Filming The Watchmen

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 Geraldine 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?

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13 Responses to Filming The Watchmen

  1. pillock says:

    Oh man, I’m really gonna have to think about that…!

    Off the top of my head, I’d say the way to do it would be to establish Laurie as the protagonist and main thread, and parallel her with Dan. Pretty straightforward, I guess: personal histories, but Laurie’s we delve into and Dan’s we merely discover as the plot moves along. Jon’s soliloquy is probably just as essential and just as poorly-fitted to filmic treatment as was Valerie’s story in V For Vendetta…I struggle to know what to do with that one, Jon’s simply the personification of the theme after all! I suppose plot-wise it fits in well enough: Jon leaves Laurie and returns briefly to the desert before heading to Mars. All the flashbacks could be reorganized to fit well enough into either Laurie’s “strand” or Dan’s…Dan’s would have Hollis in it. The Comedian’s effect on each character would be what unifies all the flashbacks…with the last of these saved for Adrian, since his moral reaction to Blake is the seed of apocalypse, and in many ways the horror of the story. What he does, exactly, I don’t quite know…

    Hmm. Interesting puzzle! I’ll have to think on it a little more…

  2. issa says:

    awesome post! while i do love the watchmen movie (faithful adaptation to the comicbook aside), your idea is also great! even w/o superheroes, your movie will also show the core “value” of the story: humanity is worth saving (or not.. hehe)

  3. pillock says:

    Ah! Black Freighter. I’d add it in like spice where things seem to flow less well…with different voices narrating, at first Dan’s, then Adrian’s. I would leave out the Rorschach issue entirely — at this point in filmic time no one needs to hear any more characters explain their psychosis…we’ve gotten quite enough of that, even in romantic comedies. Let Rorschach be a mystery…maybe something happened to him, to make him turn all weird. Maybe he was always weird. No one knows. Anyway no one really knows him, not even Dan. He’s the anti-Hollis. No psychiatrist. In a movie he can stand for all that stuff himself, without help.

    And so when he rips off his mask and says “DO IT!!!”, there will always be a mystery there…

    Last person to do the Black Freighter voiceover is Laurie. Still don’t know what my version of Adrian’s plan is. Just a wee bit more thought, I think. Wrote this when I was drunk. It sounds okay though, right?


  4. Jog says:

    Obviously, Watchmen could only properly be adapted and directed by Peter Greenaway, the Welsh legend of willfully aestheticised shock and taxinomical anality. The Moore & Gibbons narrative would exist primarily in the background, since, as we all know, the cinema is inferior to literature in regards to narrative, and must embrace qualities of ‘still’ visual art to meaningfully flower.

    As such, emphasis would be placed on cataloguing iterations of superhumanity through visual representation. By way of example, Rorschach’s attributed settings (the Apartment, the Prison) would be redolant with citation to painting from the Italian Baroque period, instantly suggesting the ‘spiritual’ nature of the hero’s drive through such Catholic-born imagery yet critiquing the Objectivist source of his mission via ironic analogy to the religion of empire. In contrast, Nite Owl II, while likewise Baroque in his lair, would showcase greater fealty to the so-called “genre work” (one of many quiet puns to be included) of the Dutch Golden Age, that leading movement toward areligious naturalism and, thus, the character’s more pliable humanity.

    Both, of course, as human actors, will move in the same higly formal manner: that of their greatest artist, Steve Ditko. Each gesture shall be a Ditkovian pose, uniting them as superhuman brothers and departures from ‘human’ (polite) society, the crux of the Moore/Gibbons genre critique. Every superhero shall pose, and their conversation would serve the ‘plot’ second, and ideology first; ”realism’ is not the answer, as only interrogation of the form can grip the cinema’s power and affect the intellect. Only Dr. Manhattan, the ‘true’ superhuman, may walk freely and naturally, his nude form itself properly proportioned in the ‘classical’ godly image, as fortuitously was the Moore & Gibbons intent – contrast to Ozymandias, his monuments and sprawling architecture dwarfing him as but a human. Likewise, the camera must linger on the (frequent) nudity of Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II, their imperfections beautiful and their bodies soft, yet their posture like wood before the steely relaxation of the always-nude Manhattan.

