Watch This Space

Twenty-three years after its publication, will the film version of Watchmen do its source material justice?

Feature by Erin McElhinney | 02 Mar 2009

The path from graphic novel to film for Watchmen has been long and not a little convoluted, involving lawsuits, big name directors coming and going, the writer disowning the project and enough online gossiping to make any studio marketing exec wet their pants.

Originally published in 1986, Watchmen was one of the titles leading the comics world into a new age of maturity – along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Art Spiegelman’s Maus – and respectability. Often unfairly seen as childish and clichéd, comics struggled to be taken seriously as works of art or literature; the sophisticated political and ethical debates presented by writer Alan Moore – and artist Dave Gibbons – however, changed this perception forever.

Set in an alternate 1980’s America – where Nixon is still president, the US won the Vietnam War, and nuclear annihilation is fast becoming a reality – Watchmen was deemed “unfilmable” by its one time director Terry Gilliam, and the project failed to reach the shooting stage more than once because of its bleak tone. Its ‘superheroes’ are actually – with one exception - all too fallible humans attired with interesting gadgets, now banned from plying their trade; their glory days over, they’re busy finding a life in the bottle, in naff product endorsement and dangerous levels of introspection. As Billy Crudup, the actor playing the only character with genuine powers, Dr Manhattan, describes it: “[Watchmen] imagines what people who dress up to fight crime might actually be like. What, psychologically, would be going on in someone who decided to dress up in a costume and take on thugs? There are obviously some people who are mentally imbalanced and sociopathic, and they're not all fighting for truth and justice…”

After over twenty years ‘in production’ and names such as Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass signing on and then losing out, Zack Snyder – a name created to eventually appear on a comic book movie, surely – ended up in the hot seat. His credentials – successfully bringing popular graphic novel 300 to the screen, a geeky love for the book itself – gave its legions of fans hope, after years of risible Moore adaptations (The League of Extraordinary Gentleman? Nuff said.) Snyder’s techniques of using the graphic novel as his storyboard, casting based on an actor’s talent rather than Hollywood collateral, plus his decision to keep the original setting, all boded well… but have been offset by a re-written ending that could potentially change the whole narrative.

Moore himself has always been amusingly pragmatic about the adaptations of his work, refusing to be officially involved and often going uncredited. I once had the rather singular pleasure of interviewing the writer in his tenement home, on the eve of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’s release. When asked how he could bear to stand by and watch his works mishandled, he took a large pull on his spliff and smiled: “The answer I always fall back on is what Raymond Chandler said, when people asked: 'Raymond, don’t you feel devastated by how Hollywood has destroyed your books?'  and he said 'Come into my study' and pointed to his bookshelf and said 'Hollywood hasn't destroyed my books. They’re all right there, they’re fine.'”

From previews, there’s no doubt that the Watchmen movie is damn pretty to look at – and its line of associated merchandising will no doubt do well – but should it fail to live up to the graphic novel’s die-hard fans’ expectations, Moore’s words may literally provide the only refuge.

Watchmen goes on general release from 6 Mar.