Last week, I saw The Watchmen. I was prepared to be disappointed, but given Zack Snyder’s relative success with 300, I expected that it would at least make for some decent entertainment. Alas, it didn’t.
I’ll admit that sometimes I’m too critical of comic-book adaptations — I was the one who rained on The Dark Knight parade this summer (an excellent film, but not well-edited). The fan-girl in me will unleash lots of indignant rage whenever a director deviates from canon. That said, I do like a few film adaptations — X3, Batman Begins, and Iron Man were all fine — and I know when I’m being unreasonable.
When it comes to The Watchmen, I have a whole host of minor quibbles (the sand on Mars should have been pink and I do believe it was “hands”, not “fingers”, which touched when Janie passed the beer) but that’s not the main criticism I’ll level here — the reason this film failed was because it did not act like a film. What’s the point in creating an adaptation — or watching it — if it’s not going to take advantage of being a different medium? I wanted The Watchmen to mine all the benefits of movie-making. I wanted it to revel in the motion, the senses, and the extra-dimensional effects that are afforded to us in a film, but are devoid from a comic book panel.
What it did instead was substitute a film reel for Alan Moore’s actual panel sequence from the novel. And that was all it did. It filled in the white gutters between Moore’s panels with even more panels (in even more minute increments of motion/time), so in truth, the movie wasn’t much more than a high-tech flip-book version of the novel. Oh, fun.
To be fair, this approach isn’t all the bad. In the opening scene, when the Comedian is thrown past three glass windows, the viewer is reminded of the same scene in the novel, when the Comedian is thrown through three separate panels — but the real-time version is sharp, motion-filled, and better. And I’ll concede that in the action sequences, their speed-ramping methods work — each blow is well-defined, slowed-down without being slow, and delivered with impact.
But otherwise, the film is too scared to deviate from the book — even in an aesthetic sense — and never becomes all that it could be. Good adaptations must depart from their source material, in order to add a new dimension to the work and to improve (or at least change) its representation. And there’s at least one element — SOUND — in which directors, even the most faithful ones, are given free rein. Books are silent. Sound is where film has an inherent advantage over the book; the Comedian’s death the best scene in the movie, in part because of its contrast with its music (Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable”). So surprise me!
Even here, though, the movie-makers wanted to keep it safe — and when they didn’t, they shot themselves in the foot. Most of their soundtrack consisted of tunes lifted from the end of Moore’s chapters. This was fine. But their other choices were all, all awful. Granted, “Ride of the Valkyries” does earn a mention in the book, and I understand the Apocalypse Now reference, but do we need a Wagnerian Dr. Manhattan blasting Viet Cong out of rice paddies? Mozart’s “Requiem” in Antarctica was gratuitous; moreover, it was ridiculous. And then there was no reason for Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, which made the sex scene — poetic and poignant in the novel, painful in the film — even more cringe-inducing than I could have imagined (for a more detailed run-down of the soundtrack, with thoughtful commentary, see Underwire).
The Watchmen wasn’t without some merits. The Comedian was well-cast — it would be hard to deliver the “American dream” line without sounding too pulp — as was Rorschach, who was as brittle, fierce, and vulnerable as in the novel, but also alive. But in the end, the movie was little more than mimesis. I left the theater filled with some Rorschach-like frustration. Hrrh…