Book Vs. Film: Watchmen
SPOILER WARNING: Book Vs. Film is a column comparing books to the film adaptations they spawn, often discussing them on a plot-point-by-plot-point basis. This column is meant largely for people who’ve already been through one version, and want to know how the other compares. As a result, major, specific spoilers for both versions abound, often including dissection of how they end. Proceed with appropriate caution.
• Book: Watchmen, Alan Moore, 1986-1987
• Film: Watchmen, adapted by David Hayter and Alex Tse, directed by Zack Snyder, 2009
Welcome back to Book Vs. Film, my sometime column picking apart film adaptations in the insanely microdetailed manner of an anal-retentive fanatic. Some of you have been kind enough to ask where this column’s been recently, to which I can only answer “Away.” A good part of last year was dedicated to writing and editing work on a secret A.V. Club project that I’m still not free to talk about yet, but it took up so much of my off-hours that I more or less stopped reading solely for fun, and I definitely stopped writing solely for fun, which sent this occasional column out the window. But now that project is almost-sorta in the can, and I’ve been hitting the books again, and as usual, my brain is full, so I’m going to spill some of it on ya’ll.
The brain-is-full problem is one that hits me a lot when watching book-to-film adaptations. Case in point: Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, which I frankly enjoyed a lot. I first came to this book in college, courtesy of the same roommate who also introduced me to the work of Terry Gilliam, James Cameron, and John McTiernan, among other things. At the time, my exposure to comics largely consisted of obsessively re-reading a boxful of battered old Silver Age superhero comics left in my grandmother’s house by my just-a-bit-older-than-me uncle; I enjoyed the hell out of those comics as a kid, but they certainly didn’t lead me to believe that comics could be smart, or complicated, or groundbreaking, or that there was more to the medium than a simultaneous dumbing-down of art and words. I came back to Watchmen a lot over the following decade, but it took Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and a two-and-a-half-hour interview with Alan Moore himself to make me understand exactly how Moore was playing with time and juxtaposition in this book. The first time I read it, I saw a grown-up version of my old kiddie comics, a version with sex and violence and death and a shattering moral compromise for an ending. Also, some weird shit with pirates. It wasn’t until much later that I started understanding how the panels informed each other, how the rhyming images had meaning, and exactly how much density there was to unpack in the symmetry between two timelines unfolding simultaneously on the page.
So I came to Zack Snyder’s Watchmen as an unabashed fangirl, positive that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations, but still thrilled to see those flat, simply colored images from the ’80s unfold on the screen in deep, rich color, full of shadows and action-movie intensity. I wasn’t a fan of Snyder’s 300, which I found laughably overblown and full of itself, but I couldn’t fault his dedication to the Frank Miller graphic novel he was adapting. I suspected Snyder would have a similar devotion to Watchmen, and he didn’t let me down. The film disappointed me in some respects—particularly the much-commented-on stiffly awful acting by Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre and Matthew Goode as Ozymandias—and I can’t argue with some of the comments my colleagues have made about it being cluttered or confusing in its current cut. But watching Dr. Manhattan’s origin story play out almost exactly as Moore wrote it was just a straight-up thrill for me, and I could watch that sequence over and over.
And yet… brain full. Specifically, full of the changes Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse made, from the major (largely in things left out, though Snyder has said his DVD cut will be an hour longer, which will likely fill in many of the things I’m about to note as missing from the adaptation) to the minor yet naggingly significant. (Why does Rorschach in prison answer the question “We got a jail full of guys out here who hate your guts. What in hell do you got?” with “Your hands, my pleasure” instead of “Your hands, my perspective”? What in the world made someone think the revised line was better?) Some part of me spent the entire movie cataloguing the changes, and weighing them. Better? Worse? The same? Sensible? Inexplicable? I went to an early screening so I could interview Jackie Earle Haley (who plays Rorschach), and a week later, I went to a larger screening to see it again, because I knew I’d have to write this column. Let’s face it, it doesn’t take that long to read Watchmen, no matter how long and dense it is, and anyone who really wants the whole skinny can read it themselves. What I mostly want to do here is exorcise my own literary demons, and open up a forum where Watchmen fans—of the book, the movie, or both—can kick around their thoughts on one version vs. the other.
