Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Watchmen: Film vs. Comic Adaptation

This past weekend I found myself with a lot of time to kill so I sat down to watch the "Ultimate Edition" of the Watchmen film. I had already seen the original version in the theaters, and rented Tales of the Black Freighter/Under the Hood, so I wasn't going into it 100% blind as much as I was looking to see how the combination of the two would work and whether I would feel differently about it afterward than I did after viewing the film the first time.

The short of it is: not very much.

I spent a lot of time on this run through trying to remember if the transitions into the Black Freighter were matching when they happened in the book, or perhaps certain scenes were missing that were making the transitions incomplete. With maybe one exception, I found it just didn't work as well. Apparently, there is a strong difference between moving through frames in a comic than moving through scenes in a movie. Or maybe this was simply done as an afterthought rather than planned from the get go, so it didn't work quite right. It didn't feel so jarring like you were suddenly and completely taken out of the movie, but I didn't feel the sharp comparisons between the two narratives to the same effect as I did while reading the book.

I went to see Watchmen with my father, my brother, and my stepmother. I have no earthly idea why my stepmom came to see it, as sci-fi action movies aren't normally her thing. She did enjoy the X-men movies, but I think that may have more to do with Hugh Jackman than anything else. My father does enjoy sci-fi action movies, the more special effects the better, and will even forsake plot for them if necessary. He used to read my X-men comics with me back when I was young but he had never read Watchmen. My brother and I tend to have very similar tastes when it comes these kind of things, though he had apparently only started reading Watchmen and never finished it. I myself had finally read the book the year before the release, determined to be "in the know" before going to see the movie. I fell in love with the book, and even convinced my non-comic fan boyfriend to read it. Of the four of us, I was the only one who walked out of that theater without being completely disappointed/turned off. I believe the main complaints they found with it were that it was too confusing and complicated, took too long to get the point, and, of course, way too much blue penis. Seeing the IMAX version probably didn't help that last one.

I remember that much of my giddiness while watching it was all about seeing various panels come to life and hearing the actors recite almost word for word many key scenes in the comic. I had gripes like any true comic book fan does, but I loved it. Being completely unable to separate myself from my fandom, it was hard to judge the movie in and of itself. This isn't X-men after all, where the history is so long that it makes perfect sense for them to pick and choose elements to create something that still stays true to the characters. This was a 12 issue limited series that built upon itself and made it really hard for you to take out anything. To judge the movie on its own requires pretty much forgetting that you already know the entire story. But, given who I went with and what their impressions were even given their different tastes, I was left with one conclusion:

Watchmen the film is a great comic book adaptation, but it is not a good stand alone film.

If you happened to have not read the book or seen the movie yet and do not wished to be spoiled, please stop reading here.

But here's the ultimate catch: It's a great comic book adaptation up until the ending of the film. Early on when the movie was being hyped, spoiler sites warned that the ending was changed. I went ahead and spoiled myself and saw that, really quite predictably, the alien monster was gone and would be replaced by nuclear energy. This is not the problem I have with the ending. It actually makes a pretty good amount of sense. The alien represented an attack from the outside world, and an attack from Dr. Manhattan also represents an attack from the outside since he is now so far removed from humanity. It is quite plausible that both would have the same effect on the world's nations. The problems I have with the ending have everything to do with the characters reactions to this event.

The single most chilling panel in all of Watchmen, in my opinion, is when Ozymandias raises his arms in the air, smiling, tears in his eyes, screaming "I did it!" When reading I literally laughed one of my uncomfortable laughs I normally experience when people are fighting around me or yelling at me and I'm so uncomfortable I don't know what to do with myself. A person reacting with such joy after killing millions of people.. it horrifies you, and it also shows you just how committed this man is to what he believes. In the movie, we instead get him calmly explaining more justifications. I suppose in some way this could be considered chilling, but whether it's the dialogue or the way it's said, it just comes off to me like every other cliche villain in a movie before it. When he says "I've made myself feel every death.." I just can't say I believe him.

It becomes worse as they completely change Dr. Manhattan's exit. So typical hollywood ending, giving the girl a kiss goodbye and then leaving to explore a brave new world. Not even a word to Veidt about what he's done, other than to convince the others to keep quiet about it. As someone's whose sense of justice falls more in line with Rorschach's than any of the other characters, one of the key panels at the end to me is when Veidt asks Dr. Manhattan if he did the right thing in the end, and Dr. Manhattan replies "Nothing ever ends" before disappearing. They attempt to touch on this by having Dan and Laurie discuss it in the following scene, but to me it's all about seeing Veidt's face fall when the "omnipotent" man tells him.

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