On March 6, 2009, the film that had been in development hell for so many years was released in theatres. Referred to in some circles as an impossible film, it is now complete for public viewing. Many hold an intense interest in its existence. Being an adaptation of one of the most revered graphic novels of all time, it has an immense reputation to fulfill. The novel’s writer, after being unhappy with previous adaptations of his other works, wants no stake in the film, claiming that the work is ideally a novel, not a film. After seeing the film on opening night, I feel it is my turn, like many other fans of the graphic novel, to thus contribute an opinion. In the following, I thus discuss my feelings toward the film version of Watchmen.
For the uninitiated, I present the first official trailer that was released for the film (the song in the trailer is unfortunately not present in the film, however):
Before going any further, I must warn you that spoilers of both the film and the graphic novel are contained below. If you do not want anything ruined for you, turn back now. If you do not care, proceed. If you skip this paragraph/spoiler-warning and read said spoilers without the intention to, the fault is yours. If you want an un-spoiled final opinion, however, feel free to scroll down to the last two paragraphs.
Let us begin.
The film version of Watchmen is a tricky beast. On the one hand, it attempts to stay as close to the source material as possible with most lines and scenes being virtually identical to their graphic novel counterparts. On the other hand, however, the film cannot contain all of the source material due to time constraints as its running time is 2 hours and 42 minutes. This results in some added scenes that are meant to deliver the missing content to some extent, but in a different ways.
For example, in the graphic novel, the reader is introduced to the world of Watchmen via fictitious newspaper-clippings and book-excerpts included in-between chapters. These pages of text are not only perfect chapter-closers, but they deliver much needed back-story to the reader without breaking the novel’s flow as the clippings and the like are supposed to be actual written works from the novel’s universe. The film, being unable to present these pages of text to the audience due to the medium itself, attempts to deal with the majority of the situations via a slow-motion sequence at the film’s beginning. In the sequence, various crime-fighters from times before the events of the story itself are depicted defeating villains, taking photo opportunities with the media, and dealing with their eventual ends to their careers whether by retirement, arrest/institutionalization, or death. This sequence itself is mainly silent while music plays over top, and as mentioned before, it is meant to acquaint the viewer with the world of Watchmen. The way it is done is quite nice for those who have read the graphic novel as it shows some of the events that they only read about previously in visual detail, but for those new to Watchmen in general, it seems that these images may be more confusing than helpful. As previously stated, I am a fan of the graphic novel, and as such, I had read the novel long before the film’s release. It is thus hard to put myself in the situation of a Watchmen virgin coming to see the movie, so my assessment may be invalid, but I think it’s something worth mentioning.
There are other events besides the clippings/excerpts that have been removed as well so that the film could remain under 3 hours. Notable examples would be the Tales of the Black Freighter and the scenes involving the young man reading the comic alongside the news vendor’s stall. To be fair, Tales is being released as its own animated film on DVD separately (and it will be included in the Director’s Cut of Watchmen’s DVD release as well). Alternatively, the news vendor and said customer technically appear in the scene of New York’s destruction, but without the previous scenes, they act merely as a nod to fans as opposed to being true characters.
Speaking of New York’s destruction, the end disaster has been changed as well for the film. Instead of being a constructed “alien threat”, the film’s disaster revolves around a reactor built with Dr. Manhattan’s assistance to mimic his power. This reactor is seen by the public to be a way to generate clean energy, but Veidt uses its power to destroy major cities around the world at the film’s climax. Since the machine’s power mimics Dr. Manhattan’s power, Dr. Manhattan himself is blamed for the disaster. Due to this, the world in the film is united against Dr. Manhattan rather than the “alien threat” present in the novel. This change, in my opinion, works well for a live-action audience, and while purists may see it as unacceptable, I do not mind it as much.
What was kept intact in the film, however, is largely spot on, in my opinion. All of the actors look and act, for the most part, as one would expect live-action versions of the novel’s characters to look and act. My only real peeves in terms of the actors are the second Silk Spectre and Veidt, though. The Silk Spectre definitely looks the part, but I kept feeling that her acting was a tad subpar. Then again, I’m no actor, so I may just be nitpicking. I felt that Veidt, on the other hand, was way off. In the novel, it is supposed to be a surprise that Veidt is the enemy as he comes across as a generally upstanding citizen. In the film, it is laid on quite thickly that Veidt is the antagonist, not only by making his Ozymandias costume much darker and menacing, but by the acting itself. It could be that my previous knowledge of Veidt’s intentions sullied my ability to see Veidt as good in the film, but I doubt it. To ultimately know, I guess I would have to ask a Watchmen virgin.
After all of that “preamble”, then, it is time to give my final opinion. I feel that the film version of Watchmen is nothing to ultimately be disappointed about. I must admit that I did not enjoy it as much as I could have, but things could have been much, much worse. In that respect, the film in its current state is probably the best of all possible Watchmen film adaptations. Purists may scoff at it, but those willing to give it a chance will probably enjoy themselves. That being said, however, I am not sure how audiences unfamiliar with the graphic novel will take the film. The film does not seem to explain itself as well as the novel did. Thus, I feel the film is a good companion to the graphic novel, but as its own film, it may be a tad shallow.
Regardless of all that, go watch the Watchmen film. It’s not a waste of money, that’s for sure. And if you haven’t read the graphic novel yet, I hope that all the buzz surrounding Watchmen has inspired you to do so. If you think you’d like Watchmen, then you’d probably love the graphic novel. Alternatively, if the Watchmen film does not seem like it would tickle your fancy, then the graphic novel just might be the thing for you; you may be a Watchmen purist without even knowing it!