It is often said that Watchmen is the most influential comic ever to be released. That comics wouldn’t be where they are without it, for good and for ill. But how did we get here, exactly? More to the point, just what influence did Watchmen provide to the larger world of comics? What, ultimately, is the legacy of Watchmen? Who watched the Watchmen?
There is an old saying: the film is never as good as the book.
In large part, this is because the quality of any given film adaptation is largely determined by how faithfully it recreates the original source material. Simone Murray observes that this has long been common in “film and television reviewing, in broader journalistic discourse, and in everyday evaluations by the film-going public.” It is a view which holds that film can “ultimately never be more than an adjunct to literature because literature came first and because literature was art whereas film was mass culture.”
But we live in a postmodern world of images, retrospection, and pastiche. Literature is no longer inherently superior to film based on any ‘imagined wealth of cultural capital”—we can approach a film “on its own terms, rather than as a mere supplement to a literary antecedent.”
In saying that we don’t have to judge a film adaptation based on its fidelity to the source material, I’m participating in what Murray calls “the ritual slaying of fidelity criticism at the outset.” After all, she points out that barely any academic criticism about adaptation buys into the idea that an adaptation is inherently inferior to the original just because it’s an adaptation.
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But ritually slaying something sounds rather fun, so with the ritual performed let’s turn to Zack Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of Watchmen.
Watchmen (2009) is based on the comic book series Watchmen (1986) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Unlike literature, comic books haven’t really held the same imagined “cultural capital,” instead being derisively viewed as mere “mass culture kitsch unfit for film adaptation.” A notable exception to this is Watchmen, a critically acclaimed series which “helped define a watershed period for the American comic book industry.” Federico Pagello specifically points to the “enhanced level of fictional and narrative complexity” in the works of Moore and his contemporaries as the reason why a comic book such as Watchmen is seen as so important to the history of the superhero genre. Basically, any film adaptation still had a pretty high bar to clear.
Zack Snyder, the director ultimately given the responsibility for overseeing such a film adaptation (released in 2009), was certainly conscious of this. “Alan’s a genius, and his book is a genius,” Snyder said in a 2008 interview promoting the film, claiming that he hoped his film would inspire people to seek out the original book by Moore and Gibbons. “If my movie is an advertisement for the book, great. If it’s anything else, then a I f—ed up.”
Going into this film, then, Snyder sought to appeal to fidelity critics by claiming that his adaptation of Watchmen could never be anything more than a supplement to its comic book antecedent. And yet, it is worth emphasizing that Snyder does in fact alter his source material. He had to. Even at his most reverential, even if he sought to use the original comic by Moore and Gibbons as his storyboard (as critic Graham J Murphy suggests), he was taking a 1980s comic book and making a film in the late-2000s. How was the adaptation every going to be anything but changed?
Consider the film’s first scene, as Snyder opens with the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) watching television in his flat.
He’s watching an episode of The John McLaughlin Group, a political talk show, with host John McLaughlin and panelists Pat Buchanan and Eleanor Clift discussing whether recent acts of Soviet aggression pose a threat to the United States. It serves as an effective tool for Snyder to work very quickly through exposition: establishing that the film takes place in a fictionalized 1980s where the United States is (still) governed by President Richard Nixon and has a “walking nuclear deterrent” in the person of Dr Manhattan.
No such scene exists in the original comic series by Moore and Gibbons. Instead, their comic opens instead with police investigating the Comedian’s murder—Snyder postpones this until after the film’s opening credits. But why would it need this scene anyway?
In her review of the film, Charlie Jane Anders observes that “the Cold War might as well have been the middle ages – it was incomprehensible that we’d been that close to destroying ourselves.” In keeping the 1980s setting of the original comic book, Snyder has to recreate this miasma of “paranoia” and “put us in the mid-1980s ‘mutually assured destruction’ mindset.” This just wasn’t something Moore and Gibbons had to account for in the original comic book: writing in the mid-1980s, they could trust that their mid-1980s readership already were very familiar with a mid-1980s “mutually assured destruction” mindset. This need to emphasize the film’s setting and themes perhaps explains why the song “99 Luftballons” is played over a later scene that depicts Dan Drieberg (Patrick Wilson) catching up with Laurie Jupiter (Malin Åkerman). Playing in the background as they reminisce is the chilling reminder that something as seemingly innocent as 99 balloons floating in the sky could trigger nuclear war.
The use of “99 Luftballons” on the film’s soundtrack is rather unusual and perhaps one of the more obvious cases where Snyder’s film adaptation engages in transforming its source material. Other music used in the film is either from the 1960s, referenced in the original comic by Moore and Gibbons in some way, or in some cases both. Consider, for example, the Bob Dylan songs “Desolation Row” and “All Along the Watchtower.” In the original comic book Moore used lines from these songs (“At midnight, all the agents…” and “Two riders were approaching…”) as chapter titles, and in his meticulous attempts to remain as faithful to the source material as possible Snyder uses the songs in the film’s soundtrack—with a key twist, however. Rather than use the original Dylan versions, the film features cover versions by other artists (a Hendrix cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” and a My Chemical Romance cover of “Desolation Row”). Perhaps we could view this use of covers as Snyder slyly acknowledging that his film is itself a cover version of Moore and Gibbon’s original comic book. Even as it tries to simulate the original, referencing it as if a storyboard, it emerges changed and altered and distinct.