    There would be no ‘main’ characters, although some ‘story’ progression would be conveyed in puzzle form through the defeat of 92 villains, the Comedian being the first; some will be obvious, some less so. Always, the heroes will be bloodied by their overt encounters with villains (in Prison, on the Streets), although their wounds always heal, while fallen foes become framed in exact citation to classical portraiture, truly simple humanity ‘sealed’ by aesthetic by artists-superhumans. As you have already guessed, Ozymandias is the 92nd villain, both reinforcing the (fearful!) symmetry of the work — through the Comedian’s status as likewise superhero yet also the first villain — and offering some conclusion as foe that cannot be bested, the presence of Uranium (atomic number 92) as the everlasting fear of the Cold War and, paradoxically, the defeat of Ozymandias’ effort for peace symbolized by himself.

    And, obviously, Ozymandias would unleash the squid thirteen minutes ago, but you could have figured that out on your own!

    Rated NC-17.

  5. Hexar says:

    I disagree in that I think that Watchmen is, if not completely unadaptable, damn nearly so.

    Between the twenty years that have passed since its release and the amount of influence that it has had on the entire superhero genre, I can’t conceive of anyway that the movie could be made that would be faithful to the spirit of the original, coherent, watchable, and under four hours.

    /with the caveat that I have not read the comic in years, so perhaps there some things that I’m missing.

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  7. pillock says:

    Suddenly I feel like Charlie Brown: “I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsy, but I changed my mind.”

  8. Holy shit, Jog’s even more of a genius than I previously thought. This is a fascinating discussion, especially because I find the idea of adaptation interesting. The idea that something can be transported from one medium to another almost completely intact seems to be ridiculous, and movies like Watchmen (which I haven’t seen, but I have seen the likes of Sin City and 300) prove that very well. It just seems pointless, outside of the novelty factor. I would say the same about comics that do this with film, especially “cine-manga” that uses actual screen captures. Or Marvel’s Stephen King adaptations, which, even though I haven’t read the source material, seem to be so faithful as to drain any sort of spark from the stories. It does seem that the best adaptations do exactly what Andrew is talking about, taking what works best for the medium and making changes to make it work; I would rank something like The Shining, or Atonement, are great examples.

    As for Watchmen, the cartoon version that’s been going around the web lately is pretty funny, since it knowingly subverts the original material, but also the way adaptations like Snyder’s kind of file off the rough edges to make the material more palatable for the masses, along with the bizarre multiple personalities that superhero comics seem to have these days, presenting themselves as fun for kids while cramming in lots of adult material in a misguided attempt to make them more mature. Here’s a link, if you haven’t seen it already:

  9. pillock says:

    Okay. Damn it.

    Try this on for size, Andrew.

    The movie follows the deliveries and usages of products which are ultimately owned by Adrian Veidt’s companies. Right down to sugar cubes. After the death of the Comedian (which actually happens), Rorschach visits mild-mannered Dan Dreiberg and tries to convince him there’s a conspiracy against ex-masks. Dreiberg doesn’t believe him. Rorschach says he’s going to visit Dr. Manhattan.

    Dan tells him there is no “Dr. Manhattan”. Doesn’t he remember? They made it all up for the Crime-Busters?

    “What about the Watchmen?” Rorschach insists.

    “The what-now?” asks Dan.

    Rorschach mentions how he always knew Nixon had bigger bosses. Maybe he’s a homosexual.

    Dan says: “Nixon? Like Richard Nixon?”

    Rorschach leaves, and goes out on the street. It is obviously 2009: people are dealing with their Blackberrys, meeting up for Thai food, using Malaysian slang. Fourth-generation Indian girls date blond-haired white guys.

    As Rorschach walks out in the rain, the caption reads:

    “New York City. 1985”.

    Rorschach’s diary is read, in his voice, as he wanders through the streets, his mask shifting. When he gets to a big art-deco building, he looks up, as the diary reads he’s looking down and whispering “no”.

    Inside the building: there are women’s screams, then a door is kicked viciously down. Two lily-white hands lurk behind the green lawyers’ lamp. Rorschach stumbles in on what are obviously very stupidly high-heeled boots.

    Secretary: (from off) “I’m sorry, Mr. Veidt! I couldn’t hold him this time!”

