Who Watches Those Whom Will Watch The Watchmen?

Graeme McMillan of i09.com makes some important points here about Zach Snyder’s film adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, scheduled to be released next March.

…the sheer bizarre weight of excitement and expectation about the movie is overwhelming and offputting. The sheer fangasm that followed the release of the first trailer, with website after website putting up panel-to-frame comparisons to show just how faithful the movie is to the comic was insane; I don’t care how faithful the movie looks to the comic, it’ll still be unable to be replicate the level of depth of writing and experience of the comic, even with the already-announced spin-off DVD of Tales Of The Black Freighter filling in the gaps that they’re creating by only focusing on the shiny shiny superhero stories…

…There’s a level of worship that surrounds Watchmen (the comic), some kind of lack of critical perspective brought on by its historical importance, that tends to make people realize that, for all of its successes (On a technical level, it’s almost perfect, and still unmatched in its ambition to use the medium, for example), it’s not actually as perfect as many people think it is. If Snyder really stays as faithful to the source material as he claims, how will modern audiences react to the suspect gender-politics, heavy-handed party-politics or ridiculous ending that seemed so daring two decades ago, but now seem clunky and awkward next to Chris Nolan’s more complex (if ultimately as unsatisfying) Batmovie?

The comments thread on this post reminds me of the several times I’ve taught Watchmen in my literature courses over the years, as I’ve made a lot of those same points myself during class discussions about translating Alan Moore’s writing to film.  I’ll teach the graphic novel at least one more time before the film comes out next spring, and I’m coming to think of it as probably the last time my students will have a mostly textual relationship with the source material. Once Snyder’s film rolls out, future readers of Watchmen will inevitably suffer from what I’ve come to call The Ed Norton Complex (named, natch, after Mr. Norton’s portrayal of “Jack” in David Fincher’s adapation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, in which the narrator is essentially erased and unnamed), where the film version of a book skews a reader’s first encounter with the source text.  For the large part I have absolutely no problem with this skewing, and I even think this skewing is helpful in appreciating how much we really do read in a consumer culture that–strangely enough–is always telling us that we aren’t reading; Fincher smears the line between his film and Palahniuk’s novel to great effect, and Norton’s voice-overs in the film are lovingly appropriated from the source text.

But Zach Snyder is no David Fincher, and as I’ve noted before here on this humble blog, Snyder seems to revere Watchmen as much as he does filming a Miller Lite commercial.  Furthermore, I’ve said it plenty of times before in both class and casual conversation: if Terry freakin’ Gilliam says Moore’s Watchmen is freakin’ unfilmable, well sir, the freakin’ story is freakin’ unfilmable.


6 responses to “Who Watches Those Whom Will Watch The Watchmen?

  • Mario Bava

    What are you babbling about, you pretentious fop? They’re two different medium. Find me any novel that’s been filmed and I’ll find you passages and passages that informed the story, the historical context, gave us insight to the protagonist. Frankly, the book is at least in one sense a failure– it was attempting to raise all kinds of red flags against perceived fascism and who are the two most popular and enduring characters? Why, the biggest fascists of all– Rorschach and the Comedian. That said, I agree that seeing some giant vegetable alien lying in Manhattan is frankly moronic in terms of filming and contemporary sensibilities. And while your Terry Gilliam comment is provocative, since when did Terry Gilliam’s bloated, overlong, and frankly universally overbudget films (to the point that it’s nigh impossible to get him a big feature) become the gold standard for storytelling?

  • Mario Bava

    Oh, and one more thing… Despite its multi-layered, deconstructionist, and form-breaking content– the Watchmen is very much DATED. It’s a cautionary, alarmist tale warning of a pending nuclear armageddon. It’s Planet of the Apes as written by William Shakespeare and Stan Lee. Yes, it’s groundbreaking psychological approach to superheroes cannot be underestimated, but its complex structure will endure long after the rest of it is dismissed as paranoid, conspiratorial 80s fiction and the first comic with neurotic and psychotic superheroes.

    All that said, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything in comics that’s better since it’s inception. Fortunately, one of Watchmen’s strength is that there’s a lot more to the story beyond its ham-handed fear that Reagan would someday press the button.

  • trevor

    Heh…I’m certainly all about the foppery, Mario Brava, but we don’t know each other well enough yet to call me pretentious. Give it a couple more days at least. 😉

    You’re absolutely right that Watchmen is now a very dated text in terms of its politics. I realize now how mealy-mouthed my initial post came across when I said the “story” is unfilmable because my affinity for Watchmen is deeply tied to how textual it is; its plot, characters and settings are obviously very adaptable when moving into a different medium. These are all things that I’m not particularly interested in, so if it sounded like I was picking on Snyder’s project on those grounds, I am sorry for any confusion. Because what continues to delight me about Watchmen after all these years is its self-awareness as a text, how it—as you very nicely said above—simultaneously layers and deconstructs itself, using the conventions of the comics medium to push through a lot of the suppositions and stereotypes Anglo culture has about this particular artform. So in these respects, I totally agree with you: the “complex structure will endure” beyond any part of the story.

