Discussion of the Literary Work:
Alan Moore is regarded as one of the pioneers of the graphic novel genre and literary medium. In collaboration with illustrator Dave Gibbons, DC Comics published Moore’s Watchmen in a limited series of twelve issues over the years of 1986 and 1987. At the time, comics were viewed as childish forms of entertainment. However, Moore and other innovative authors adapted this medium for an adult audience, exposing the underlying literary credibility of comic books. In popularizing the graphic novel medium, Watchmen helped to open up a new world of literature and earned a Hugo Award as well as a spot on Time Magazine’s Top 100 English novels published since 1923.
Although featuring a story surrounding costumed heroes, the very aspect that the world of literature condemns in the comic book medium, Watchmen is a sardonic investigation of the life, psychological conflicts, and emotional struggles of these characters rather than a display of conventional heroics. Alan Moore sets his novel in 1986; an alternative history of the Cold War in which Nixon is still President of the United States and masked vigilantes exist. Outlawed by popular demand in the 1980’s, the group of vigilante “watchmen” sense a renewed call to action as the US and USSR near nuclear warfare and thus the destruction of humanity. Their group of vigilantes consists of numerous members with varying specialties and degrees of power, but the most notable of the group is Jon Osterman. As a result of a radiation accident, Osterman (more commonly known as Dr. Manhattan) essentially becomes an indestructible superhuman and develops an entirely new perception of space and time. As he puts it: “We’re all puppets… I’m just a puppet who can see the strings.” (Moore)
The complexity of Watchmen is as much engrained in its narrative as it is in the graphic novel medium itself. Alan Moore is notorious for his hatred of Hollywood convention and the overlap between blockbuster films and comics. Given the box office success of superhero movies, Moore believes that many comic publishers are sacrificing their integrity by becoming storyboards for future films. As a result, Moore deliberately uses a range of innovative techniques to not only enhance his own work, but also to protect it from Hollywood contamination. For example, the way in which panels are sequenced and the space in between them play an extremely important role in Watchmen. In his graphic novel Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud refers to this space as a gutter. As a result of these gutters, comics are much more interactive than the film medium which dictates plot points and character development to the viewer. Because readers can progress at their own pace and their eyes have the freedom to wander, the organization of panels is crucial to the graphic novel and allow readers to make their own inferences. Thus, comics utilize subtle suggestion to drive the reader’s imagination as opposed to the over-explanation and linear nature of film.
Another unique aspect of Watchmen is the random newspaper articles, letters, diary entries, and other tidbits that Moore inserts at the end of each chapter. Although they do not fit into the primary narrative, these articles provide powerful insight into the past of the watchmen group as well as each individual character. Such techniques, which flow seamlessly in the graphic novel format, contribute to the ‘unfilmable’ label that has been placed on Watchmen.
Discussion of the Film:
Due its reputation of being an unfilmable story and its large, cult-like fan base, the decision to translate Watchmen to the film medium was met with much apprehension. However, understanding the intricacies of the work, director Zack Snyder committed to remaining entirely faithful to the original. Although critics generally agree that Snyder accomplished this goal as well as he possibly could, the film still omits, condenses, and even alters so much of the original work that much of its genius does not shine through.
This is embodied in the altered ending. In the original narrative, Veidt choreographs the explosion of a giant, squid-like creature on New York City, killing half the city’s population but leading the world’s superpowers to declare peace in order to turn on a common threat. However, in Snyder’s adaptation, Veidt organizes nuclear detonations in multiple major cities across the globe using Dr. Manhattan’s energy signature. Although establishing a different enemy than the original, this still leads the US and USSR to desert nuclear warfare with each other to protect themselves against the perceived threat of a common threat. There has been much speculation about Snyder’s decision to alter the ending. Bob Rehak hypothesizes that, given the events of 9/11, Snyder may have wanted to de-emphasize New York City as ground zero (Rehak). However, most agree that a giant squid falling on the city was simply too far-fetched for the big screen and an audience composed largely of viewers who have not read the graphic novel. Regardless of the reasoning behind it, crucial aspects of the story had to be modified to suit the motivations and backgrounds that would lead to such a different conclusion.
Discussion of the Adaptation:
Despite Snyder’s attempts to remain entirely faithful to Moore and Gibbons’ original work, many of the literary techniques described in the first section of this paper are nearly impossible to translate to the film medium. Therefore, Snyder is forced to compensate using methods that thrive in film. This is most clearly demonstrated in Snyder’s use of violent action scenes. The hyper-violence that plagues the entirety of the film is established in the very first scene, in which the Comedian is brutally murdered in an incredibly gory fight. While violence was a prominent aspect of the Watchmen graphic novel, Moore does not rely on it in the same way that Snyder does to formulate plot. In what has been criticized for selling out to Hollywood convention in order to increase viewership and profits, Snyder turns the complex, ‘masked heroes’ into the ‘superheroes’ that Moore was originally mocking, condensing the vigilantes into one-dimensional characters. As Robinson writes, “It’s so easy, making superhero characters who casually take mere mortals apart with their bare hands. What’s hard is making them human.” This was embodied in the characters of Rorshach and Adrian Veidt. Rorschach is not nearly as psychotic or animalistic as he is portrayed in the film, but merely uses violence as a means to defend his principles. Similarly, Veidt is portrayed as the obvious villain in the film adaptation because his character does not develop as it does in the graphic novel. In the film, Veidt seems entirely assured of his sociopathic plan and the audience is more inclined to believe in his evil as a result of his violent fight sequences. However, in the novel, even after his plot succeeds, Veidt second-guesses himself. The reader can see that he is trying to do the right thing but is also clearly unsure: “Jon, wait, before you leave… I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.” (Moore)
Despite the altered ending and the shortcomings that were expected in the adaptation, Snyder did succeed in remaining faithful to many aspects of the original work. Particularly in the visual respect, Snyder and his production team were able to display the same dark, depressed world that Gibbons created in Watchmen, capturing the sense of hopelessness well. Also, using extreme close-ups, the film adaptation was able to show the complex character emotions and troubles that defined the illustrations of the novel.
Finally, I found Snyder’s biggest success to be in his portrayal of the defining motif of the narrative: time. In the comics, as each issue/chapter was released, the symbolic Doomsday Clock continues to tick ever closer to midnight (representative of nuclear armageddon), establishing the theme of a determined fate. As a result of Dr. Manhattan’s radiation accident, however, he is granted a different conception of time which he describes as: “Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet” (Moore). This altered conception of time is highlighted in Chapter 4, when Manhattan recounts his past in an entirely non-chronological order. Without following any sort of logical pattern, Moore and Gibbons cover decades of history in quick succession, utilizing seamless panel transition in the visual channel and juxtaposed narratives in the verbal channel, instilling a sense of atemporality in the reader. The film mirrors this excellently when flashing back into his past, doing so in the same chaotic, atemporal manner.
Barnes, David. Time in the Gutter: Temporal Structures in Watchmen. KronoScope, Volume 9, 2009, pp. 51-60.
Carroll, Larry. ‘Watchmen’ Director Reveals Key Differences Between Graphic Novel, Film. MTV, 2009. http://www.mtv.com/news/1605765/watchmen-director-reveals-key-differences-between-graphic-novel-film/
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: William Morrow, 1994. Print.
Moore, Alan, and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics Inc., 1987. Print.
Rehak, Bob. Adapting Watchmen after 9/11. Cinema Journal, Volume 51, Number 1, Fall 2011, pp. 154-159.
Robinson, Tasha. Book vs. Film: Watchmen. A.V. Club, 2009. http://www.avclub.com/articles/book-vs-film-watchmen,24746/