    Adrian: “That’s all right, Sharon. Rorschach, how many times do I have to tell you…”

    Rorschach: (pointing) “Know what you’re up to, Veidt!”

    Adrian: “‘Veidt’? Jesus, you can’t call me “Adrian”?”

    Rorschach: “Won’t get away with it!

    There are a bunch of Veidt statuettes on a shelf — Rorschach attacks them (unsteadily on his high-heeled shoes), scattering them to the floor.

    Rorschach: “Find out your code! You always make mistakes, Veidt!” He lunges at Adrian’s desk. For the first time we see there’s a guy sitting there across from Adrian — it’s Doug Roth. He looks scared. Adrian’s hands, gold bracelets.

    Adrian: “Look…look, ‘Rorschach’…” They play “Torture” for a few seconds. Veidt is obviously not trying very hard.

    Rorschach: “Won’t let them take me alive!” He rushes out.

    Adrian: (flipping a switch on his desk) “Security? Just let him leave. Don’t get in his way.” pause “Just…don’t.”

    Adrian: (to Roth) “I’m sorry, Mr. Roth…you were going to ask…?”

    Roth: “Your…your ibocaine factories…”

    Adrian: “It’s okay now.”

    Roth: “Your ibocaine factories…Mr. Veidt…”

    Adrian: “It’s Adrian, Doug.”

    Roth: “Right…right. Anyway. Since the implosion of the CIA ten years ago…”

    Adrian: “I can’t really comment on that…”

    Roth: “And thus the end of American exploitation of the coca fields…your Indigene Foundation has given…do I have this right…twelve million dollars, to Doctors Without Borders alone…”

    Adrian: “Doug, those were supposed to be anonymous donations…how did you find that out? You know I’m going to need this part of the interview edited…”

    Rorschach on the street, in the driving rain, huddled behind/against a trash can.

    V/O Adrian: “If everyone knew how much money I give away…can I be frank? Off the record?”

    Roth: “Sure.”

    Some passerby throws Rorschach some money, a handful of nickels.

    He tries to eat them through his mask. It doesn’t work.

    V/O Adrian: “Because some of my charities, if it was known I give to them…

    Roth: “Sure.”

    V/O Adrian: “Well no one else would give to them, would they?”

    Ginga Diner Girl: “Mister?”

    GDG: “Mr…Mr. Rorschach?”

    Rorschach: “Hrm.”

    GDG: “My Auntie says, you should come in and get warm.”

    Angle on R. He drops the nickels. In a gravelly voice, he says:

    Rorschach: “She’s a good woman, your Auntie.”

    GDG: “Sure she is.”

    Rorschach: “Faithful. Not like those scum…”

    GDG: “Mr. Rorschach, please come inside. You’ll catch your death of cold.”

    Rorschach: “I would hate to see…them get ahold of y…” A trash can shifts behind him and he falls and hits his head. GDG rushes forward.

    GDG: “Oh, Mr. Rorschach!”

    Rorschach: “Hrm. Don’t worry about me. Can’t be hurt.”

    GDG: “Yeah…” She helps him up, practically carries him inside

    Rorschach: “Can’t be…can’t be hurt…always bounce back….human rubber…hrm, hah, Indian rubber…(repeats initial lines from Diary; “no” comes as GDG hauls him inside.)

    Dan in his apartment. Buzzer goes, and he hits it, hears a woman’s voice. It’s Laurie.

    Dan: “Hello?”

    Laurie: “Me, Dan.”

    Dan: (pauses) “Laurie, you’re supposed to say the password. We agreed.”

    Laurie: “Fuck you and your passwords, Dan, do you know how hard it’s raining out here? Fucking little boy, no wonder you haven’t been laid in three years except by the lowest self-esteem bitch in the UNIVERSE! What is this, a fucking Encyclopedia Brown myste…? Christ, OPEN THIS DOOR THE FUCK UP!”

    Dan: (pushing button, turning away) “Yeah, well…it’s you all right.” (He turns to the window and suddenly sees the Comedian going out of it. It’s an hallucination. He’s gobsmacked. Little pieces of glass seem to shower on his arms, get caught in his hair…he brushes them out…)

    SLAM! Laurie walks in.

    Laurie: “Holy fuck, leave your hair alone for once, honey.”

    Dan: “I…I…”

    Laurie: (sits on couch) “I brought a video. One of your favourites, you old freak.”

    Dan: “Which…?” Bits of imaginary glass fall from his arms, making musical tinkling noises as they hit the ground.

    Laurie: “‘Captain Blood’ Though why I endure your LAME obsession with these old movies I don’t know…”

    Laurie: “…Gotta admit, Errol Flynn is kinda sexy, though…”

    We are looking at Dan’s face, close up on his right eye…reflected in it is a city in flames…you know how. To imply the smiley-face. Vague violent shapes move in the reflection.

    Dan: “Ah, God. I feel like…”

    Laurie: “HONEY! I got this for YOU! You’re not getting any less fat, you know…”

    Dan: (his face still) “Yeah…I know…” Turns away from the window…for a moment we still see the flames, peeling off to one side briefly, as if set free. Shadows seem to buckle around Dan, costume-like. Then he goes and sits down.

    Laurie grabs his hand.

    Laurie: (softly; we’re surprised by the softness of her tone) “What’s wrong?”

    Dan: “Nothing.”

    Laurie punches him really hard on the upper arm, and grimaces. “You’re dumb,” she says, again softly. “I feel bad all the time.”

    Dan: “I know.”

    Laurie: (twining her arms in with his) “I got this for you. Let’s watch it.”

    Dan: “Okay.”

    AND THUS ENDS THE FIRST SCENE. With Dan and Laurie watching “Captain Blood”.

    I know, I know…I shouldn’t’ve hit “Submit Comment”. Oh well, too late now.

    Anyway my Watchmen is just like “The Man In The High Castle”. There’s another history out there, not necessarily good, but anyway we can’t get to it. Really can’t. Just the refuse of somebody else’s dream.

  10. Oliver Townshend says:

    A police whodunnit, as two sardonic wisecracking police try and solve a murder involving nuts who dress up in costumes and beat the crap out of each other. If they don’t solve the murder the world might end…

    they don’t.

  11. pillock says:

    Shit, that’s what I meant to say!

  12. Justin says:

    It’s tempting to say a documentary-style “Under the Hood” out of utter fannishness, but what would be the point, really?

    Instead, let me say I think the biggest hurdle a Watchmen movie faces is that other movies have beat it to the punch in satirizing superheroes. I mean, hell, a friend I saw the movie with who’d never read the book said “It’s kind of like a serious version of ‘The Incredibles’.”

    So my solution? Make the Comedian the main character and follow his life story.

    He interacts with every superhero character and discovers the “master plan,” so although you lose *plot*, you don’t lose much *story*. You don’t lose Rorschach or Nite Owl or Dr. Manhattan, and for sheer practicality, focusing on one character makes the narrative less sprawling and easier to fit into two-and-a-half hours or whatever.

    But the best part about making the Comedian the central character is that he’s the outsider and can probably best comment on superhero conventions. Snyder’s Watchmen is far too reverent, both to the source material, but also to the characters; too sympathetic to the point that Nite Owl comes off more traditionally “heroic” than in the book, Dr. Manhattan slightly less detached, Rorschach a gritty action movie star.

    But the Comedian could cut through all that. Only he’s critical enough to guarantee that Nite Owl comes off as a doughy nostalgia fetishist, Dr. Manhattan an increasingly detached demigod, Rorschach a paranoid nutjob. Only he is going to say “Have you ever thought the world would be better off if Superman and Batman were real? Well, you’re wrong.”

    The movie ends with the Comedian dead, and the world in the hand of the superheroes … the ones the entire movie has just assured you are among the least capable people of handling the job.

    Directing? Saying Kubrick’s probably too obvious, and I can’t help but think he’d be exactly ruthless enough to cut up the book that way and really run with such a horrible protagonist.; I’d like to think he’d be brave enough to realize that putting superheroes in spandex is going to look sillier than sculpted rubber armor, but that *that is the point*. Other than that … I thought Tarantino for a moment just because he’s so crass and brassy, but he’s maybe too much of a Dreiberg himself. A twisted part of me would like to see Wes Anderson create a whimsical universe full of Captain Metropolises and then have the Comedian denounce it all.

    Anyway, lots of problems with this approach, and I think Andrew’s original approach probably encapsulates the themes of the book better, but … well, I had to give it a try.

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