Sunday, July 27, 2008

Watchmen: The Movie

The big star of this year's SDCC was absolutely the upcoming Watchmen film directed by Zach Snyder. If you saw The Dark Knight (which is most of America by now) you saw the trailer, and it sure does look purdy.

I must admit I was impressed with the teaser myself, particularly the way Dr. Manhattan was rendered. It looks great, the source material has an impeccable pedigree, and I trust Snyder to do the right thing on the whole. It's appropriate to be excited about the possibilities of The Watchmen, coming to a screen near you 3/6/2009.

But before we dump a a premature load, let's assess the bigger picture. In particular, let's remind ourselves of that old axiom from the wizened crazy bastard himself: Alan Moore. Alan has been very up front about his writing methods, and from an early stage he purposefully designed his work to be essentially unfilmable.

This is not a secret, it's been a source of debate for years. Attack of the Show covered ComicCon again this year, God bless them, and the first words out of Kevin Pereira's mouth when Snyder appeared for an interview was:

"I thought this was unfilmable? Sure looks like you got some footage to me!" I'm paraphrashing here. And the line was delivered with a good dollop of smugness. Snyder, to his credit, played along but with a good deal more respect.

I think the prevailing opinion at this point is that "The Unfilmable Watchmen" is a pretentious bit of nonsense propagated by an eccentric creator in love with his own genius. That opinion is incorrect. Let me explain.

First of all, what does it mean for a comic book to be "unfilmable"? I think we can at least agree that every medium has its own strengths and weaknesses. The novel, for instance, does really well with showing us the inner thoughts of characters. We're able to crawl inside people's minds and really see what they're experiencing emotionally and what silently motivates them. An author can describe this in great detail and it reads as satisfying. When it's done well, of course.

That sort of interior access is actually quite annoying on film. If you don't believe me, take a poll on how "Blade Runner" fans feel about the original cut of the film with the Harrison Ford voice-over. They HATE it. Inner thoughts and feelings don't translate on film very well, because it's visual. Filming a character thinking is essentially filming somebody doing nothing. And that's not very exciting.

On the flip side, film does things that text novels don't do quite as well. Oh, some hold to the idea that our imagination can produce more powerful imagery than anything you can put on film. Fine, I guess. In reality, film has a significant advantage of text when it comes to our favorite past times: sex and violence.

Would you rather see Uwe Boll's footage of Angelina Jolie's boobs or read William Shakespeare's description of them? Case closed.

The comic book medium has it's own set of unique strengths and weakenesses as well. It's a kind of novel/film hybrid. You get a good dose of visuals, although more stylized than a camera generally produces. You also get some text and at least the possibility of interior access. (although thought balloons have gone out of vogue)

I think comics greatest strenghths are A) The intellectual work the reader creates between panels to fill in the narrative. And B) The "static" nature of the visuals that can simulate dynamic motion, but simultaneously allows the reader to stop and study at their leisure. A movie basically demands that you follow along linearly at the director's pace. A comic book allows much greater user control and selective concentration.

So now that I've rambled on far too long about different mediums, what's the point? The point is that Alan Moore is a really smart guy, and he's dedicated his career to producing work that can either only be produced in comic form, or is rendered best in comic book form. And Watchmen is a part of the latter end of that equation.

Watchmen the comic book has a plot, and that plot can certainly be filmed. The question I would pose is: "Does Watchmen's greatness derive from its plot?" I think most students of the material would agree with me when I say that the answer to that question is an emphatic "no".

I'm not suggesting that Watchmen contains a shoddy plot. It works just fine. There is some legitimate drama in the "who killed the Comedian" mystery, and Ozymandias' scheme is epic, bizarre, and a lot of fun. But that's honestly not where the real juice is.

I think the most obvious example of why you can't film The Watchmen is issue # 5: "Fearful Symmetry". It's a virtuoso performance that can really only be appreciated in comic book form. To be brief the issue contains a series of visual and thematic mirror images. If you look at it front-to-back, you can watch the parrallels clearly. Greater minds than mine have annotated the issue extensively. There are hundreds of mirrors in play in varying complexity.

The magic is this, though: If you just sit down and read it straight through, it doesn't read clunky. All of those machinations produce a fluid narrative. It really is a remarkable achievement in storytelling.

And now I ask you: is Zach Snyder going to film fearful symmetry? How would you recognize it? When would you know to start looking for mirrors, and how would you know when the pair appeared in cinematic form? Would you know to attach significance to William Blake's "The Tyger" during that section of the film? (Moore pulled "fearful symmetry" from the poem as a thematic aid)

You can film a plot, but you can't film The Watchmen. And really, in 2008, why would you want to film a contemporary answer to 1980's Reaganite and Thatcherian politics? I guess it works as a period piece if you can remember what it was like in the 80s and want to revisit it.

It's a different world now. The themes and concerns of 1986 do not resonate in 2008. So what do you do? Change the themes and concerns like they did to V for Vendetta? I guess. But then, is that V? Will The Watchmen really be The Watchmen? I don't see how.

Don't mistake this analysis as a condemnation of the film. I'm not saying they shouldn't have made it. I'm not even saying that I'm not excited to see it. I find Rorschach to be one of the most compelling characters in comics history, and I can't wait to see Jackie Earle Haley's performance of that character. I think it will be rewarding to see that.

But at the same time, will the audience register that Rorschach is a post-modern take on the Golden age Question from Charlton? That's where the juice is. Will they recognize what a departure this nut job is from that innocent time and feel the pangs of what that "innocent" character would probably resemble in "real life"?

Of course not. We're in the post Watchmen, post Dark Knight (Miller, not Nolan) era. We expect our heroes to be psychopaths now. It's a bit of irony that because Watchmen created a different way of looking at comics, a modern audience can't really absorb the impact of it through this movie. It's become passe. You can film a plot, but you cannot film The Watchmen.

I'm not concerned that Watchmen the movie is going to be a travesty. I think it will be highly entertaining. My concern is that here we are in the Golden Age of comic book cinema, and now comes the most legendary of graphic novels. And I think that audiences are going to get to the end of the movie and say "this is the greatest example of the medium"?

Toward the end of the AOTS interview, Zach Snyder said "If the best I can do is make a 3 hour commercial for the comic, I'm happy with that." I hope that it does at least that, but most everything that made the book such an achievement will not be evident on the screen.

- Ryan

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