High Fidelity, Low Quality

In Watchmen, what works on the page doesn't always work on the screen


Relax, fanboys: Watchmen may be the most faithful print-to-screen adaptation ever produced by Hollywood. Director Zack Snyder slavishly replicated the grimy, Cold War New York of Alan Moore's original graphic novel, and screenwriters Alex Tse and David Hayter faithfully reproduce the book's looping, flashback-laden structure and many, perhaps even the majority, of its scenes. All of the major characters are there, and, despite a substantial change in the eventual villain's master plan, so are all the major thematic notes. Snyder even preserves many of the book's witty background details—the signs and visual motifs that the book's artist, Dave Gibbons, used to comment on the action.

So why does the film come off so stilted and lifeless? The problem is that what works on the page doesn't always work on the screen. Snyder's literalist take is more reenactment than adaptation; rather than make a movie, he filmed a comic book. The details of the story and its characters remain almost exactly the same: In an alternate-history Cold War-era U.S., where costumed crime-fighters began banding together after World War II, Richard Nixon is still president, and a luminous blue super-being named Dr. Manhattan helped win in Vietnam, a former costumed adventurer, The Comedian, is murdered. Rorschach, a deranged reactionary vigilante, begins to investigate, dragging Dr. Manhattan and a cadre of other retired superheroes into the mix. There's more, lots more. Nearly three hours of it in fact, as Snyder and his writers sprint through the novel in half the time it takes to read, seemingly desperate to include as many of its crucial moments as possible.

Frame by frame, you can almost see the comic-book panels playing out. That's good for a deja vu-like shock of recognition as the movie replicates scene after scene, line after line. But it doesn't make for a terribly satisfying or creative cinematic experience. The result is a stillborn replica that highlights and exaggerates the weaknesses of the original, simplifying its story and smoothing over its complexities, but adds nothing.

Well, almost nothing. Snyder's Watchmen is more graphic and sexually explicit than its counterpart, often to its detriment. One famous scene from the original features Rorschach hunting down a child murderer. He handcuffs the man in place, lights the home on fire, and leaves him with a hacksaw, telling him not to try to cut through the cuffs. In the movie, Rorschach simply smashes the killer's head in with a meat cleaver. It's not a major departure, but like so much in the movie, it's dumber, blunter, more concerned with visceral shock than the nuances of its characters.

The violence is more extreme, but there's one thing the filmmakers couldn't bear to show: cigarette smoking. In the comic, the young superheroine Silk Spectre continually tries to quit—and continually fails. It's a minor detail, but it nicely compliments her character. Warner Brothers, however, decided that in their adaptation, good guys wouldn't be allowed to light up.

Perhaps that's not surprising given the uneven character work on display. Malin Ackerman's Silk Spectre plants unconvincing expressions on her face like she's auditioning for a supporting role in a Disney Channel sitcom. As played by Patrick Wilson, her flame, Dan Dreiberg, a flabby Batman-esque dweeb who calls himself Nite Owl, seems to have been handed a copy of Moore's comic and told to cycle through the half dozen expressions on its pages. Dr. Manhattan (a laconic Billy Crudup), the bald, blue superman with the body builder's physique is more of a CGI circus strongman than a person. Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Comedian channels Robert Downey Jr., but isn't so much a character as a narrative device. As genius-supercapitalist Adrian Veidt, Matthew Goode has little to do except deliver an occasional monologue. Only Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach really connects—though since he is hidden behind a mask, most of his performance consists of a guttural vocal delivery like you'd expect to hear from a death metal singer.

With its array of carefully crafted oddballs and its thicket of interconnected plotlines, Alan Moore's 1986 graphic novel reads like a Dickensian take on superheroes—sprawling yet tightly plotted, epic yet personal, packed with the details and digressions. Like the best of Dickens, Watchmen is a great work of serial fiction. But Snyder's adaptation plays like a lesser form of serial—a soap opera. Episodic, disconnected, jerking awkwardly between subplots that have been rushed or slightly truncated to fit the film, it's a blood-soaked, big-budget, single-sitting super-soap. Snyder has a great eye, and no sense of dramatic rhythm. He is a guy who never misses a note but can't keep time. But rhythm isn't the point here, it's fidelity. In that sense, the film version of Watchmen is unsurpassed. It's faithful, alright, but fidelis ad urnum—faithful unto death.

Peter Suderman blogs at theamericanscene.com.