Watching the Watchmen

Actually watching “Watchmen” (in IMAX, I might add) was an odd experience, after having been immersed in the great written work by Alan Moore, upon which it is based. So many details are correct, so much loving care has gone into respecting the source. And yet while watching it I felt the strain – the attempt to suggest a vast and sweeping epic in the space of a mere 2½ hours. Of course it’s the same with all films that adopt novels – large chunks of what you loved about the original never make it to the screen – often some of the most compelling and powerful parts. We might call this the Tom Bombadil problem (if you don’t know what that refers to, you’ve been missing a truly great book).

But I thought the resonance was right (with the exception of one role that was miscast). You really feel the book, its rhythm and its crazy psychological logic, oozing out of the pores of the film, just as Horton Foote made you feel Harper Lee’s writing in his adaptation for the screen of “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

By streamlining down to essentials the book may in fact better serve Alan Moore’s intent than the book ever did. At heart, it’s a meditation on the strangeness of vigilante justice: The more focused you become on serving the greater good of humanity at any cost, the less you are able to focus on the value of a single life.

And at some point it all goes ‘pataphysical: the ultimate “good” superhero is the ultimate Nietzschean monster. “Watchmen” lays bare the choices: What kind of superhero do you want to be, and therefore which brand of insanity will you embrace?

Because the novel was so rich, and went into so many dimensions at once, both psychologically and aesthetically, this central point was sometimes hard to see. But in the movie it comes across loud and clear.

And that’s one of the great things about movies. You don’t really have any time to explain anything in detail – but instead you can insert a visual that tells the same thing on a gut emotional level. And visual images have a way of getting into our memory on a more primal level than mere words on a page. All part of the magic of cinema.

Whether that’s a good thing or not, I have no idea.

3 thoughts on “Watching the Watchmen”

  1. In your opinion, if I have neither read the book nor seen the film, which is better to see first if I want to get the maximum possible enjoyment out of the story and then judge the adaptation?

  2. If you want to get the maximum possible enjoyment out of the story, then unquestionably you should read the book first.

    Moore and Gibbons’ original “Watchmen” is a masterpiece, whereas the film is merely an adaptation of a masterpiece to another medium. By definition, no film created from “Watchmen” could ever be as good as the source, just as no film adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” could do justice to the novel, and no theatrical presentation of Eliot’s “The Wasteland” could do justice to the poem.

    If you want to best judge the adaptation, there is an argument for seeing the film first, but I think it’s a weak argument, because that might interfere with your enjoyment of the book, which is by far the more important experience. Also, I suspect you’ll enjoy the film more if you come in knowing the rich backstory for the characters.

    I suggest you go out and buy “Watchmen” and read it in the next few days (an amazing experience, I can tell you), so that you can then catch the film while it is still in theatres.

  3. “The more focused you become on serving the greater good of humanity at any cost, the less you are able to focus on the value of a single life.”–That’s a great way of putting it, especially considering the ending. Of course, ya can’t totally blame the guy…

    Re the “Tom Bombadil effect” – I was actually glad that that was cut. I want no version of that silly fellow except my own (and I guess Alan Lee’s). I like that I still have parts of LOTR that isn’t colored, visually or otherwise, by Jackson-Walsh-Boyens/Shore/Lee-Howe. Even “The Silmarillion”, closer to my heart in some ways – duh – wasn’t untouched, since they visualized the Elves and the Havens.

    That’s not really an issue with Watchmen since there is very little difference in the essentials between the two versions – they basically decided to treat the comic like a storyboard with insanely high production values. Also: graphic novels/films, are, um, graphic – less room for the imagination to roam. Which is why I’m glad we’re gonna get an ‘extended cut’ which’ll include “Curse of the Black Freighter”/the two Bernies 😉

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