Potter series, a not inconsiderable number of scenes in Watchmen count on the pre-existing knowledge of the viewer, rather than striving to be self-contained.
In a way, the absence of the Black Freighter Tales is symbolic of the film’s failure. Although this subplot – a comic within a comic – was always going to be extraordinarily difficult to reference cinematically, it perfectly mirrors the twisted actions of Adrian Veidt, showing us the rotten underbelly of Moore’s 1985 and epitomising the dark, uncertain morality of the minutemen. There’s moments of real enjoyment in Snyder’s work, and the length, despite the peg-legged gait of certain scenes, does not seem unduly, even though it nears the three hour mark. As a superhero film – an action film – it works, and many people will doubtless enjoy it on that level. Certainly, there is no crime in doing so. But as a replication of Moore’s ethos, it fails. Like Dr Manhattan, the body is there, but the spirit is missing, evident only in occasional, haunting echoes. And for me, that says it all.