So. The most obvious changes deal with the things Snyder had to cut for time, at least some of which are going to be in the director’s cut. In particular, there’s the “Black Freighter” storyline, presented in Moore’s Watchmen as a comic-within-a-comic, a horror story being read by a young black kid hanging out at an old white dude’s newsstand. (The black kid and the old white dude are briefly seen at the end of the film, clutching each other as New York goes up in a flare of blue. Like so many things in Snyder’s Watchmen, they were cast and designed to be instantly recognizable from Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen artwork.) The book includes a number of as-above-so-below scenes on the New York streets, where those characters and others—gang members, a local lesbian couple, a watch seller—play out their own minor dramas and in some cases, worry about the threat of nuclear war hanging over them, or otherwise react to the larger events of the comic. I’m guessing a bunch of that will make the director’s cut, since the Black Freighter storyline has been animated—it’s getting a separate DVD release on March 24—and Snyder has said it’ll be incorporated into his full version. For now, here’s a teaser of things to come:
Also left out for time purposes: a great deal of backstory involving the Minutemen, and some present-day material about their eventual fates, including a reunion with Mothman (last seen in the film being hauled away to the asylum, screaming and kicking), a bunch more about the first Silk Spectre, and the eventual fate of original Nite Owl Hollis Mason, who gets just one scene in the movie. There’s also a lot more about Hooded Justice, the guy who stops The Comedian from raping the first Silk Spectre—including a veiled report on his eventual murder, almost certainly by the Comedian. The film’s opening-credits montage skims along some of this material in ultra-brief, where the comic presents it in depth, both within the story, and via inter-chapter text interludes presenting, say, excerpts from Hollis Mason’s Under The Hood, or papers from Rorschach’s psych file. Losing all this material is no huge deal; if you have to compromise a book to get it to the screen, eliminating minor supporting characters with minimal interaction with the plot seems like the way to go. The only bothersome thing is that the loss of the Black Freighter story affects the final scene with Ozymandias in the film—in the book, he recounts a dream that draws a parallel between himself and the protagonist of that story, which suddenly makes the story’s presence in the book make sense. For 400 pages, you’re meant to wonder what the hell pirates and a castaway spouting purple prose has to do with anything, and Ozy’s line at the end suddenly makes it all clear: It’s a metaphor for what he’s done, and what he has to live with as a result. I really missed that sense in the movie, and the feeling that came with it that Ozy really did regret what he’d done, and really did feel all the deaths he caused, and wasn’t just paying them a little emo lip service.
Which provides a good launching point for another, for me, major difference between the book and film: The characterizations strike me in many ways as warped just a little to fit Zack Snyder’s eerily avid “violence is orgasmic” aesthetic. Words on the page only go so far in giving the characters personalities; the versions in the film seem less nuanced because they’re all missing little bits of backstory (the comic gets into Rorschach’s post-childhood life on his own, before the defining moment he tells the psychiatrist about in prison; it also delves further into Silk Spectre’s mother issues and history of crime-fighting), but more nuanced in the sense that everything they say has a tone. Billy Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan often comes across as just a bit patronizing and even vindictive in his detachment, far more so than in the book. Matthew Goode as Ozymandias telegraphs his character’s evil intent from the beginning; the book version is warm and fatherly, where the film version is a B-movie Nazi with a sneer in every word. Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl is subtly less impotent and wussy in the film, whether it’s because he’s standing up to Rorschach from the start instead of seeming scared of him, because he’s slimmer than the gone-to-fat comic version, or because various scenes of him being obviously frightened of Dr. Manhattan (which makes sense; cuckolding a guy who can make you explode isn’t generally a great idea). Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre flattens all her scenes by sounding whiny or confused or shallow instead of as vivid and determined as the character is supposed to be.
