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Old October 24 2008, 03:28 AM   #1
Good Will Riker
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Is Watchmen unfilmable?(spoilers for those who haven't read the comic)

Is Watchmen Unfilmable?
posted by mlawski on October 15th, 2008


In preparation for the March release of its film adaptation, I reread Watchmen this week. It had been more than four years. Back then, I liked it, but it wasn’t the time for me to read it. I hadn’t been exposed to as many “real” superhero comics yet, and the world, while sucky, didn’t seem apocalyptic to me at the time. This time around, Watchmen hit me a lot harder. I mean, “Who watches the watchmen?” could be talking about I-bankers, right? And Dr. Manhattan is the market’s invisible hand? No?





For years, Alan Moore (the writer of Watchmen) has been saying that his comics are unfilmable. He has a beef with Hollywood that is easy to understand, especially if you’ve seen the god-awful adaptations of his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell. In the late 80s, Terry Gilliam approached Moore, thinking he’d direct the Watchmen film. Instead, Moore told Gilliam that it was an impossible task, like finding the Holy Grail or filming Don Quixote. Terry Gilliam agreed. Watchmen was unfilmable.
But is it really?

Comics and Film: A Comparison
“If you approach comics as a poor relation to film, you are left with a movie that does not move, has no soundtrack and lacks the benefit of having a recognizable movie star in the lead role.”
-Alan Moore

Comics and movies aren’t the same. It’s easy enough to say, but I sometimes get the feeling that most comics writers don’t get it. People working in the film industry definitely don’t; they often explicitly say they use comics as storyboards for their films.

But they aren’t the same. Because Alan Moore is one of the few comics artists who realizes that, his comics will necessarily be harder to translate to film. Here’s a breakdown of what each medium can and can’t do well. I think it’ll give everyone an idea of why Watchmen is a tough piece to tackle.

Time in film.
Time in film is tricky, which is why, I expect, most films occur in order. The beginning’s at the beginning, the middle’s in the middle, the end’s at the end. Obviously, not all films work this way. Some of the best movies of all time don’t: Citizen Kane, It’s a Wonderful Life, Casablanca, Pulp Fiction.

But it’s a lot harder to pull off. Usually, you have to do it in flashback: a character says something about the past, he puts on that faraway drugged out look, and – cue harps and smoke machines – we’re back in the past with them. It’s weird, actually. Most of the film we were watching the characters objectively; now, we’re in someone’s head, thinking along with them, but still watching them from afar.

Tarantino doesn’t use flashback as much – in fact, god help you if you say he uses flashback in his films at all. Rather, he uses chapter headings to separate one period of time from another so viewers know where they are. Woody Allen movies use a narrator, making them more like novels. Some movies have dates written at the bottom of the screen. Harry Potter movies use a nifty contraption called a Pensieve, which is made out of flashbacks. These are obvious ways of letting a viewer know when they are. Unless a director is very explicit, a viewer can easily get lost in the timeline. And if a viewer gets confused about where she is in the timeline, she can’t go back and reread the movie. The movie goes on, whether the viewer gets it or not.

Long gaps in time must be avoided in films, too. Otherwise, you need to put your thirty-year-old hot starlet in plastic wrinkles and a grey wig. It doesn’t usually work too well.

Time in comics.
Comics can handle time better than movies but less well than novels. Artists can draw characters whatever age they want and can put any props they want in the background of scene. It’ll take some research, sure, but it’s cheap and not too hard.

Although comics can jump around in time, because of their visual nature they work more like movies. Unlike a novelist, a comics author can’t jump back and forth between centuries within the same sentence. A novelist could just write, “During World War II, he was a soldier, but now he was just a dentist.” A comics artist would have to draw two panels: one with a soldier, and one with a dentist.

But comics authors can jump around more frequently than a film director. Even the most artsy indie film can only jump around the timeline maybe forty times. If the movie jumped more than once every few minutes, the audience would go CRAZY. And the director would, too.

But, theoretically, a comics author could jump to a new time period every panel. In fact, the Dr. Manhattan chapter of Watchmen (for the most part) does just that. And that is cool. Plus, if a reader gets confused, he can always flip back a few pages and reread. As in a novel, time moves only as quickly as the reader does.



