books to film

Book versus movie: Zack Snyder’s version of ‘Watchmen’ shows what is wrong with superhero films

The ‘300’ director is obsessively loyal to the landmark graphic novel, but it doesn’t work as a movie.

Alan Moore, often called one of the greatest comic book creators of all time, does not like film adaptations of his works. The British writer has had his name removed from each of the filmed versions of his comic books, including From Hell (2001), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), V for Vendetta (2005) and Watchmen (2009).

Moore recently announced his retirement from graphic novels, saying that he would like to branch out and perhaps explore filmmaking. It’s anyone’s guess if he will direct an adaptation of his books. When Terry Gilliam asked him early on in the 20-year production cycle of Watchmen how he would film it, Moore replied, “I wouldn’t”.

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Watchman (2009).

The film rights of Watchmen were sold soon after the first volume was published in 1986. Over 12 issues, Moore, with artist Dave Gibbons, created an iconic Citizen Kane of comics books, that used a wide array of cinematic techniques to deconstruct the superhero genre and place it in a real world setting. The comic created an alternate history of the United States of America, in which disgraced president Richard Nixon was still in power and the country won the Vietnam War. Watchmen channelled the apocalyptic fears of the Cold War era.

Numerous directors were considered for the job, including Darren Aronofsky, Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass. Gilliam and Greengrass both wanted altered versions of the original, with the latter wanting to update the Cold War setting to the Iraq war.

Before Zack Snyder’s version hit cinemas in 2009, it was one of the most eagerly anticipated movies of the year. Every casting decision and minor news detail were widely reported on fan sites. Snyder himself frequently referred to his devotion to the source material, saying that he carried around the comic book as a storyboard.

The released film is a faithful-to-a-fault version of the graphic novel, which uses most of the dialogue line-for-line, recreates almost every panel shot-for-shot, and, barring a few visually interesting elements, doesn’t really work as a film. Perhaps that is why Lost and Leftovers creator Damon Lindelof has decided to embark on a new television series adaptation of Watchmen.

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Watchman (2009).

Part of the reason for the film’s failure might lie with the fact that it came too early in the superhero cycle. The original comic book not only commented on the politics of the modern world but also on the superhero genre as a whole. What would happen if Superman really existed? Would he, like Dr Manhattan, be unable to really feel any kind of emotions to his fellow man, because of his God-like status? What would his presence mean for world politics and the fate of humanity as a whole?

For a Watchmen movie to be truly successful, it needed to have commented on superhero movies as a whole and the kind of ideologies and philosophies they put forth. In that regard, Alejandro G Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014) is a vastly superior unravelling of the superhero myth.

Perhaps, the greatest flaw is Snyder’s devotion to the original. He does not alter a single frame. What is implicit in the original is made explicit in the film, such as a key character’s involvement with the assassination of John F Kennedy and Watergate journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, further removing the graphic novel’s complexity.

In the 21st century, the Cold War, or fears of a nuclear holocaust, are hardly as current as they were in a world before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the unification of Germany. By not engaging with the politics of the modern world, the movie simply doesn’t have the power or heft of the original. None of the decisions made by the characters in the Watchmen film is of importance, and completely lose their relevance because we know about the real world outcome.

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Because Snyder refused to update or alter the material in any way, choosing to create a kind of motion comic book, the film becomes hermetically sealed. It isn’t in conversation with anything except itself. And much of what works in the comic book feels completely cartoonish when recreated on screen.

Dr Manhattan, a blue-coloured superman who was created in a laboratory accident, can never really be taken seriously. Rorschach, the most iconic character in the series for his hard-boiled narration and take-no-prisoners attitude, becomes a one-note character because Snyder saddles the actor who plays him with the much lampooned Christian Bale voice from the Batman films.

Snyder’s films have always relied on style over substance, a gimmick that worked for 300, and to a lesser extent on his 2004 remake of George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. On Watchmen, Snyder is uninterested in the plethora of ideas on offer in the 12 issues in the series. Snyder uses a jukebox soundtrack that includes the likes of hits such as Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changing and Simon & Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence without ever earning the feelings those songs evoke.

The best example of Snyder’s film references without any purpose is the use of Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in the Vietnam war sequence, which was great in Apocalypse Now (1979), but is completely meaningless in Watchmen.

In a way, Snyder’s efforts foreshadowed everything that is wrong with the superhero genre, particularly the movies based on DC comics. Not only are they overly reliant on the source material, refusing to adapt or alter the material in any important way, but they also almost never work as films outside of the genre or their self-contained cinematic universes. It’s always about servicing the characters and their superpowers first and the story second.

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Watchmen (2009).
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