    I’d also agree that Moore’s politics in this time period aren’t particularly subtle, and in the dustbin of history they now look “ham-handed.” His fears of Reagan/Thatcherism veering into fascism do seem anachronistic to us now, but I don’t think that criticism resides with Moore; that particular problem seems more the Wachowskis’ and Snyder’s cross to bear. When we read Orwell, for example, we are able to situate his work within the socio-political time in which he was writing. The problem, I think, rears its head when the text is resuscitated in a different time for a different audience, and that’s part of my concern with dusting off Watchmen and sexing it up for the big screen.

    Also, your points about Comedian and Rorschach being ultra-fascists doesn’t inherently make Moore a hypocrite; he is certainly a leftist, but one thing you can’t honestly say about Moore is that he has a binary worldview. His sense and depiction of power has always seemed to me particularly informed by Michel Foucault; when that gets grafted on to something like a superhero comic, well, it can be a bumpy ride.

    What you’ve said about Terry Gilliam’s work (“bloated,” “overlong”, “overbudget” ) obviously says a lot about how you regard his films, and those are probably fair things to say keeping that regard in mind. I of course disagree; the rap about the lack of a “big feature” probably has more to do with Gilliam’s notorious unwillingness to compromise that has–to be fair–both helped and harmed his career. I never meant to imply that Gilliam is the “gold standard” for anything, but he does–like Alan Moore–have a penchant for testing the limits of what his chosen medium can do. And after attaching himself to the project in the 1990s and then wrestling with it for several years, Gilliam walked away, asserting that film isn’t a medium capable of rendering Watchmen’s complexities.

    Now, you and I obviously differ about Zach Snyder’s abilities and aesthetics as a director, and we’ll certainly see what he’s made of when the film comes out next March, but perhaps I’m too hopelessly (foppishly?) lost in the 1990s to think that Snyder is going to be able to pull off a film project Terry Gilliam came to regard in some measure as director’s fool’s gold. And certainly you would agree that there’s not a director out there who knows more about fool’s gold than Mr. Gilliam, no? 😉

  • Blog@Newsarama » Blog Archive » Variations on a Theme

    […] Dodge believes it’s unfilmable: The comments thread on this post reminds me of the several times I’ve taught Watchmen in my […]

  • Anonymous

    Terry Gilliam is a peerless fantasist but not really a director. He has the quite scarce power to turn the movie screen into a seemingly boundless vista of unbridled imagination, and his films are engaging to the extent that he gets to do just that. But in the end there’s not much more to him. Anything he gets his hands on either serves as a good pretext for letting him create astounding imagery, or it doesn’t; the film had better serve him, not the other way around.

    I am a fan of Gilliam’s, but I don’t kid myself about his strengths. A man with so much crackle himself is never an effective conduit.

    If, as you say, you value Watchmen’s text most of all, you ought shudder at the thought of it in Terry Gilliam’s hands, and be glad that its authority proved unassailable by his anarchy. He may have given up, but I’m more inclined to believe it had nothing to do with whether or not Watchmen could be made into a movie, and everything to do with whether or not it could be made into a Terry Gilliam movie.

    I have my doubts about its filmability, myself, even though its being Gilliam-proof isn’t one of them. What’s clear about Snyder is that his ultimate goal is to serve the source material well. In that sense, he is a far more capable director than Gilliam. He is in no way the visionary or the genius that Gilliam is, but that makes him better suited to this task. Watchmen needs no further genius.

    I don’t know if it can be done, but if it can, it would have to be a work of, more than anything else, devotion. This is so far the clear strength and talent of Snyder: his ability to put faithfulness to his source material before all else. It will be the purest Watchmen possible, which we could expect from no other director. If Terry Gilliam couldn’t do it, it only means that it couldn’t be done Terry Gilliam’s way. On the other hand, if Zack Snyder can’t do it–a man who has not only the egolessness but the clout to insist on Alan Moore’s concepts coming first–if that man can’t do it, it can’t be done.

  • trevor

    Couldn’t agree with you more, Anonymous, on your characterizations of Gilliam here. Also totally agree that Watchmen needs no further genius. I’d drawn that out further to say that Watchmen needs no further iterations or interpretations.

    I do not doubt Snyder’s sincerity in serving the “source material,” but I’m probably too far propagandized at this point by Moore to give *any* film made of Watchmen some run.

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