Dr. Manhattan makes time... complicated.


The senses in movies.
Movies win this round due to the realism of their visuals and their use of music. Why do people always clamor for film adaptations of their favorite novels or comics? I think it’s because they want to see their favorite characters and scenes come to life. Comics wouldn’t do it. People want the realism. They want to see the movement.

And music. Because of music (or lack thereof, as in No Country for Old Men), a movie can make an audience feel anything. This can be seen either as a very good thing or a very bad thing. Alan Moore would probably say that music was another way for directors to spoon-feed their audiences and force them to feel whatever they want them to feel at the time. As for me, I think music is amazing – the number one reason movies are better than any other art form.

The senses in comics.
Comics win due to detail. Comics don’t have music, and you can’t smell or taste or feel them.
In terms of visuals, though, comics get the best of the novel and film worlds. Like movies, comics can tell





a story MUCH more quickly than a novel by using visuals. One panel, like one second of film, can get across a huge amount of information to a reader. Imagine reading that amount of information in a novel:

“Underneath a large full moon in Manhattan stood a turn of the century skyscraper. A man at its base looked up at it. He wore a hat that looked kind of like a fedora and was brown, but not too dark brown, just regular hat brown. The hat had a thick purple ribbon around its rim – but not a garish purple. A dull purple. He wore an old-fashioned trench coat, same brown color as the hat, draped in shadow. Striped pants – zoot-suit-ish – and purple gloves to match the hat ribbon. In his hand, he clasped something, and, around him green papers swirled in the wind.”

That is my description of one panel of Watchmen. One very uneventful panel. (It’s the middle one on page 5 if anyone cares.) On almost every page of Watchmen, there are nine panels. There are about 385 pages in Watchmen, meaning that you would have to multiply that boring paragraph times 3465 to get close to what a novelization of Watchmen would look like. If you double space that paragraph and put it into Courier New, that paragraph is almost half a page of novel text. At this rate, that means the novelization of Watchmen would be at least 1700 pages long to get in that amount of information. That’s the number one difference between a comic and a novel.

A movie could have that same amount of detail, but a viewer couldn’t appreciate it as well. Movies, as said before, move. A viewer can’t linger on a frame and appreciate every detail in it, unless he is watching it on





DVD. (Who else but Roger Ebert actually does this, though?) That’s why comics can include maps (see Hicksville and Fun Home), mechanical diagrams (see Jimmy Corrigan), and intricate cityscapes (see anything by Joe Sacco), and movies can’t.

Even if you did want to write a 1700 page novelization of Watchmen, you STILL couldn’t get across all the information. Novels can’t deal with issues of space and composition. Movies can, sort of, but today scenes are cut so fast that viewers don’t have that much time to pay attention to that stuff. Anyway, in a novel or a film, the cleverness of Chapter Five, Fearful Symmetry, for example, would be lost. Chapter Five – and you might not have noticed even if you read the comic - is completely symmetrical. All twenty-nine pages of it. You couldn’t do that in a novel. You couldn’t even do that in a movie. That’s something only a comic can do.

Scope in comics.
Comics, theoretically, can be as long as an author wants. You can write series. You can spend your whole life developing backstories. You can have spinoffs. You can wring every last drop of juice from your premise if you want.

Scope in movies.
If you are a film director, you have between 90 minutes and 120 minutes to tell your story. If you are particularly lucky, you may have up to 160 minutes. If you are super lucky, you are Peter Jackson and you got to do three three-hour long movies.

In other words, you can have good character development but few characters, or many characters but little to no character development. Your choice. Don’t expect your themes to be particularly deep. You don’t have time to develop them.

So is Watchmen filmable or what?!
My answer is “yes, but…” Is Watchmen filmable? Yes, but it’s going to lose a lot. I don’t care how careful the director, Zack Snyder, claims he is trying to be. Any transition to film is going to be rough. As I showed above, just because comics are visual, it does not mean that they are easier to adapt to film than novels.

So what’s Watchmen going to lose?

Its visual detail: I’m sure we’ll see smiley faces in the background of certain scenes, but that’s about it. We simply won’t be given the time to analyze the contents or compositions of each frame. Movies don’t allow that.

