Before my enforced absence from any form of communication, thanks to the inaptly named TalkTalk (I now have a phone line that crackles so badly I can’t hear the other end of the conversation, I can’t receive incoming calls, and I only have internet access while actually on the ‘phone) I was going to write about why I wasn’t going to watch the Watchmen film. But plenty of people have been doing that, in quite exhaustive detail, and I don’t have much to add to that. Anyone remotely interested will have seen the arguments, and if you’ve read both the book itself and the reviews that have appeared on the net (including phrases like “it’s full of ass-kicking and explosions, and who doesn’t like that?”) you’ll be able to draw your own conclusions about the film, and I genuinely don’t want to spoil the fun of anyone who does go to see it.
Nor do I think Watchmen is inherently unadaptable. I doubt there’s such a thing as an unadaptable work, though sometimes the only way to do the work justice would be to create an entirely different work with only the faintest connection to the original – see for example the Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufmann film Adaptation (and for those who’ve never done this, try watching that film back to back with Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, the Kaufmann-scripted adaptation of Chuck Barris’ ‘autobiography’).
The crucial thing to remember though when making a film adaptation is not to prize fidelity to the source material too highly. Fairly few films that are just straight adaptations of the source material have ever worked (the only one I can think of is One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest). To make an adaptation that actually works you must be ruthless with the source material. You can take a good novel and trim it right down, completely rewriting the plot, as in LA Confidential, or you can take a terrible novel, slice out the few bits that work and build an entirely new film around it, as in The Prestige. You can make a film about the unfilmability of the source material, as in Adaptation or A Cock And Bull Story, or you can transpose the events of the book into a different setting, as in Apocalypse Now. You can even take a terrible Harold Robbins novel and just stick in a load of scenes of Elvis singing Lieber/Stoller songs, as in King Creole, and get something watchable out.
But no matter what you do, the process of adaptation is one of selection and creation – no matter how faithful or otherwise you are to the source, you’re taking the elements that you think will work in the new medium and adding in elements of your own that you think will complement those.
With that in mind, here’s my idea of how you film Watchmen. The first thing to remember is it’s a comic, and it’s a collaboration, and that collaboration made it a success – this is something Snyder actually gets right, to an extent – he looked at the pictures. While you shouldn’t slavishly use the comic as a storyboard, you should at least look at Dave Gibbons’ art, and at the choices he’s made, and figure out why he made those particular choices – because everything’s there for a reason – and know why you’re making changes if you do.
My choice of director, were he alive, would be Robert Altman. Failing him, the Coen brothers would do a good job (as would Kubrick, though his films are probably too misogynist for what I have in mind). The film would be about 90 minutes long – I tend to agree with Hitchcock’s dictum that the length of a film should be proportionate to the size of the average bladder – and would be an ensemble piece. There are several threads going through the film, which never properly connect, but the characters bump into each other.
Our viewpoint character is Dr Malcolm Long, a middle-aged, overweight, friendly psychiatrist, a respectable black man of the kind usually played in films by Morgan Freeman. The film focuses on his relationship with his wife Gloria, and with one of his patients. While his relationship with his wife appears fine on the surface, he grows increasingly distant as he gets more involved in his work.
His patient, Walter Kovacs, is a serial killer who used to dress up in a mask and beat up – and eventually kill – criminals. In a series of conversations between him and Dr Long, we see in flashback the events that led him to be this way – his abusive mother, the Kitty Genovese murder (which in this film is the pivotal moment of the story) and the kidnap and murder of a small child. We also hear Kovacs talking about various other masked adventurers he knew in his past, but it’s never made clear whether these are real or people in his imagination. Kovacs has a nihilistic view of humanity, believing that nobody is truly good and that everyone is immoral – he thinks the Kitty Genovese story proves that humanity cannot be saved.
Every day Dr Long buys his newspaper from Bernard the newsvendor, who provides a sort of Greek chorus to the story, talking to the other Bernard who sits by the hydrant near his newsstand reading a comic. From him we learn that the world is facing nuclear holocaust any day, and that nothing appears able to stop it. Another customer of the newsvendor is Josephine the cabbie, who is having relationship troubles with her girlfriend (who I’ll call Geraldine because she’s unnamed in the source material) (ETA Actually she *is* named, once, in the comic, she’s called Aline), mostly because
Geral dine is a very political gay woman while Josephine desperately wants to be ‘normal’.
As the story goes on Dr Long’s relationship with his wife weakens, as we see Kovacs’ history and his own mental deterioration, and this is paralleled by the news from the newsvendor telling us the world is close to an end. The climax of the film brings all these characters, except Kovacs, together – as Dr and Mrs Long are trying to reconcile their differences, Josephine and
Geraldine Aline start fighting, very physically, and Malcolm has to choose between saving his marriage (his wife thinks he cares too much about people in general and not enough about her in particular) or helping someone who’s obviously getting hurt. He chooses the latter, thus proving that Kovacs was wrong and humanity *is* worth saving, just before a white light fills the screen and the sound of an explosion’s heard. We, like the characters, never know what killed them or why.
*THAT* would be a Watchmen film I would go to see. It would keep about as much of the material from the comic as Snyder’s version, be a hell of a lot cheaper to make, and almost certainly be a much better film.
What would *your* Watchmen film be?