The Watchmen Adaptation: The Good, The Bad & The Incomprehensible

by Patrick on March 16, 2009

The term “unfilmable” gets thrown around a lot with regards to novels.  In fact, I’d say most people don’t want their favorite novels made into films.  I’ve never been one of those people.  If they make a crappy movie out of The Epicure’s Lament then that might change, but I’ve never really seen the point of this argument.  Who cares if they make a movie of Revolutionary Road and everybody says it’s bad.  It doesn’t change the book in any way, does it?  I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong.

All of this is to say that in hindsight, Watchmen was unfilmable.  Oh, they filmed it alright, but they probably shouldn’t have.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had a movie-going experience quite like watching Watchmen.  It was obvious from the very beginning of the film that the director and art director were huge fans of the book and were committed to visually re-creating the feel of the novel and in many cases, exact images from it, too.  As somebody who had read the book, this was interesting, but I think it came at the expense of drama and tension.  There were other decisions the filmmakers made that I thought undermined the subtleties of the book.  Some of the choices they had to make, while others left me wondering who approved the final script.

The decision to more or less lose the intricate stories of the Minute Men and focus primarily on the Comedian/Silk Spectre  subplot was a good one.  While the first iteration of costumed crime fighters adds something to the general discussions of justice, commerce and celebrity, it wasn’t essential to the story of the book, and it was a good choice to cut.  Ditto the pirate comic book parallel narrative.  In the book, it’s an intriguing metaphor and a comment on the genre.  In the movie, it had no place, and I didn’t find myself missing it.  The only unwanted side effect of losing the Minute Men subplot is that the examination of gender inequalities (Why do all the female masked vigilantes have to be so slutty?) and sexuality are lost.  It’s not ideal, but it’s a sacrifice that had to be made.

Another area they probably should’ve sacrificed was the infamous “big cat.”  That was the point in the movie where I knew they had lost those who hadn’t read the book.  My wife made her “this is boring” sigh, a sure sign that she won’t give the movie a favorable review.  If they weren’t going to explain what Bubastis was and why he was important to the story, why have him appear at all?  All it did was confuse people and make them feel like there were things happening that they didn’t know about.  That’s how the viewer should feel early in the story, not at the end.

A few random observations:

  • I thought they handled the “Dr. Manhattan on Mars” chapter perfectly.  That chapter is the best thing about the book, in my opinion, and I thought it was mesmerizing on screen.  Billy Crudup’s monotone voice over fit the scene perfectly, and they executed the free-flowing, trance-like pacing of that chapter with ease.
  • The sex scene produced many groans and guffaws from the crowd.  Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as a soundtrack?  Ridiculous.  There’s an old rule in screenwriting that unless the scene is about the sex – the style of the sex, etc. – cut it.  This scene didn’t do anything other than make everybody in the audience uncomfortable.
  • The casting was pretty incredible.  With the exception of Matthew Goode, who I usually really like as an actor, and Malin Ackerman, who I’ve never been terribly fond of, I thought everybody gave strong performances and fit the roles well.  Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach was especially fun to watch.
  • I thought the manner Veigt used to kill his assistants at the end was lame.  Burying them in snow was much cooler.  My guess is that would’ve added another 3 millions dollars to the budget, so they cut it.
  • People really get uncomfortable looking at penises.  Especially when they are blue.  Lots of giggling in the theater I was in.
  • I found it very interesting, given the way we think of information now, that Veigt’s way of “knowing everything” was to have a bunch of TVs.  It fit with the time, but it did make his layer seem like nothing more than a cooler version of Elvis’ Jungle Room.  It’s always seemed incredible to me that Night Owl was able to construct an incredible amphibious flying machine but that a) Veigt was still using floppy disks, and b) his encryption was nothing more than a password (and not even one with numbers or symbols, at that).

For more on the Watchmen adaptation, check out Danica’s post about it.  I think she has some interesting comments on the different experiences of watching the movie as someone who read the book versus someone who hadn’t.  The folks I saw the movie with liked the opening quite a bit, but eventually got bogged down in the intricacies of the plot.

And for those who have read the book or are planning on reading the book, I’m excited to announce that it will be the next book in our wildly popular but sparsely attended Vroman’s Online Book Club! Stop by our newly revamped Facebook page for more details.  The book club is open to anybody who’d like to participate.

UPDATE: We’ll start discussing WATCHMEN on Monday, March 30.  That gives those who haven’t read it two weeks to tackle it.  Might be tough, but you should be able to do it.  And, because I think it’s relevant to the post, we still have the famous “Don’t Judge a Book By Its Movie” T-shirt.