Some character development: Dr. Manhattan will keep his since his backstory is vital to the events in the story-story. I expect Rorschach will get some development since everyone seems to like him so much. Unfortunately, the Sally-Laurie subplot might get condensed or even axed, which is sad because it was easily the most human story in the book. Nite Owl the First will, I predict, get no history. The psychiatrist and his wife will be cut. The Laurie-Dan subplot will get play (can’t have a movie without a love story!), but I expect it will be less complex than the original due to time constraints.

The “books within books.” While I can’t fault the filmmakers for getting rid of the pirate comic book, the academic texts on superhero politics and bird watching, or Ozymandias’ internal memos about his product line, I’ll be sad to see them go. They’re what gave the comic texture. The film is going to be sleek and easy like all Hollywood products, not bursting at the seams like the comic. Films just can’t have that amount of layering.

The intertextuality. I’ll eat my hat if the movie uses the quotations the comic used. Except for “who watches the watchmen.” Someone will say that, or at least it’ll be somewhere in the background. Otherwise people will leave the movie saying, “But why was it called ‘Watchmen’? Weren’t they called the Minutemen?”

That’s not all the movie will lose, probably, but those are the things that the film will necessarily lack, due to its form. Due to Hollywood meddling, we also might see less moral ambiguity, although if they make Rorschach into a hero I might start laughing in the theater.

But the trailer doesn’t suggest that. I do think Mr. Snyder wants to make a relatively faithful film. As long as he keeps that dark, foreboding mood, then he’ll get as close as he can.



A slightly less dark version of Watchmen***
source - http://www.overthinkingit.com/2008/1...en-unfilmable/
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Old October 24 2008, 09:16 AM   #2
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Re: Is Watchmen unfilmable?(spoilers for those who haven't read the co

Wouldn't a LINK have been more appropriate?
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Old October 24 2008, 09:01 PM   #3
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Re: Is Watchmen unfilmable?(spoilers for those who haven't read the co

DS9Sega wrote: View Post
Wouldn't a LINK have been more appropriate?
I placed a link at the bottom of my original post.

And, again, here it is:

source - http://www.overthinkingit.com/2008/1...en-unfilmable/
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Old October 24 2008, 09:18 PM   #4
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Re: Is Watchmen unfilmable?(spoilers for those who haven't read the co

Did you copy and paste the entire article? Not to armchair Mod, but that's kind of a no no.
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Old October 24 2008, 09:46 PM   #5
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Re: Is Watchmen unfilmable?(spoilers for those who haven't read the co

A most interesting article. I agree with many points of his analysis of the differences between movie, comic and novel. However, I don't think adaptations of comics should be mere imitations of the comic. A movie based on a comic does not have to have the same effect on me as the comic. I simply look at it as the same story told within a very different medium.

Having said that, I'm looking forward to the Watchmen movie.
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Old October 24 2008, 09:56 PM   #6
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Re: Is Watchmen unfilmable?(spoilers for those who haven't read the co

Red Oni wrote: View Post
Did you copy and paste the entire article? Not to armchair Mod, but that's kind of a no no.
Now, I know.

And, since knowing is half the battle, I supposed the mods will have to come in and shrink it down to the size that they most see fit.

Last edited by Good Will Riker; October 25 2008 at 07:21 AM.
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Old October 24 2008, 10:24 PM   #7
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Re: Is Watchmen unfilmable?(spoilers for those who haven't read the co

The issue with making a film of Watchmen is not whether or not it will have all the texture of the original book. It won't. No film adaptation can or does. The issue with making a film of Watchmen is tht Watchmen is a comic book about comic books. It comments on, spins off of, revolves around, explores, deconstructs, and is dependent on 65 years of comic book (and specifically superhero comic book) conventions and tropes. This is what makes Watchmen a great comic book. It is something which is entirely impossible to do on fim because film has a different language.

