First, go ahead and assume that I have put the phrase "for me" after every opinion stated here. I am not a film critic, a comic book critic, a literary critic or anything else that earns a salary for armchair analysis of other peoples' hard work. I am simply trying to react to what I've seen the best I can.
Second, if you're looking for a review of the film itself, or an analysis of how strictly or loosely it adhered to the graphic novel, Google "Watchmen+Review" and go to town. That's not what this is.
Third, I'm not looking for a debate. This is not a platform for you film nerds, comic nerds or just plain nerds to tell me how I just don't "get it" or that I "missed the point" or that I am otherwise wrong. If you read this and walk away with even one feeling about how wrong I am, you aren't really reading this, because last time I checked, opinions can't be wrong. They just "are." And it is in that spirit that I write this. I do, however, want to know how you felt about the film and / or the graphic novel itself, so go to town on that.
So, with all of that in mind:
I saw the Watchmen tonight. And boy, do I have some feelings about it.
The problem is, I haven't the first clue how to express those feelings. I'm just feeling stuff about it. And the only reason I feel compelled to even try writing this is because this is the first time in my life I've felt this way after seeing a movie, even all the others based on comic books and graphic novels.
I do know a few things, though, and they form the outline of this entire piece:
- This was not a bad movie.
- This was not a legendary movie.
- I don't feel betrayed as a fan of the graphic novel by the movie.
- I don't think this movie could have been made one day sooner than it was.
- I ultimately feel any movie based directly on a graphic novel written specifically for that format will fail to translate correctly (except for Sin City, which is the exception that proves the rule).
So, let's get started, shall we?
1) The Watchmen is not a bad film.
In fact, I'd say it was a cinematic masterpiece. Absolutley georgeous to watch. It never stalled, it never petered out, and it kept my attention the entire time. I felt absolutely estatic watching big-screen representations of Roarshach, Night Owl, Silk Spectre, The Comedian, Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandius. I felt 13 again, the age I was when I first read The Watchmen graphic novel. I felt 22 again, the age when I rediscovered it and read it with new eyes. I felt 32, the age I am right now, finally watching a movie that I'd wished had been made 20 years ago, but knew couldn't have been.
2) This was not a legendary film.
The Watchmen film will never be reveared the way The Dark Knight, Iron Man or Sin City are, for reasons entirely seperate from the extremely long analysis I'm going to go into in number 5 (and I know it's extremely long, because I wrote it first, and am now going back and filling in numbers 1-4. So I kinda know the future right now... Call me Dr. Manhattan). The story, even though it was told in its entirety, leaving out nothing besides some character building and exposition, felt completley rushed. It wasn't, but it felt that way. Such is the nature of attempting to tell a story in a moving format that wasn't ever created that way.
3) I don't feel betrayed as a fan of the graphic novel by the movie.
Let me say this right off: Dr. Manhattan TOTALLY rocked. He was perfect. He is probably one of the most interesting, challenging characters ever written in a comic or graphic novel, and he was absolutely nailed in this film. Night Owl was appropriately heroic and benign. Roarschach was fantastically maniacal, with a perfectly explained purpose. Every single character was done right, and honestly, the story of The Watchmen -- not the plot, but the actual story -- is the utter dissection of the Super Hero. And it was achieved here. All the visuals were great. All the little bits of reference were stuck in (except I didn't see Uchida from Domu hidden anywhere...). The costumes were perfect. The changes made in the film were understandable, and I felt that they explained themselves pretty well (except I would have liked to have seen the damn squid).
4) I don't think this movie could have been made one day sooner than it was.
The Watchmen is revered for its panel constructions and orientation. As much a classic for its story, its visuals are right up there in the halls of legend. And to accurately recreate those angles would take either a) the most insane camera crane setup ever devised, or b) believable CGI that doesn't get in the way of the story. And it's only now, in 2009, that we're starting to see this come about. You could argue maybe Lord of the Rings, but I dunno... Even then, some of the CGI was very obvious CGI - you just let it go because it was dwarves and elves and eagles dropping rocks on orcs... But when you start making CGI-reality, like buildings and people, you had better cross the uncanny valley, or things suffer... And this film did that. I will stop short of saying it's a film whose time has come, and instead say it couldn't possibly have been made with any sort of honesty to the source material before now.
And finally (and most in-depth)...
5) I ultimately feel any movie based directly on a graphic novel written specifically for that format will fail to translate correctly (except for Sin City, which is the exception that proves the rule).
Movie adaptations of books have their own hurdles, and for the most part, you will not find people who have read a book that a movie was based on who like the movie better. It is ABSOLUTELY IMPOSSIBLE to compete with people's imaginations. And that's why movies based on books get the chance to work, and often times do: We know this fact going into the movie. It's just plain not going to beat the book. It's like knowing that those parking lot carnivals aren't King's Dominion -- you allow yourself to have fun, because you know absolutely that it won't compare to the big theme park, so you free your emotions and logic to go focus on the fun you're actually having.
Graphic novels, however, end up skewing this quite badly, because they're a visual medium. You don't have to imagine what the characters look like, or what the scenery looks like -- even if you've never been to Paris and seen a Parisian, you don't have to wonder, because the artist of the graphic novel draws it out for you. She gives you all the visual cues you need to understand that THIS is Paris, THESE are Parisians, and Batdude and Wonderchick are there saving it from certain annihilation.
But there's a special problem here that, I would argue, is transparent to most observers (except for Scott McCloud or anyone who has read his absolutely genius dissection of the comic medium, Understanding Comics). And it's a problem that is ultimately magnified (quite a lot, too) by the initial concept that graphic novels make great storyboards for movies, since they're visual panels with dialogue that tell a story, and that makes it easy to turn them into films, right?
Well, no. Our problem is "The Gutter" - that magical place between each and every panel of a comic (or, the gap in representation from one page to the next) where the action "happens". You see, graphic novels are sequences of action, captured in frames from one moment of the action to the next. When you see SpiderGuy punching out Doctor Tako, you see a panel with his arm reared WAYYYYY back and his fist clinched tight, and then the next panel, there's a huge swooping graphic leading the arm to and past the villain's chin, with the punch having taken place already.
The punch happens in the gutter. You don't actually SEE it happen. There's no animation from frame A to frame B. All you see is that there was going to be a punch (in frame A), then there WAS a punch (in frame B).
The punch, you see, happens in your mind. Just like in a book... But in a far, far stealthier way. The artist and writer gave you milestones for your imagination to do the work. Take this sequence, stolen liberally from Understanding Comics:
Tommy has told us about his toy robot. 16 frames have represented a show-and-tell session, where he explains his toy and shows you how it changes from a robot to an airplane. Yet, not once have you seen his mouth move, nor did his hands change the toy, nor did the robot actually alter form into an airplane. We just saw pictures representing moments in time for each of these events. That robot changed to an airplane in your mind. Tommy's voice? You heard it in your mind. Scott McCloud just gave you a map from point A to point B... You did the driving.
You can film a graphic novel frame by frame, staying as loyal to the source material as you want... But with graphic novels, you get a "pass" on certain points of exposition. Readers intrinsically understand that there are intense processes that happen between the moments represented in each panel... Thoughts, feelings, deed, action. You get away with jumping from motivation to motivation or from action to action because the time that passes between each representaiton is actually taking place in our heads. We're thinking of how much Peter Smith loves Mary Jane Whatsup, even when he's not talking about it, because we read these graphic novels at the speed of thought... And between each panel, whether lightning quick or in moments of dwelling on the subject, we're filling in feelings and thoughts and deeds where none are represented.
And that's what makes them so special... And impossible to film.
I'm no student of film, but I do know one thing from watching TONS of them - no film gets away with letting time lapse in a viewer's mind. When we're watching film (or tv), we're basically hopping in a story rollercoaster and allowing the track to take us where it's going to take us. And, with very very few exceptions, we DO NOT GO OFF THE RAILS. If you don't give it to us, Mr. Director, we don't have it. In fact, it could be argued that if we do go off the rails, the filmmaker has probably failed.
The greatest films are the ones that give us everything we need to piece together the story, even when we don't realize it. We had no idea that Rosebud was Kane's sled (God, I hope I didn't ruin the movie for you), but when we DO realize it, we also realize that, somewhere deep inside, we knew it all along. It makes sense the way the best endings do... By coming to a conclusion that, once reached, seemed inevitable, even if we wouldn't have guessed the ending ourselves.
And that's the rub. To get that sort of conclusion, you have to give us all the important bits along the way. The difference between graphic novels and movies is very much the difference between someone describing a tiger by pointing at a striped pattern, and someone putting together a jigsaw puzzle of a tiger. One allows some leway when being told about a tiger, but if I'm putting together a puzzle of one, I'd better have every piece in front of me so I can make the whole picture. Even though it starts out a mess, all the pieces are STILL there by the time I put it all together.
In our example above, to film it accurately, you'd need to get a child who embodied the very concept of "learning to explain." He couldn't be confused, but he'd have to be naive. He isn't excited to explain a single thing to you... In fact, Tommy couldn't care less that you understand him, so long as you GET IT. But he's excited to be showing the toy to others.
And that's just the Tommy in MY head. How about yours?