Both Watchmen (1986) and Watchmen (2009) exist in postmodern worlds “ruled by simulation,” where art is defined by “retrospection and pastiche.” After all, isn’t there something innately retrospective about Moore and Gibbons quoting the counterculture of the 1960s in a comic book published during the 1980s?
And the very text of their comic book is retrospective: “a generational story of aging superheroes passing the torch to their successors” that begins (as did superhero comics) in the late 1930s and continues through to the present. The character of Ozymandias (played by Matthew Goode in Snyder’s film) is himself a creature of postmodernity. In borrowing his superhero alias from Ramesses II and styling himself after Alexander the Great (claiming to have “idolized him” and that Alexander was “the only human being with whom I felt any kinship”), Ozymandias fashions himself into a pastiche of both. Snyder’s film adds a further element into this mix, using the infamously nippled Batman suits from Joel Schumacher’s two 1990s films as inspiration for the superhero costume that Ozymandias wears.
But also, why?
I mean, on the one hand it makes a sort of aesthetic sense. Schumacher has cited Greek sculpture as one of the visual references for the Batman suits featured in his films, and it makes thematic sense that Ozymandias might himself turn to Greek sculpture to inspire his own costume. Snyder claims that the point was to acknowledge the ways “that superhero movies have affected pop culture,” but how does it do that? I’m not entirely sure how Ozymandias wearing a suit inspired by the Schumacher Batman films engages with their influence on pop culture. It feels hollow, a reference designed to be recognised rather than to reflect upon the ways superhero film had changed between 1997 and 2009. Compared with how intently Moore and Gibbons look back on the history of superhero fiction in the original comic book, it feels like a tepid attempt to bring the themes of Watchmen into the 2000s.
There is something anxious about Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, caught between the towering legacy of its source material and the need to make its themes and narrative work for a late-2000s blockbuster film. It wants to be a film that looks back upon the 1980s and widespread paranoia about imminent nuclear war, a reminder of a past that we’ve begun to forget. It wants to engage with an audience which has become increasingly familiar with the tropes of superhero fiction, and draw upon the aesthetics which the wider film-going audience have come to associate with the genre.
An adaptation doesn’t have to be some adjunct to a literary antecedent, inherently inferior and lesser because it’s an adaptation. It’s just a shame when it’s inferior and lesser by design.
For more in “Who Watched the Watchmen”…
Marchi, Andreana, Cyntia Bailer, Marcelo Martins Kremer, and Marcia Tiemy Morita Kawamoto. “Who listens to the Watchmen? A sound study on the filmic adaptation Watchmen.” Estação Literária 7: 162-175.
Murphy, Graham J. “‘On a More Meaningful Scale’: Marketing Utopia in Watchmen.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 28, no. 1 (98) (2017): 70–85.
Murray, Simone. “MATERIALIZING ADAPTATION THEORY: THE ADAPTATION INDUSTRY.” Literature/Film Quarterly 36, no. 1 (2008): 4–20.
Olney, Ian. “Texts, Technologies, and Intertextualities: Film Adaptation in a Postmodern World.” Literature/Film Quarterly 38, no. 3 (2010): 166–70.
My take is that “fidelity to the source material” is an IMPORTANT factor of an adaptation, but it’s not as simple as “if it’s a perfect replica, it’s good, any differences are inherently bad.”
I want to look at WHY there are differences. What did the screenwriter and director decide could be cut, and what did they think needed to be kept? What effect were they looking for when they changed something?
In the case of Watchmen, your example of the Comedian watching the talk show is great. A lot of people HATE to see anything new in an adaptation – every second of screen time spent on a new scene is time “stolen” from the original work, that could have been used to not cut some other scene. But there’s a real purpose to this scene, as you say, for viewers in 2009 rather than readers in 1986. The lack of fidelity served the adaptation.
On the other hand, there’s the change in Adrian’s plan from the fake alien squid monster to the “blame Dr. Manhattan” scheme. Fair enough if Snyder felt that the original idea simply would not work on screen – that the alien could not fail to look ludicrous, or whatever. But his substitution brings in its own quite serious problem – how does it unite the world against a common foe if that common foe is a superhuman being intimately associated with the USA? This, for me, is an example where the lack of fidelity hurt the adaptation.
3 materials to add onto this column would be:
-Before Watchmen: Minutemen – For those who disregarded the many prequel comics from the “Before Watchmen” lineup for being cashgrabs, this is the best prequel. Darwyn Cooke examines the first superhero group in the Watchmen universe, in a way that stands on its own, and it serves as a sorta biopic companion material for Alan Moore’s creation.
-The Watchmen HBO Show – Mainly for how it continues the narrative of the comic in the modern era, and how it reworks some of the elements from the comic for the show. Also, one of the characters from Darwyn Cooke’s Minutemen book appears on a flashback episode.
-The Black Hammer Universe, by Jeff Lemire – Some have compared the main Black Hammer book to Watchmen, and even though they’re mostly different, in some ways it feels like Lemire applies some of the techniques Moore used in Watchmen, like exploring the different eras, tropes and changes of the superhero genre through every age, something that has continued in the “World of Black Hammer” spinoffs.