However, if the writer and director are clever enough, there has now been enough material generated in superhero and comic book movies, that a filmed Watchmen could do for superhero movies what Watchmen did for superhero comics. It can use the visual language, music, mise en scene, camera tricks, FX, etc, to comment on, spin off of, revolve around, explore and deconstruct superhero movies. It would make Watchmen the movie something different from, but related to, Watchmen the comic book. It would probably still piss off Alan Moore and a bunch of Watchment purists. And it just might be a great film. Honestly though, I haven't seen anything from Snyder to make me believe he's capable of actually adapting the themes and subtext of Watchmen in this way. He has a particular visual style which involves a very few tricks (that is, he doesn't seem to have much range in his film-making style), and he has so far taken adaptation to mean a sort of panel by panel faithfulness interspersed with slo-mo and superspeed frame motion.

I think Watchmen will be a lovely and nostalgic flick. It will have enough pandering violence and super badass kewl-ness to capture a new audience for the comic book. It might have a touch of the deeper themes, convolutions and social commentary that the original had, because a lot of that is built into the plot progression. But I doubt it's going to really be what Watchmen was - for a lot of the reasons mentioned in the article, and because Snyder just isn't a sophisticated enough film-maker to be commenting on film in his work. He's young yet though.


PS = Good Will Riker - I've made the same mistake about posting articles. Don't feel bad.
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Old October 24 2008, 10:57 PM   #8
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Re: Is Watchmen unfilmable?(spoilers for those who haven't read the co

I think anything is filmable with the correct creative team working on it. Is Snyder and crew it? I can't say. But it's certainly a doable story. I think a lot of the unfilmable stuff comes from comic book fans who have a nostalgic connection to the graphic novel and don't have the imagination to see it as a film. That's not an insult, it takes great imagination to be a writer, director or editor of film.

The pirate story makes sense to get cut from the film because of length. The weird thing is the author used Dr. Manhattan's backstory as an example of hard-to-film but that's simple editing to convey his control/awareness of all points of history at once. It's been done in other films that play with time, like Eternal Sunshine or every other episode of Lost.
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Old October 24 2008, 11:16 PM   #9
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Re: Is Watchmen unfilmable?(spoilers for those who haven't read the co

Lapis Exilis wrote: View Post
However, if the writer and director are clever enough, there has now been enough material generated in superhero and comic book movies, that a filmed Watchmen could do for superhero movies what Watchmen did for superhero comics. It can use the visual language, music, mise en scene, camera tricks, FX, etc, to comment on, spin off of, revolve around, explore and deconstruct superhero movies. It would make Watchmen the movie something different from, but related to, Watchmen the comic book.
The original RoboCop did that back in 1987, but was probably not acknowledged by the public, because his characer did not originate from the comics.

PS = Good Will Riker - I've made the same mistake about posting articles. Don't feel bad.
Thanks.
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Old October 25 2008, 06:16 AM   #10
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Re: Is Watchmen unfilmable?(spoilers for those who haven't read the co

Good Will Riker wrote: View Post
Lapis Exilis wrote: View Post
However, if the writer and director are clever enough, there has now been enough material generated in superhero and comic book movies, that a filmed Watchmen could do for superhero movies what Watchmen did for superhero comics. It can use the visual language, music, mise en scene, camera tricks, FX, etc, to comment on, spin off of, revolve around, explore and deconstruct superhero movies. It would make Watchmen the movie something different from, but related to, Watchmen the comic book.
The original RoboCop did that back in 1987, but was probably not acknowledged by the public, because his characer did not originate from the comics.
I think RoboCop got some credit for deconstructing to a certain extent, not superhero movies, but the over-the-top action movies of the 80s. I don't know though, that it was particularly sophisticated, certainly not in the layered textual manner that Watchmen's writing and art is.
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Old October 25 2008, 06:28 AM   #11
Good Will Riker
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Re: Is Watchmen unfilmable?(spoilers for those who haven't read the co

Lapis Exilis wrote: View Post
I think RoboCop got some credit for deconstructing to a certain extent, not superhero movies, but the over-the-top action movies of the 80s. I don't know though, that it was particularly sophisticated, certainly not in the layered textual manner that Watchmen's writing and art is.
RoboCop is a deeply layered film that explores the following themes:

