Way back in August, Calmgrove and I tag-team tweeted a review of Moore & Gibbon’s Watchmen, the seminal late-1980s graphic novel that set a high standard for all who aspire to write in that genre.
You can read Calmgrove’s recent non-tweet-based look at Watchmen here, which also sets a high standard, this time for reviewers.
I can’t add anything to Calmgrove’s analysis, so let me consider the film version (2009).
The movie closely follows the novel’s chapters (without the interludes), omitting only the Black Freighter meta-plot and a few other minor points (and also, interestingly, turning Ozymandias’ Antarctic domed Eden into a reconstruction of the Temple of Karnak).
The film’s director, Zack Snyder, essentially used the novel as a storyboard. If you know the novel well, you can match it, panel-by-panel, to scenes in the movie. Even the flat color palette, from the smiley-face yellow behind the Warner Bros logo, to Dr Manhattan’s blue glow, to the rust red of Mars — the visual comic-book effect transfers easily onto film. Sound effects (crunching bones, whooshing fireballs, the snick of a knife opening) add to the gritty noir flavor.
The film’s streets are dark and dreary, but our eyes are drawn to the people moving through them rather than to the environmental details. The characters’ backstories contained in the between-chapter interludes of the novel are squeezed into a quick montage of scenes behind the opening credits. Action is the focus here, with little time spent in calm reflection. Rorschach’s post-arrest interview with the prison shrink is perhaps the most important such moment, but minimized to a quick series of cross-cut shots — Rorschach looking at ink-blots/Rorschach remembering painful moments from his past. Knowing the novel makes it much easier to understand what’s happening in this scene; I found my self “seeing” content (Rorschach’s sad relationship with his mother) that wasn’t in the film.
Part of the fun of any book/novel set in the past is catching the historical references and then figuring out why they’re included. In the novel, readers can mine the panels for obscure references, but in the film images whiz by almost too quickly. Gone are the seedy street scenes with placards, posters and graffiti, gone the ads for the Nov 2nd rock concert by Krystalnacht opening for Pale Horse and the sandwich boards for the sci-fi movie retrospective at the Utopia Cinema (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Things to Come). Occasionally we see panoramas with the WTC’s two towers looming in the distance. It’s impossible to put those towers into any movie now without sparking either morose nostalgia or fearsome dread. The minute they appear, you know that NYC is doomed.
In addition to seeing the towers, we hear Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” playing as Dr. Manhattan wins the Vietnam War for the US, the huge round table in the Pentagon’s War Room while a 5th-term Nixon considers which level of DEFCON is most appropriate, Rorschach advising Night Owl to “Follow the money”. These and other references to classic films* provide a BINGO-like challenge for the viewers: how many can you spot?
Most interesting (as with all film versions of favorite novels) is how Snyder and his cast chose to portray the characters. Take Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach. In the novel, their backstories make them sympathetic, but their static features and poses, captured inside the panels, make them un-human. In the film, however, they’re humanized even when they act inhumanely. Dr. M’s calm monotone and R’s gravelly whisper, their tics and twitches, R’s final tearful command to Dr. M to “Do it” — neither can compromise his own view of the world, neither can live in the world as it is. I needed the film to help me understand them.
But this movie, like the novel, isn’t about non-stop action or spotting obscure visual references. It’s about good vs evil and what role each of us plays in this battle. It asks if violence is ever justifiable. It asks if we need monsters like the Watchmen to save us from ourselves.
The trailer is dark and menacing, perfectly soundtracked by The Smashing Pumpkins singing “The Beginning is the End is the Beginning” — an echo of Dr. Manhattan’s last words: “Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.”
*I hope you don’t need this info, but here it is, just in case: Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Kubric’s Dr. Strangelove, Pakula’s All the President’s Men.