That dynamic may, incidentally, reach its nadir in the scene where Dr. Manhattan replicates himself in the bedroom. In the comic, she’s startled, appalled, and angry; it’s clear he’s never tried this before, and it creeps her out and frightens her. In the movie, he says “I thought you liked this,” and Akerman stumbles through a nasal, whiny “I don’t… know, I don’t… want… that…” which sounds like they normally do this all the time, but she maybe isn’t in the mood this time. Maybe. Who knows? She can’t make up her mind about what she wants.
But where the subtly or not-too-subtly altered characters actually bugged me is in the characters’ none-too-concealed, Snyder-channeling love of violence. In the comic, when Nite Owl and Silk Spectre take Archie out after their failed attempt at sex, it’s clearly a frustrated gesture on his part, and an attempt on her part to mollify and humor him. There’s no “Let’s get out there and kick some ass!” tone. Similarly, when they’re set upon by gang members in the alley, it’s a frightening moment that they’re forced into, not something they grin at. They don’t turn any limbs inside out, or stick knives through anyone’s neck, or turn anyone’s head around backward. At worst, they break a couple of arms or noses. There's only a single panel of them casually punching inmates while breaking Rorschach out of prison, and they're having an intent conversation at the time; they don't gleefully work their way up a corridor of enemies in a scene that seems like it was stolen from Oldboy. This is one of the many places where Snyder and I just part ways on what’s awesome; I’m fine with violence with purpose (and I loved that Oldboy scene), but he seems just a little too ecstatic about inserting grinning mass murder into his story, and putting it into the hands of oddly kill-happy characters who, in the book, are a lot more conflicted about what they do.
In similar fashion, it really bothers me that he made his characters into supermen. It seems to me that much of the point of Moore’s story is that Dr. Manhattan is the only super-powered one of the lot—and none of the other would-be Watchmen really know how to deal with him any more. One of Moore’s big points in the book was looking under the costumes of his heroes, and seeing what they look like literally and figuratively naked, with all their weaknesses intact—Nite Owl’s fears for the future, Silk Spectre’s frustration with the way her life has gone, Rorschach’s massive psychological damage, and so forth. They’re just ordinary people who’ve taken the extraordinary steps of putting on costumes and fighting crime. Except in Snyder’s world, they aren’t. They take beatings that would kill a rhino, and they keep coming back for more. (Pretty impressive how, in the opening scene, the Comedian keeps fighting after having his face put through a marble countertop and his whole body through a table.) They punch through walls and, as noted, turn people’s arms inside out. All of which contributes to the film’s cackling, over-the-top mania. I get why Snyder did it. It just makes me tired, like all his super-slo-mo sequences. It’s so easy, making superhero characters who casually take mere mortals apart with their bare hands. What’s hard is making them human.
That, to my mind, sums up most of the important differences between book and film, apart from the ending, where things went off the rails a bit for me. Much has been made of the fact that Snyder’s film changes the ending of the book, but plot-wise, the change is pretty minor—the book Ozy only blows up New York, and he does it by teleporting in an, um, giant psychic squid he’s designed and built in a lab, with the help of, among other people, the man who wrote the Black Freighter comics. And he doesn’t try to frame Dr. Manhattan, so much as he wants it to look like a random accident, in which a dimension-traveling creature wound up in the wrong place and died explosively, taking many with it. Frankly, I’m not sure that would have played out on film; it’s too outré and ridiculous in a way pretty far removed from Snyder’s particular grim brand of outré and ridiculous. But the basic idea—a plot that will kill millions and shock the world into banding together in defense—is the same. (And it’s just as ridiculous in both cases, given that no matter how effectively Russia and America work together, they have no more defenses against dimension-hopping giant squid than they do against a man who can casually change the atomic structure of anything at will. For me, this has always been Watchmen’s fatal weakness—Ozymandias’ plot is audacious, but also kind of silly, and the worldwide reaction to it is pretty silly too.)
