Written by: The CinCitizens
Excellent analysis Ana! You’re absolutely right when you said that adapting Watchmen into a feature film is an epic task. Dare I say it’s Herculean, seemingly impossible and fraught with danger. I’m unsure whether I should applaud Snyder for his bravery in attempting this, or be worried his ambition will see him overextend his reach and fail miserably, which would be a shame because I think he’s got a great deal of passion for his projects, and he seems to be a fellow geek (and I mean that as a compliment!).
Ana did a great job of highlighting the tones and themes of Moore’s acclaimed graphic novel, and the importance of capturing them in any translation of his work to film. For whatever reason, the Hayter script was deemed unsuitable, and Alex Tse was tasked with rewriting it. Hayter and Tse both have included these aspects of Watchmen that set it apart from every other superhero tale out there, even to the point of maintaining much the same dialogue. But there are changes made in the Tse script that make it a weaker version. Rumor has it that Tse’s script was also rejected in its final form, and additional revisions have been undertaken. I find that to be good news, because the omittances and updates he included have me wishing (at least) for a second look at Hayter’s efforts, and (at best) for a truly faithful adaptation of the source material.
One of the more noticeable differences is the setting. Hayter maintained the period of the 1980’s that Moore created (with the alternate history as a result of Dr. Manhattan’s existence). Tse has brought Watchmen to the present day. The world still faces a seemingly inevitable apocalypse, but it won’t come as a result of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union culminating in nuclear holocaust. Rather Tse establishes that rising escalations around the globe will seal our fate. We meet soldiers on both sides of the Indian/Pakistani border, each chomping at the bit to destroy the other. We meet the captain and first mate of a Chinese battleship, keeping watch on their Taiwanese counterparts, itching to launch a salvo and blow them out of the water. And we meet Israeli intelligence officers, their country standing alone against the whole of the Muslim nations on their borders in the Middle East.
And where is the United States in the midst of all this conflict? Evidently we’re nowhere to be seen. Possessing Dr. Manhattan has given us the ultimate safeguard, and our nation’s leadership seems comfortable with allowing the rest of the world to blow itself to oblivion, as long as the land of the free and the home of the brave is left unscathed. After winning the Vietnam War for us, Dr. Manhattan has continued to do his…duty. He stopped the attacks on 9/11 (evidenced by a present day New York skyline with the Twin Towers intact), and we witness him effortlessly halt an attempt by Muslim extremists to smuggle uranium into the country. And yet his disconnect with humanity continues to grow, as in Moore’s novel, and his (pre-orchestrated) departure from Earth is still a catalyst for Armageddon. But I’m left asking, what transpired before?
Though Watchmen seems to be a period piece today, Moore wrote it in a near-present day setting, albeit with an alternate history. He sprinkled in references and allusions to how the world had been changed by the presence of superheroes, particularly Dr. Manhattan. The United States winning the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon avoiding the Watergate scandal, repealing the 22nd Amendment, and being elected to an unprecedented fifth Presidential term. Dr. Manhattan’s generation of a clean, renewable energy source that toppled the oil industry, revolutionized the transportation industry, and did wonders for the environment. With the exception of the alternate ending of this nation’s efforts in Vietnam, none of these elements are included or even mentioned in Tse’s script. And beyond Dr. Manhattan making 9/11/01 just another day, there are no references to any kind of alternate history up to the present day.
That is the real failing here. I don’t necessarily have a problem with contemporizing Watchmen, but it needs to be done in a manner comparable to what Moore did before. I can understand wanting to make a powerful statement that the world is different with a super-being the likes of Dr. Manhattan inhabiting it, but once an image as striking as the preservation of the World Trade Center is seen, a can of worms is opened, and those worms are covered in question marks. How did the Cold War end? Did the first Gulf War transpire? The Oklahoma city bombings? Bill Clinton’s scandal? The U.S. embassy bombings? What about the current Iraq War and the War on Terror? If Dr. Manhattan has been around for the last forty years, what impact has he had on the world–beyond one day in 2001?
Tse gives us no answers to any of those questions. He does something worse than create a one-dimensional character, he gives us a one-dimensional *world*. Had he created a reality as rich and nuanced as the one Moore crafted, it could have been one I would have believed in and supported.
The other major difference of note in the Tse script is something Ana intentionally tried to avoid discussing in detail (but which I am): the ending. (Note: if you don’t want the ending of Watchmen potentially spoiled for you, I must regretfully ask that you stop reading this.