And yet, the whole thing is representative of a storyboard of a child showing us a toy robot that turns into an airplane... The problem is, that's the whole of the story. Scott wrote that sequence SPECIFICALLY so that the magic of movement from start to finish took place in your head. To adapt it to film is to show you the sequence actually happening, which diminishes the impact and the magic of the final product.
Inevitably, someone out there (maybe most of you out there) are thinking "Yeah, but what about Sin City?" Why Sin City works as a movie is precisely why Watchmen doesn't. You see, Sin City is Frank Miller's comic book take on crime noir. It's written from films as inspiration and source material... To translate that back into film isn't a stretch. There's little that happens in the gutters that is fantastic or strange or outside the bounds of physics or "reality" (as it has been presented in noir since its inception). It's a comic book version of film.
Watchmen, though... Alan Moore is a legend of comic book writing for a very good reason -- he has mastered the form in a way few others have or even can. His brand of writing not only includes and makes use of the exposition that takes place in the reader's mind between panels, but relies on it to tell the story right. Alan has absolutely mastered the "signpost" method of storytelling, giving us exactly what we need as readers to go build rich backgrounds and deep emotions for these characters he's written for us. He plants the seeds which take root and thrive in our minds, and then harvests the fruits as they blossom.
And that's where everything starts sticking in my mind with the Watchmen film. Because it's probably the absolute best possible movie that could be made from the Watchmen graphic novel. To compare it to other movie adaptations of Moore's work is to compare a Ferrari to a Yugo (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), a horse-drawn buggy (From Hell) and a souped-up, riced-out Honda Civic SiR (V for Vendetta). It's not fair. It's not even close to fair. Watchmen is the absolute closest, most faithful recreation into film of all of Alan's stories.
And yet, it still fails to give that magical feeling we get when watching Sin City as a comic book adaptation. And it fails to give us that tingle that Spiderman and Spiderman 2 gave us as retelling of classic superhero fantasy. And it fails to absolutely nail the "superhero story that could actually happen in real life" feeling of The Dark Knight. And that's because that particular story was written specifically as a graphic novel, with all the magical goo that happens in the gutter as a primary contributor to the story itself.
If the movie had been adapted (well, further adapted, since some changes from the graphic novel version were made... But by this I mean taking the source material and writing an entirely new story around it, like V for Vendetta was), it would have failed just as horribly as V and Leauge and From Hell. It would have been seen as yet another example of Alan Moore being right, that his stories cannot be filmed. It would have been lamb-basted in the press. I would have hated it, and you would have hated it, and everyone would have hated it because it'd basically be pissing on The Holy Bible of graphic novels. So thank God that didn't happen.
But is this any better? Have we proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that faithful recreation of a graphic novel (written specificaly as a graphic novel) is impossible? I don't think so. I don't know that there will be a director in my lifetime who will be able to do it, but I refuse to say that there won't ever be one.
What I will say, though, is that there is absolutely an inverse proportion between level of talent of a graphic novel writer and ability to re-create it as a film. I will say that the current trend of Hollywood essentially scooping up graphic novels and using them as the storyboard for multi-million-dollar vehicles for directors to "get it right" will eventually wane. I will say that The Dark Knight is pretty much the pennicale of the graphic-novel-property-movie (with Iron Man being the steep face leading up to it... And if you haven't read "The Long Halloween" [the story that much of The Dark Knight is based on], you owe it to yourself to do so immediately). But there's a caveat there:
I also believe that, more and more, we're seeing graphic novels written by their writers SPECIFICALLY to become storyboards for movies. I believe that you'll see the next Sin-City-Quality film translation of a story in the next five to ten years, because right this second, graphic novels are as close to being revered by the mainstream as they're going to be for a long, long while. Hollywood has finally decided to bless this medium with "validity", which means that the sixteen year old sitting in her bedroom dreaming up the next ElfQuest is probably doing so picturing the story like it might be in a movie...
And I suppose that's fine by me. So long as we keep getting more Brian Wood's and Brian Azzarello's and Garth Innis's and Mark Millar's (who is hardly a newcomer), I'm going to keep buying new comics and allowing them to take me over for a while. Even though I have made most of my career from writing short stories and books, I take a HUGE amount of influence from writers like Dave Sim, Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. I do my very best to make up for my lack of frame-by-frame storytelling by creating as vivid a picture in a readers' mind as possible, then jumping to the next frame with my narriative, creating a "gutter" for you to fill in with your imagination. I'm not saying I'm very good at it, but I do try.
So there's my take on Watchmen. I can't decide if I like it or not, even though I DO think it was a good movie, and I did find myself absolutely giddy with each and every scene. I thoroughly enjoyed watching it, all the way to the very last second, and the moment the credits rolled, I felt let down. Not because of anything the movie did, but because of all the things it simply couldn't -- nor will films ever be able to -- do.