All of that isn’t really the problem with the ending. The problems come from much smaller changes, like the fact that movie-Ozymandias seems to drip with sociopathic evil, and his seeming minor regret after Nite Owl yells that he’s warped humanity just doesn’t cut it. He isn’t a hero who’s martyred his morality, he’s just a garden-variety mad-scientist psycho who maybe happens to have done some good while slaughtering millions. And then there’s Nite Owl witnessing Rorschach’s death, and screaming. It’s more incoherent “Argh!” than “Noooooooo!” but it still summons up the scene everyone laughed at at the end of Revenge Of The Sith, when Vader finds out Padme is dead. “Do not waaaaant!” After four years of nonstop mockery of that scene, how could Snyder have not realized a duplicate of it would look ridiculous in his film? (In the book, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre have already gone off together by the time that confrontation happens, and they’re tearfully dealing with the shock of their failure to save the world and comforting each other in the only way they know how. It’s a strikingly tender moment—and, in a typical Moore touch, one that visually brings a bunch of earlier images from the book to fruition, putting a final cap on a series of parallel images of shadowed lovers clutching each other.)
As usual, there are a billion little changes between book and film—some seem necessary, some incidental, some grating. Here are a few more:
• The book shows more of Dr. Manhattan’s progression away from clothing, beginning with a full superhero bodysuit which gets whittled away, over time, to a shirt-and-shorts combo, a weird leotard, a pair of briefs, and a sort of zig-zag thong before he goes full commando. (Weirdly, there’s way more naked schlong in the film than in the comic.) There’s more time-jumping in his backstory, and it’s possible to tell which period he’s in just by how he’s dressed. The comic also explains the origin and meaning of the symbol he burns on his forehead—a representation of the hydrogen atom. Also, his trick of imposing his time-based point of view on Silk Spectre by touching her isn’t in the book; her revelations about her origins come more slowly and more organically.
• The Rorschach in the book more consistently talks in a thudding pidgin, dropping unnecessary words right and left, for sentences like “No. Telling truth. Listen to voice. He did it. Veidt, get rid of cat.” I’m actually glad they toned this down for the film; as much as I think Jackie Earle Haley completely nails his character, it’d still be hard to pull off, and possibly comic instead of creepy. And most of the purpose of it seems to be to mark the distinction between Rorschach before the child-molester incident—when he spoke like a normal person—and afterward. There are a bunch of differences with his character, particularly in that his interaction with Malcolm Long, the prison psychiatrist, is much extended in the book. He lets the head-shrinker in on a lot more about his personality over time—and Long is deeply affected by it, with his marriage disintegrating as he becomes absorbed into and changed by Rorschach’s point of view. Also, Rorschach doesn’t hack up the child molester with a cleaver, he pulls the Mad Max trick on him, setting the house on fire and leaving him handcuffed to the stove, with the choice of whether to burn, or cut off a limb to escape.
• It's far clearer in the book that the second time the Comedian and Silk Spectre I hooked up, it was consensual, and that she has fond memories of him; informed of his death, she secretly cries and kisses his photograph. Scenes involving both characters speaking about the second incident — the one that produced Laurie — were clipped from the screenplay, seemingly to leave viewers with the impression (solely from her husband's line about her rapist coming back to "finish the job" years later) that he eventually did get around to raping her, but that's okay, because it resulted in Laurie. The book includes a scene where Laurie publicly and drunkenly confronts the Comedian about having tried to rape her mother, and he's oddly vulnerable and confused in response, since he clearly doesn't feel free to tell her the truth about his relationship with her mom, and by extension with her.
• Rorschach rather than Nite Owl warns Ozymandias of the possible mask-killer, and winds up mocking Ozy’s merchandising efforts, where Nite Owl seems impressed with them in the film. As some have said, this might have been changed because having the film’s most indelible character make fun of Watchmen toys isn’t necessarily the best way to sell them.
• There’s a lot more about the Keane Act in the book, explaining how society changed and why exactly superheroes were outlawed, and the different ways all the Watchmen reacted to the new law. (Silk Spectre was relieved; Rorschach sent a note attached to a dead rapist to make his intentions to continue his vigilante work clear.) There’s also more from the police, who have their eyes on Nite Owl, and who take an opportunity to remind him that even as the situation in New York and the larger world gets uglier, there’s still no place for superheroes under the law.
