Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Watchmen Sets New Standard In Graphic Novel Adaptation
It doesn’t really shock me that one of Alan Moore’s main influences when writing the Watchmen book was the great and unique novelist William S. Burroughs. Both Moore, with Watchmen, and Burroughs, with Naked Lunch, are the minds behind two of the more unfilmable source materials eventually turned into films.
Long before Zack Snyder took the challenging task of bringing the celebrated graphic novel to life on the big screen, the concept of a Watchmen film had been attached to different production companies and many names, such as heralded directors Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky.
Nearly 23 years after the film’s initial rights were given to 20th Century Fox; the Watchmen film has finally come to fruition. All that now remains is the question of whether the film was worth the wait and whether the choice to film the once thought to be unfilmable was a smart idea.
Watchmen, which follows Rorschach’s investigation of the death of an ex-superhero, is a tough film to review. Considering all the different windows the audience could be looking through when viewing the film makes me fully realize what this film is to one might not be for another.
For starters, you’ve got your obsessed fanboy who has read the novel countless times picking detail after detail from the book’s deep subtext. Lower on the awareness chain are the viewers of my kind. These are the ones that read the graphic novel once after being mesmerized by the original trailer last summer. Last but not least are the members of the audience who are totally oblivious to the subject matter or the characters (don’t worry, that isn’t a sin in my book, just a fact).
For most films, making this distinction wouldn’t be important. But, folks, this isn’t The Dark Knight. Watchmen is a violent, gritty, strange, sprawling and extremely in-depth piece of work. This isn’t a film chock full of action. What it is though, is a story, and a complex and complete one at that. It’s a mesmerizing period tale set in an actively catastrophic, politically challenged and tense world of nuclear war threat ready to explode at any minute.
A diehard fan would hold this novel in the highest regard. It’s one of the most important graphic novels ever made. A one time reader like me would be hard-pressed to find themselves caring too much about every little detail, worrying mostly about the large plot turns and devices. A newcomer to the deep story might just end up slightly confused not getting what they expected.
Watching Watchmen was like watching the graphic novel come to life in a way I didn’t think was possible. Zack Snyder hit it spot on. His previous films, the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead and the 2006 graphic novel adaptation of 300 seem like child’s play in comparison to this sprawling superhero saga. One of the most important reasons for this film’s success is the perfect casting. Each character turned out exactly as I imagined they would when I was reading through the graphic novel. It would have been very easy for Warner Bros. to give a part to a big name actor rather than dishing out roles to the most fitting contestants.
The important thing to understand about these impressive performances is that they aren’t incredibly jaw-dropping in terms of acting ability, but flawless in terms of producing an accurate and believable portrayal of each character. None of these performances will win awards, but they don’t have to for this type of film to succeed. The film is undoubtedly fronted by Jackie Earle Haley’s fierce and sympathetic performance as Rorschach. The stand out performance gives absolute justice to the gritty character.
I can’t possibly touch on every performance but I will add that Billy Crudup played Dr. Manhattan in a never overbearing fashion, Patrick Wilson was an excellent Dan Dreiberg (Nite Owl II), Matthew Goode was a perfectly cunning and deceptive Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias) and Jeffrey Dean Morgan was ever so brutal as Edward Blake (The Comedian). The cast as a whole was entirely impressive and made this film what it was.
The most challenging part of translating Watchmen to the silver screen was bringing such a complex narrative jam-packed with philosophical themes and meaning down to a 163 minute film. Moore covered it all in robust fashion in 416 pages in his original text.
The first screenplay was written in 2001 by David Hayter before being handed over to Alex Tse to make revisions and rewrites. For all intents and purposes, these two faithfully captured all that was needed to be told. The backstories of characters that intertwined with the film’s present day events such as Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan were executed perfectly and Snyder handled them beautifully on screen.
The mood of the film was ever-changing, but with good reason. While not all the details are as you will find them in the graphic novel you would be troubled to find a more faithful and spot on adaptation of Watchmen than this. The talked about tweaked ending is simply a different plot device that results in the same outcome.
Visually, Snyder excelled. His keen ability to produce such visually impressive films brought the vibrant and colorful pages of the Watchmen graphic novel alive. He didn’t so much put his stamp on the film as much as he translated the story over. Snyder created a true Watchmen world as far as I’m concerned. Costumes and sets were impressive and truly helped engulf me as a viewer.
My one complaint about this absolutely satisfying film comes from the odd and strange musical decisions. Rather than opting to use just the original score by Tyler Bates, Snyder decided to use songs from the likes of Jimi Hendrix and others. While I particularly liked the use of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changing” in the opening credits, something about Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” didn’t fit the role. It was strange and out of place, an overlook by Snyder and the rest of the crew perhaps.
I can see newcomers not liking this film. I can see hardcore fans being obsessively picky. Not to say that if you fall into either of those two categories you’re doomed of not enjoying this film the way I did. While others might have found the film too long and over encompassing, I personally am itching to get my hands on the future director’s cut DVD.
Watchmen by all means isn’t perfect, but it is spectacular. For me, it sets a new standard of brilliance in graphic novel and comic book adaptations. The Dark Knight was one thing, but Watchmen is something of a different breed.