by Chris Gannon
Tonight a film that has been 22 years in the making will be released into a record number of screens to many thousands of people. Some of them have been waiting since the final issue hit the stands in 1987, some have since read the collected edition that has so far been through 20 print runs and many have heard the praise for the book and are curious about the comic book so good it actually made Time Magazine's 100 Greatest Novels of all Time.
Personally, I'm not going to be amongst them.
I've been a big fan of the book for years, ever since I first read it in the distant past of 2002, a bygone age where Blink 182 and Limp Bizkit haunted the stages of the world and we all waited with baited breath for the impending release of The Chinese Democracy.
Since then I've also received the oversized Absolute Edition for Christmas 2005, signed by Dave Gibbons himself. I've read the book at least a dozen times and I'll probably re-read it several more. Every time I read it, I notice new aspects, like a piece of symmetry in issue 4 that I hadn't seen before, or a tape reel positioned to look like a radiation symbol. I've read this and I've pored over it several times, and frankly the idea of spending a set amount of time seeing a story that I've analysed at my own pace doesn't really excite me all that much.
My feelings about comic to screen adaptations goes back to Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back, the fifth film in Kevin Smith's Jersey trilogy. In the film Jay and Silent Bob meet up with an orangutan called Suzanne. The entire sequence felt incredibly familiar to me as I'd read it before in Smith's mini series "Chasing Dogma" which detailed what the drug dealing duo got up to between Chasing Amy and Dogma. Scene for scene it was pretty much the same, albeit with Will Ferral replacing Tommy Lee Jones. While it was fair for Smith to do this, as it was his material and it worked well within the movie, it didn't feel as good as the rest of the movie, which was all new material to me.
I've long ago accepted that I'm in the minority with regards to the Watchmen film. While there are a lot of people who are excited about a movie that brings life to a treasured sequence of static images and many who dread that it won't be as good as they imagined and that a lot of material will have been excised, I am one of the few who was just plain ambivalent about the whole affair. I reasoned that I've enjoyed the book immensely and, as they are two separate entities, others watching and enjoying the film can't possibly hamper the quality of the book, even if the film is far worse. The ultimate test of this theory was, of course, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen which represents such a vast difference in quality that you could fit Jupiter between the two versions. From everything I'd heard, the Watchmen film is nowhere near as bad as the League film and has shown great reverence for the source material, so, even though I was never planning on seeing the film I was glad that a lot of people would see something so close to the source material.
As time went on, I found myself being somewhat grateful for the film as it had given Dave Gibbons the impetus to release a book based on his notes from the time, which makes for an interesting read. It really does remind you how much work Dave Gibbons put into the series as well, a point too often overlooked when talking about the book. Gibbons has also been quite involved with the film as well, reasoning that an adaptation done with him would probably fare better than one done without him.
Of course, the writer of the series Alan Moore has taken the opposite route divorcing himself from the process entirely to the point where his name will not even appear on the film. He went so far as to say this in one interview:
"Will the film even be coming out? There are these legal problems now, which I find wonderfully ironic," Moore said. "Perhaps it's been cursed from afar, from England. And I can tell you that I will also be spitting venom all over it for months to come."
and he has also made his opposition to Hollywood in general quite clear:
“The main reason why comics can’t work as films is largely because everybody who is ultimately in control of the film industry is an accountant,” said Moore. “These people may be able to add up and balance the books, but in every other area they are stupid and incompetent and don’t have any talent.”
“They’re going to show it to the backers,” continued Moore, “and then they’re going to say, we want this in it, and this in it… and where’s the monster?”
“100 million dollars [...] that’s what they spent on ‘The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ which shouldn’t have come out but did anyway. Do we need any more shitty films in this world? We have quite enough already. Whereas the 100 million dollars could sort out the civil unrest in Haiti. And the books are always superior, anyway.”
Apparently though, the Watchmen film was going to be different from previous attempts to adapt his work, it was going to stick close to the source material to the point where Zack Snyder assured everyone that even the Comedian shooting the pregnant Viet Namese woman would be included. The trailers certainly seemed to confirm Snyder's assurances as it looked like he'd treated Dave Gibbon's panels as a storyboard. Even Dr Manhattan's junk would be on display, with Hollywood surprising everyone by not making the blue man wear some trousers.
This morning however, I made the mistake of reading up on some of the cuts that had been made to the film and about the revised ending. Needless to say I immediately rushed to the Internet to register my disgust.
Despite the fact that the main story about the heroes themselves has been kept mostly intact, Zack Snyder and the film's screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse decided against showing the full brutality of the final scene in New York, instead opting for a set of destroyed buildings and powdered residue of what was once people. David Hayter has taken credit for this feeling that
"The ending of the book shows just piles of corpses, bloody corpses in the middle of Times Square, people hanging out of windows just slaughtered on a massive scale. To do that in a comic book, and release it in 1985, is different from doing it real life, in a movie, and seeing all of these people brutally massacred in the middle of Times Square post 2001. That's a legitimate concern, and one that I shared."
This is despite saying in a previous interview, conducted a month after the attacks:
"People have had trouble bringing this project to life over the last 16 years," Hayter conceded to THR. "It was considered too dark, too complex, too 'smart.' But the world has changed. I think that the new global climate has finally caught up with the vision that Alan Moore had in 1986. It is the perfect time to make this movie."
Rather worryingly, a part of the marketing for this movie involves the promotion of the violence within the film itself. There seems to be some pride in that it kept the shooting of a pregnant woman, the image of hot fat being thrown in a man's face and the rape scene between Sally Jupiter and the Comedian, and yet with the film's ultimate villainous act, the murder of four million people, they can't bring themselves to show the very, very ugly consequences of such an action. In fact, David Hayter went so far as to suggest an alternative that was "almost beautiful", thereby betraying his failure to understand the book.
In my opinion, seeing the faces of all of those people affected by Ozymandias' scheme to save the world brings a lot of weight to how harrowing an act it was that his assurances of making himself feel every death could not.
Frankly the film seems like it will share the fascination with violence that the comic showed but will exhibit none of the curiosity about its consequences.
Then again, even if the Times Square scene was depicted as it was in the book, would it matter? The choice to cut out most of the secondary characters (the detectives, the two Bernards, Joey et al) shows a failure on the part of the film to show one of the key aspects of the book: how the actions and even existence of these beings has changed the world. not just the technology, not just the position of America as a world power but the people on the street. The people who make up the majority of the world, the ones who are affected most by the schemes of super powered beings and the ones who have the least say in their own fate. By letting us get to know these people the book demonstrates the monstrosity of the destructive schemes of those who have the power. Not just Adrian Veidt, who becomes the world's biggest mass murderer, but also Nixon's administration and their Russian counterparts who sit waiting to send the world to its Nuclear end. To them the Bernards and the detectives and Joey just become meaningless statistics in their grand schemes, and with their exclusion in the film they won't even be that to the audience.
Further, with voluntary cuts made to the film and given their reasons, they seem hell bent on proving Moore's prejudices about Hollywood films correct. Perhaps this was done as an ingenious act of revenge against Mr Moore for his complete and utter rejection of the Hollywood system. If that was the reason at least their actions wouldn't have been so boring and predictable.Many reviews have suggested that the effect the film has on comic book films would be similar to that the comic had on other comics. Having seen the plethora of grim and gritty comics that came out in the years following Watchmen's original release, I pray that this isn't the case. I could do without a Green Lantern film where he finds his girlfriend cut to pieces in the fridge.