• The fat dude in the prison who winds up tied to Rorschach’s cell bars gets his throat cut, not his arms hacked off—just another little needlessly gory Snyder touch. That’s somewhat necessary because Big Figure and his minions are breaking into his cell with a blowtorch, not a power saw. Which is why the tool-wielding minion says he can’t wait to smell Rorschach cooking—because he’s coming after him with a torch. Someone thought to change the “Your hands, my perspective” line—and stick in a line where Rorschach refers to his “mask,” rather than his “face”—and they didn’t think to fix that glitch?
• In the film, Ozymandias is the one who tries to start a superhero group and gets rebuffed by the Comedian; his petulant glowering in that sequence is just one more sign that he’s the bad guy and the Comedian-killer, and the scene almost implies that his decision to take the Comedian down was personal retribution. (With the casting of Matthew Goode and Malin Akerman, I can’t help but wonder if Snyder was focusing so much on their look—something obviously important to him, judging by how recognizable all the characters are from the Gibbons art—that he neglected to dig deep enough into whether they had the chops to play those characters.) In the book, that meeting is run by Captain Metropolis, one of the old Minutemen trying to get back in the game, and Ozy is standing by, observing; he takes the Comedian’s comment about being “the smartest man on the cinder” thoughtfully, and he later says it prompted the series of events that lead to his eventual city-blowing plot. Overall, the book version of Ozy seems older, smarter, more genial, more popular, more involved in the world, less arrogant, less sullen, and less outright crazy. He also spends less time staring off into space while ominous music plays. Which, y’know, makes it a surprise when he blows up New York, something that seems to have gone over the film’s head. It also makes his actions seem more necessary… though in the book, he reveals his own vulnerability at the end, asking Dr. Manhattan whether he did the right thing in the end. (The answer: "Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.")
And so forth and so on. There are a bunch more little changes I could harp on, but frankly, in spite of all this—mostly attributable to the film coming from a different emotional place and a different creator, one who really loves the slow motion and the shock moment—I enjoyed the hell out of the film both times, simply because Snyder’s visual aesthetic is so close to the book: He really wants those characters onscreen just as they appear in the book, whether that means Rorschach’s shifting face or Dr. Manhattan’s eerie blue glow. And he wants it all to be as exciting and vivid and intense as possible; I can’t blame him for that, nor be too cross that his bar for intensity is higher than mine. And frankly, while many of these changes lost me little moments I was looking forward to, apart from the superheroing-up of the cast, they mostly strike me as cosmetic, the cost of a huge-budget action film. After decades of being positive Watchmen would never make it to the screen—or that it’d be completely rewritten, as a Terry Gilliam dark comedy or a 9/11 commentary film or who knows what else—I was delighted to get something this accurate to the broad storyline, and this reverential to Moore’s work. (Even if Moore himself doesn’t think so.)
So. Book, or Film? In many ways, the book and the film are about entirely different things. The book uses a zillion little visual motifs—the graffitied images of lovers embracing, the first-person POV shots of people moving through rooms and looking into reflective surfaces, the Rorschach blots that turn up in places other than Rorschach’s face—to tie people’s lives together, even though some of those never meet, and to tie past and present together in ways Snyder doesn’t even get into. Moore gets into one of his big tricks here, overlaying events in one locale with the sound from another, so that the sound of a TV broadcast seems to be commenting on a fight or a sex scene, or a scene from the past or future. In a way, what he does with the book is create a sequence from Dr. Manhattan’s life drawn large: Everything comments on everything else, and everything is connected. He also uses the stillness of panels to give heavy weight to a lot of lines that just breeze by in the film, like Nite Owl’s commentary that back in the old days, no matter how dark things got, his goggles made everything look bright and clear. The movie is constantly, necessarily in motion, and a lot of the subtleties get lost. With that in mind, I’d utterly recommend the book to anyone who wants more of Watchmen’s world—more history, more complexity, more of Moore’s patented insane cleverness. But I can’t discount how viscerally exciting and beautifully realized the film is. This is one case where I’m in favor of experiencing them both. Probably multiple times each. Maybe alternating. And waiting in anticipation of the expanded DVD version of the film to boot.
Coming up soon on Book Vs. Film: