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Watchmen is a successful adaptation because it's faithful to the tone and themes of the source material, rather than getting mired in the details.
For years it was considered "unfilmable." Adapting the Watchmen graphic novel into a feature film quickly turned into a pipe dream for geeks everywhere as it repeatedly rumbled into life only to sputter and die without even getting out of the driveway, so to speak. And yet I'm here to tell you that Zack Snyder has done it. He's filmed the "unfilmable," and beyond simply bringing Watchmen to the screen, he's pulled it off with a considerable amount of success and effectiveness. Methinks Alan Moore might owe Snyder an apology, or at least a pat on the back for a job well done, not that Moore is likely to offer either.
For those of you who've read Moore's work, you can skim over this next paragraph or two. For the uninitiated, if you haven't already been bombarded by your friends with synopses gushing with praise for Watchmen, briefly it concerns an Earth of 1985, which is very similar to our own world except for the presence of masked, crime-fighting heroes who had their heyday in the 1940s and 50s. But the chief reason for the alternate history of the "Watchmen Earth" is the transformation of physicist Jon Osterman into the near-omnipotent Dr. Manhattan after being inadvertently caught in an "intrinsic field" experiment. He's the only truly super-powered being of this world, but his presence (and the fact that "he's real, and he's American") has drastically changed the course of history. Watergate never happens, the United States wins the Vietnam War in a week, Nixon is elected to five consecutive terms as President, and while the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union escalates as we remember it, Dr. Manhattan serves as the ultimate "ace in the hole" for the good 'ol U. S. of A.
Watchmen (both the novel and the movie) opens with the murder of former masked hero The Comedian, AKA Eddie Blake. Rorschach AKA Walter Kovacs, the only masked crimefighter who refuses to acknowledge the law banning costumed-vigilante activities, investigates and becomes convinced that someone is out to kill former "masks." Through Rorschach's quest to warn other former masks, we get introduced to other members of the short-lived team of heroes The Watchmen: Dan Dreiberg AKA Night Owl, Laurie Jupiter AKA Silk Spectre II, Adrian Veidt AKA Ozymandias, and the aforementioned Dr. Manhattan. As the story progresses we learn that The Comedian's murder is just one small part of a larger, more sinister machination that affects the fate of the world.
So now that we're all on the same page, let's look at how Snyder did in translating Watchmen to the big screen. In terms of casting, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Patrick Wilson both give solid, if not outstanding, performances as Blake and Dreiberg, respectively. The same goes for Matthew Goode as Veidt and Billy Crudup as Manhattan. Relative unknown Malin Akerman accomplishes what seems to be mostly required of her (looking really good wearing both the Silk Spectre and her birthday suit), but I feel that someone like Jennifer Morrison of House M. D. fame could have brought more talent and heft to the role of Laurie. And I'm not saying that just because I'd like to see Morrison naked, though full disclosure: I would. Carla Gugino shines both as Silk Spectre I in her pin-up girl prime as well as in scenes where she is an advancing-in-age Sally Jupiter obsessing over past glory. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Jackie Earle Haley (winner of numerous awards for his performance in Little Children) steals the show with his turn as Rorschach. Haley's performance stands head and shoulders above all others in the film, much as Heath Ledger's did in The Dark Knight.
The costume design, set design, and special effects are all spot-on and quite amazing to see. But there are several elements in the movie that I really want to focus on that I'll call things that the avid Watchmen fan was highly anticipating, and others they were likely surprised by. Okay, I need to explain that statement. As an example of the former, let's consider Rorschach's mask. Fans of the novel know that it's made of a fabric created by Dr. Manhattan that features a constantly shifting black pattern resembling Rorschach ink-blot tests (hence his name). While this was illustrated in the novel by artist Dave Gibbons continually changing the pattern of Rorschach's mask from one panel to the next, in any particular panel the pattern is static. However, in the film we can finally see Gibbons' vision realized in real time. It was awesome, and strangely almost hypnotic to watch the patterns continuously shifting and changing anytime Rorschach was onscreen, no single pattern lasting more than a second or two. I'm sure there were plenty of fans at the screening I attended who were geeking out over this as much as I was, just as I'm sure there are plenty of other moments, both big and small, that Watchmen fans are excited to see translated to film. As an example of something I suspect almost none of the fans (myself included) considered when thinking how Snyder would adapt Watchmen, I'd like to talk about the film's soundtrack.
Obviously novels (graphic or otherwise) are a visual medium, and while I don't know about you, I certainly didn't have any soundtrack or musical score running through my head while reading Watchmen. So I was quite struck by the soundtrack of the Watchmen film, in particular by a handful of well-known songs that were chosen to accompany certain scenes. As I said earlier, Watchmen opens with the brutal beating and murder of Eddie Blake. In the film the savagery of this scene contrasts sharply with the quiet beauty of "Unforgettable" by Nat King Cole, which plays throughout. Immediately following Blake's death the opening credit sequence begins to the tune of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changin'". I want to single this out for a second because I think it may be one of the best parts of the whole damn movie. We are treated to a series of scenes encapsulating fictional events of their world's history such as The Comedian's arrest of Molach the Mystic, and Mothman's apprehension by sanitarium orderlies, as well as scenes wherein characters from the world of Watchmen are inserted into historical events, such as The Comedian being revealed as the second gunman responsible for the assassination of JFK, or Dr. Manhattan greeting Neil Armstrong on the surface of the moon. Some of these scenes are obvious recreations from artwork within the novel (such as the famous Minutemen photograph), but while many others may have been alluded to I don't think we've ever actually seen them before. That's an immensely cool addition by Snyder, and in a movie that is already VERY dialogue heavy to begin with, I found it an inspired and creative choice to go this route and avoid voice-over narration or scrawling text to introduce us to the world of Watchmen. Back to the musical element, "99 Luft Balons" by Nena sets the mood for Laurie and Dan's first "date," "Sounds of Silence" by Simon & Garfunkel serves as a dirge during Eddie Blake's funeral, and "All Along the Watchtower" by Jimi Hendrix sounds the battle cry as Night Owl and Rorschach storm Veidt's Antarctic stronghold Karnak. All of these song choices are both ones I never would have thought of and near perfect companions to the scenes unfolding on the screen.
Let's talk in more detail about just what does unfold onscreen. Watchmen clocks in at more than two and a half hours in run time, and yet Snyder could easily have added another hour or more were he to include more from the novel. In that respect I think Snyder faced much the same challenge that Peter Jackson and his creative team faced when adapting The Lord of the Rings. There's just SO MUCH in those novels that even though the Extended Edition of the trilogy clocks in at a whopping 681 minutes (over eleven hours!) there is still probably more stuff that was left out. Snyder wisely trimmed the fat, or in another culinary analogy, he took all the ingredients Moore and Gibbons gave him, applied heat and reduced them down into savory goodness, boiling away unnecessary "filler." I realize that I may be setting myself up for flamage from purists who are filled with disappointment if not outrage that Captain Metropolis is essentially deleted from the film, or that the wrongful killing of Hollis Mason (the first Night Owl) is left out, or that the Tales of the Black Freighter story-within-a-story that Moore weaved in throughout the Watchmen novel isn't even mentioned (though we've been promised it'll make it onto the DVD, probably the Super Deluxe Limited Edition Director's Cut version of the film). And while some will protest these cuts and omissions, I'm not among them. Moore himself said that, "There are things that we did with Watchmen that could only work in a comic..." and while the Tales of the Black Freighter concept works brilliantly within the novel, I don't think it would have worked at all in the film. There's already so many flashbacks to different time periods in the lives of the main characters that there's really no room (in run time or otherwise) to include this sub-plot. Release it on DVD as a stand-alone if you want, but I say kudos to Snyder for leaving it out of the film.
I'd like to talk about two final elements from the film involving Dr. Manhattan. One involves how his character is presented in the film. I'd have to go back and look at the source material, but if memory serves throughout much of the novel Manhattan is drawn with what amounts to a Speedo covering his genitalia. In the film, Manhattan is only shown wearing this article a couple of times, such as when he poses for the Watchmen group photo, or while he's single-handedly winning the Vietnam War. For much of the rest of the movie Manhattan is completely nude, and often full-frontal nudity is shown throughout the film. I found this striking not only because I was surprised they could pull this off while maintaining an R rating, but also because if it really is absent in the novel (likely due to censorship reasons), it marks a bold choice by Snyder to show us a major character trait of Dr. Manhattan. One of the plot points and themes of Watchmen is the realistic "evolution" of a super-powered human. Superman has been described as a god among men, yet he devotes his life to the selfless protection of humanity. How likely is that? Much more realistic is the notion that possessing the powers of Dr. Manhattan as well as his perception of space and time serves to distance him from humanity. He's so far removed from being human that the self-consciousness and embarrassment of nakedness no longer applies to or affects him. It's an obvious, yet unstated insight into the Dr. Manhattan character. Kudos again to Snyder for including this.
Before I get into the final element, I have to issue a SPOILER WARNING. Whether you've read the novel or not, if you have plans to see this movie and don't want the ending SPOILED, read no further. Know that Snyder has presented a faithful and effective adaptation of Watchmen. Enjoy the movie, I don't think you'll be disappointed. If you're interested in reading my thoughts on the film's ending, continue to Page 2...