Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Why The Watchmen Film Will Ultimately Fail

If you've been to see The Dark Knight, then odds are you caught the trailer for Watchmen before it. If you've read the original graphic novel the upcoming film is based on, you probably spent most of that two minutes trying not to crap yourself with excitement. If not, you were probably just like, "Oh, shiny stuff! And people in costumes! I have no idea what I'm seeing!"

This film has a lot of people talking, and for good reason. Watchmen is quite simply one of the best novels ever written, period. Not only is it one of my all time favorites, but it's so good, Time magazine even listed it as one of the 100 Greatest Novels Of All Time. And that's actual novels, not just graphic novels. Not many graphic novels have had quite as much influence as this one has.

(In fact, if you're reading this post and you haven't read Watchmen, just stop now and go find a copy. Trust me, you will thank me.)

It goes without saying that this will probably be the biggest release next spring. But as someone who has read Watchmen, and considers himself to be fairly knowledgeable about film and what makes a good movie, I feel pretty confident when I make the following statement:

The Watchmen movie just won't be that good.

I'm sorry, it just won't. Especially when you compare it to the original source material. The best we can hope for at this point is a movie that is fairly engaging and stays relatively close to the plot of the novel. But if you're thinking that this is going to be fantastic, or that it's going to live up to the book, I hate to break it to you, but you're wrong. It's just not going to happen. And there are three main reasons why:

1) Watchman is about as close to an "unadaptable" novel as you can get. Of course, everything can be adapted. But by "adaptable" I mean that a film version can be made that is good and lives up to the source material. Examples of this: Fight Club, Lord of the Rings, and Farewell My Concubine, among many others.

But Watchmen is just not in the same boat as those. It's the kind of story that ultimately can only work best as a graphic novel. Why? Because the author, Alan Moore, wrote it that way. He's directly stated that he wanted to show how the medium of graphic novels could be used to do things that literature and film can't do on their own. And you know what? He succeeded. Watchmen is the perfect mesh of those mediums' strengths. It has a well-developed plot and a level of characterization that even most regular novels are lucky to achieve. But it also has extreme visual depth. Every frame is meticulously crafted, and there are dozens of subtle details that not only make it visually come alive but also add to the overall experience of the novel. For example: certain pages have mirrored frames (where the first and last frames are almost identical, as well as the second and penultimate, and so on). Partially-covered signs and newspaper headlines provide insights into sub-plots and thematic backdrops. There's the recurring image of the smiley face and how it's manipulated... those are just a few examples, and I've only read the graphic novel once. I'm sure if I went back and read it again and looked closely I would discover tons more.

Not only is it near-perfect from a storytelling and visual perspective, but it also deals with complex and abstract themes that most novels and films are afraid to touch, because they're difficult to pull off well. We're talking pretty heavy, complicated stuff here: the meaning of life and purpose, moral objectivity vs. relativism, the meaning of justice, time and causality, human nature, etc. Not to mention that at the same time all of this is going on in the regular story, there's a parallel story in a completely different world and frame of reference developing simultaneously that develops these themes even more.

The bottom line is that Watchmen throws all these elements together and somehow it works. It's a beautifully written masterpiece, and manages to balance all of these elements together without collapsing under its own weight. And a regular 2-hour movie simply can't do that. That's why I say it's practically unadaptable - you would need at least a 3-4 hour period and an extremely talented director if you were even going to attempt to pull it off and do the novel justice. And even then it just might not be doable.

2) Hollywood doesn't have a good track record with other, lesser Alan Moore properties. I haven't seen From Hell, but I've heard it's not that good. V For Vendetta was awful. And don't even get me started on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I'm quite happy repressing that memory.

3) 99.9% of directors wouldn't be able to pull off a good Watchmen adaptation, and Zack Snyder is not part of that remaining 0.1%. Now, don't get me wrong, Snyder's not the worst filmmaker out there, and he has talent. Dawn of the Dead and 300 showed that he has the technical skills necessary to make a decent film. But does that mean he's right for Watchmen? Absolutely not.

Think about it this way. Dawn of the Dead was a zombie movie. 300, while it kept to the graphic novel, was basically just one big barbarian battle scene. In both of these cases, you don't exactly have a complex plot and a lot of three-dimensional characters to deal with. Yes, visually, they're spectacular. I'm not denying that Snyder knows how to make movies that are gorgeous to look at and stick closely to the graphic novel; that's his main strength. And if the trailer for Watchmen is any indication, he succeeded in that area. But one thing's for certain - if you're looking for complex themes and fantastic characterization, he's not the guy to turn to. He just hasn't matured enough as a filmmaker yet to pull that off.

In fact, if I had to pick someone to adapt Watchmen, there are only two people I can think of that could potentially pull it off. The first is Christopher Nolan. With Batman Begins and The Dark Knight he's shown that he can take comic-book characters and make films with them that aren't just action-packed, they're also very well-written and explore a lot of the same type of themes that Moore likes. And with Memento and Insomnia he showed that he's technically gifted and could probably do a good job of capturing the visual essence of Watchmen.

The other guy, my number one choice, would be Darren Aronofsky. Like Snyder, he's only made a few films, but he's already shown himself to be one of the most gifted filmmakers working in Hollywood today. With Requiem For A Dream and The Fountain especially, he showed he knows how to craft gorgeous imagery that is not only nice to look at, but also expands on the themes of subtleties of the overall work. Like Watchmen, each frame is meticulously crafted for a specific purpose, whether it's for visual parallels and mirror imagery, or to advance concepts and ideas. Also, with Pi and The Fountain, he showed he's able to handle stories and characters that are at times very complex and deal with some heavy, abstract themes. He knows how to layer his stories with different meanings and depth, and that's exactly what makes Watchmen so fantastic.

To sum up: Watchmen would be near-impossible to adapt into a film. That is, if you want to do it well. And if you're going to try, Zack Snyder is certainly not the guy you want at the helm. Yes, he's adapted graphic novels before. But Watchmen isn't just a graphic novel. It's a work of art. It's in an entirely different league altogether. And that is why, great trailer aside, this movie will ultimately fail.


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