The Lord of the Rings trilogy retains the title of best fan-boy adaptation because rather than doing a faithful recreation of the source material, it faithfully reignited the feelings created by the source material. "I've always thought it would be cool if..." feels like the most successful mantra for these kinds of pressure-packed adaptations, and while Watchmen succeeds in several of these instances, it very rarely reaches beyond a lock step rendering of the classic book. The ultimate affect is like watching a concert where the band plays every song from their album, in order, almost exactly the way they recorded it. We all love the album, but we can hear those songs played that way any time. Give us something new.
For anyone who doesn't know, Alan Moore's landmark graphic novel "Watchmen" was part of the Class of 1986 which -- along with Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" and Art Speigelman's "Maus" -- planted the 'Comics Aren't Just For Kids' flag firmly on the roof of the Daily Planet. An ensemble of odd and tormented superheroes, complete with fetishes, insecurities and plenty of thoughts on human behavior all band together to solve a murder mystery and save the world. Sort of. Trying to sum up what Watchmen is about is like eating soup with a toothpick. It was the first big comic book to take a hard look at the guys and girls in tights and ask, "Why do they do this? And should they?" The success of such "serious" fan-boy projects since then can all be credited to this approach (and the "failure" of less serious projects -- I'm looking at you, Star Wars prequels -- came about because they felt out of touch with this philosophy). As if adapting a landmark book wasn't difficult enough on its own, the fact that it's happening 20+ years later poses the problem of context management: we've lived in the wake of "Watchmen" for two decades... so how do you capture that feeling of novelty?
Director Zack Snyder rode his studio-savior cred earned from 300 to wrangle away one of the most hotly sought after comic book properties since comic books. Many have tried to bring the ambitious and influential graphic novel to life on the big screen, taking the story through many different incarnations. Some versions eliminated key characters and scenes, some played up the action more than the character meditations, others -- notably Terry Gilliam -- proposed a multi-installment PBS special. Some versions updated the story from the alternative reality of 1986 where Nixon is still president to set it in present day America fighting the War on Terror(ism). Snyder is a fan of the book, so he made it his duty to wrestle the material back to its source.
The "get it back in" philosophy may keep away some harsh criticism from the fan-boys, but it proves ultimately counter productive to making a great movie. With this core belief at the center of his vision, Snyder inherently became more protective of material which, while wonderful in the book, does not make a great movie. And when you think about it (and this may be comic book heresy), but would an updating of the context have really been such a bad thing? When "Watchmen" came out in 1986, we were in the Cold War, Nixon was still alive and Vietnam still lingered in the nation's soul. I guess I'm glad we have moved on, but not for the sake of the story's impact. How does it benefit a 2009 audience to see a story so actively and "faithfully" out of touch?
Consequently, instead of doubling up scenes or mixing around dialog or any of the other tools a director might employ to adapt a complicated book, Snyder just kind of filmed the book as is. His answer to the hurdles facing the story length seems to be "Make it longer." Characters deliver more speeches than an Aaron Sorkin production, and while the ideas conveyed are interesting, they're so blandly presented sometimes you forget the guy talking can manipulate space and time. Which is sort of the point. I guess that's kind of the "Wow" feeling from the original book, that superheroes could be so meditative and speak about the existence of God and whatnot, but it's better on the page.
There is, of course, much to be praised in the film, and if you're a fan of the book you should know they don't screw things up completely. While character soliloquies may play better in print, the non-linear origins of big blue nudist Dr. Manhattan are masterfully handled. Everyone's favorite fascist loon Rorschack give the film its juice -- no pun intended. Easy standout Jackie Earle Haley got the coolest role and he makes every moment count. I was most hoping they wouldn't mess up Rorschack's stint in prison, and I'm happy to report they are nicely handled, combing all the action, excitement and humor from the book. It's also worth noting that the soundtrack, containing many of "our world's" songs from Dylan to Hendrix to "99 Luftballoons," is a masterstroke to give the audience a feeling that while this may not be our world, it is OF our world.
The ultimate question: who should watch Watchmen? I feel like it's for fan-boys who want to re-live one of their favorite stories in a new medium. But in the case of the general public, one who hasn't been living with Adam West shows and Silver-Age comics for years immediately preceding, the results will be mixed, and that comes from flat adaptation. When one of the Initiated encounters a newbie to the world of "Watchmen" through this movie, the newbie will probably enjoy themselves but wonder "That was the best graphic novel of all time?" The notes are there, but it's just not music.