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CC2K Reviews Two Attempts at Adapting Watchmen

Written by: The CinCitizens

ImageAs the release date of the Watchmen film approaches, CC2k looks back at two earlier attempts to adapt this seminal graphic novel

After his efforts in bringing Frank Miller’s 300 to the big screen resulted in a huge success, Zach Snyder has set his sights on one of the classics of all time, Alan Moore’s award-winning Watchmen. CC2k has gotten a chance to look at two different versions of the film’s script, and we’ve reviewed them both. Up first is Anastasia Salter, reviewing the earlier of the two written by David Hayter.

The death of the Comedian is a much remembered moment in comic history. For those who picked up the story only to read it cover to cover, immersed in this new vision of the overly proud and immortal superheroes that the rest of the comic world was still trying to tell, the Comedian’s death was the beginning of a new world. Here, a superhero could die, painfully and almost anonymously, fighting for his life with the strength of a former government Captain America-esque hero who in his last moments must contemplate his failure to stop the truly unhappy ending he saw ahead of the world. The Watchmen script by Hayter preserves this moment: the short-lived battle, the last joke on the Comedian. The blood on the Comedian’s smiley faced logo—human bean juice.

Translating Watchmen to film is an epic task. I was thrilled to see a great deal of the dialogue—particularly in these opening efforts at establishing the characters of these once superheroes—preserved in its original form. The team of once-superheroes that inhabit Moore’s Watchmen are not superheroes as we think of them. They have their parallels in traditional comics, but they’ve aged and suffered for their efforts. The government cracked down on these “vigilantes,” outlawing masked justice. Now it seems that someone is deciding to shut them down for good, with the Comedian the first but not the last of the old heroes to die.

Moore’s story is a darker superhero tale than most to cross the screen of late: it is no Fantastic Four or Spider-man. In this script, at least, some of the darkness remains. The Comedian’s face is scarred by an attack by a Vietnamese woman he’d impregnated—an attack that ended in the Comedian shooting her down and leaving her to die. The Comedian is not a great man—he’s also a rapist, to shed some light on the problem for those of you who haven’t ventured into Alan Moore’s world of obsolete superheroes before. But instead of recreating this powerful scene, we see only a drunken Laurie, the victim’s daughter, crying out for revenge in a dream or memory.

This is a powerful scene for the characters, and it’s editing out feels like more than just a decision to expedite the story: it feels like an attempt to soften the edges. Bloody and violent murders can stay on the screen, but this moment of sexual force and terror is left on the cutting-room floor. Given that in this revision of Moore’s story this moment becomes if anything more pivotal than it was in the original version, it’s a particularly jarring cut.

That is the kind of decision that rewrites some of the personal side of the superheroes. There are four men who anchor the story of the Watchmen and must be maintained in order for the script to be a reasonable adaptation in my eyes. The Comedian is the first of these men:

  • Eddward Blake/The Comedian: The Comedian is a war hero and government agent, an American monster who has an innate understanding and comfort with darkness. We get some of that in this script, particularly with a Vietnam flashback and a few points of dialogue between Eddie and the rest of the superheroes back when he was in his prime. His discussion with a former super-villain builds the conflict that costs him his life, the plot at the center of the story.
  • Walter Kovacs/Rorschach: The viewpoint character for much of the story, Rorschach is the extremist, and the script doesn’t compromise on him. He’ll break a man’s index finger in six places to get an answer and see shadows and schemes all around him. He never violates his personal code of ethics in the current script, and pays the same price as Alan Moore set for him. Rorschach is the most faithfully adapted character in the script to date.
  • Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan: There are superheroes and then there are gods, and Dr. Manhattan is more the later, a man of atomic power who reassembled his own particles and can unmake and remake aspects of creation at a whim. He is too powerful for humanity, and this script recasts him in the role of an unwitting scapegoat for humanity’s effort to self-destruct. His strange relationship with time and space is maintained through voice-overs, but it is hard to imagine how the same will be done in film as it was with comic panels.
  • Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias: The mastermind, the king of kings, the world’s smartest man: Ozymandias is at least somewhat maintained here as a puppet-master acting in what he sees as the world’s best interest. But his finale is very different: his plans, in this script, owe far less to the extraterrestrial and far more to the mundane. He is recast to be more a black and white figure and given an ending that Hollywood sees as fitting for such a man, rather than the poetic and contemplative finale that Alan Moore wrote. Ozymandias is at the center of the great disappointments of this script.

As these four men and their assorted superhero comrades wander through a fairly streamlined script, the major conflict moves from the personal problem of someone killing off masked superheroes to the epic problem of a world facing apocalyptic nuclear destruction—sound familiar, anyone? Thus, the politics of this movie even with superheroes added in the mix of the apocalypse story are hard to avoid. Eddie the Comedian as departed and flawed prophet gives his fellow superheroes a speech as they try to band together years before his death: "We were set up from the beginning. By God…who else? Jews, Muslims, Christians and Liberian Hindus all chucked in together; Killing each other for His amusement over the past 2000 years…except now we got Nukes, super-viruses, all sorts of fun things. The minute we got the ability to destroy ourselves, it all just became…a matter of time"

Between this observation of Eddie’s and many observations made by Rorschach the inevitability of destruction is handled nicely. Furthermore, the current script leaves you with a question just as powerful today as when Alan Moore first penned it: “Who Watches the Watchmen?” Who keeps an eye on the superbeings—masked or otherwise—who claim to be looking out for our world? Who prevents the people or agents we trust from taking that one step too many that can bring the whole delicate balance crashing to a halt in blood and tears? Who, in short, keeps an eye out for those who may well bring us that inevitable apocalypse?

But it is after reaching that pinnacle that the script falls into trite and familiar territory. The great disaster of this script is the ending. After a relatively (for a studio production…) faithful adaptation of a bleak morality play wherein the most strongly moral character is also the least rewarded, the script loses sight and tries for the Hollywood ending. The great plan of the Watchman seeking to unite the world is substantially altered and sounds entirely ineffective, and a last minute heroic substitution leads to the neat boxing up of a bad guy to die for his crimes. The world has no such neat endings waiting, and it is a great disappointment to see them in this story: a moment perhaps more tragic even than the clichéd crowd scene of mass uprising at the end of V for Vendetta. It is in endings like this, then, that it is easy to see why Alan Moore would very much like studios to leave his work in peace.

With that, I cede the floor.

Author: The CinCitizens

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