- pathos
- human condition
- tragedy
- character development
- personal loss
- inner conflict
- humor
- envy
- consumerism
- commercialism
- infotainment
- reality shows
- news media
- military industrial complex
- multimedia (Think of Richard Branson and Virgin's many properties, but in this case OCP and its many properties beyond military hardware, such as cybernetics and law enforcement.)
- high level corruption
- rise of multinational corporations
- corporate greed
- government corruption
- rise of drug czars
- cybernetics
- white collar crime
- innercity crime
- The arms race of the Cold War
- man vs. machine
- man vs. self
- man vs. society
- man vs. world
- sexism
- opportunism
- competition
- greed
- jealousy
- sadism
- torcher
- morality
- moral ambiguity
- absence of morality
- absence of law
- justice
- revenge
- self-discovery
- epiphany
- soul searching
- biblical allusions (crucifixion, resurrection, walking on water, etc.)
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Old October 25 2008, 07:13 AM   #12
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Re: Is Watchmen unfilmable?(spoilers for those who haven't read the co

Lapis Exilis wrote: View Post
I think Watchmen will be a lovely and nostalgic flick. It will have enough pandering violence and super badass kewl-ness to capture a new audience for the comic book. It might have a touch of the deeper themes, convolutions and social commentary that the original had, because a lot of that is built into the plot progression. But I doubt it's going to really be what Watchmen was - for a lot of the reasons mentioned in the article, and because Snyder just isn't a sophisticated enough film-maker to be commenting on film in his work. He's young yet though.
Yeah you might be right. I know all we've seen are a couple of trailers so far, but I still get the impression that Snyder was much more focused on the visual side than anything else on this movie-- especially considering how every single shot looks so polished and elegantly constructed.

It's not really what you would expect from a movie with the complex themes and social commentary of the comic. Heck, reading the comic I would expect a Watchmen movie to look almost as gritty and drab as, say, a Before the Devil Knows Your Dead. Or some other small indie movie. The style seemed almost secondary to me in Watchmen.

Still though, Snyder's visuals DO look great, and it will be fun to see these characters finally come to life on the big screen.
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Old October 25 2008, 07:26 AM   #13
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Re: Is Watchmen unfilmable?(spoilers for those who haven't read the co

Good Will Riker wrote: View Post
Lapis Exilis wrote: View Post
I think RoboCop got some credit for deconstructing to a certain extent, not superhero movies, but the over-the-top action movies of the 80s. I don't know though, that it was particularly sophisticated, certainly not in the layered textual manner that Watchmen's writing and art is.
RoboCop is a deeply layered film that explores the following themes:

- pathos
- human condition
- tragedy
- character development
- personal loss
- inner conflict
- humor
- envy
- consumerism
- commercialism
- infotainment
- reality shows
- news media
- military industrial complex
- multimedia (Think of Richard Branson and Virgin's many properties, but in this case OCP and its many properties beyond military hardware, such as cybernetics and law enforcement.)
- high level corruption
- rise of multinational corporations
- corporate greed
- government corruption
- rise of drug czars
- cybernetics
- white collar crime
- innercity crime
- The arms race of the Cold War
- man vs. machine
- man vs. self
- man vs. society
- man vs. world
- sexism
- opportunism
- competition
- greed
- jealousy
- sadism
- torcher
- morality
- moral ambiguity
- absence of morality
- absence of law
- justice
- revenge
- self-discovery
- epiphany
- soul searching
- biblical allusions (crucifixion, resurrection, walking on water, etc.)
All that, and it also tells probably the best superhero-style origin story I've ever seen in a movie.

Which is kind of surprising considering all the "true" superhero movies that have been made over the years. lol
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Old October 25 2008, 07:52 AM   #14
Good Will Riker
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Re: Is Watchmen unfilmable?(spoilers for those who haven't read the co

davejames wrote: View Post
All that, and it also tells probably the best superhero-style origin story I've ever seen in a movie.

Which is kind of surprising considering all the "true" superhero movies that have been made over the years. lol
What is so unique about RocoCop's origin is that you get to see his death/resurrection/rediscovery from a first person perspective, where as with most other superhero films the hero's story unfolds from a third person point-of-view.

Also, with most other superheroes, the protagonists deciding to become superheroes is pretty much linear where it happens to them during the course of their natural lives. But, with RoboCop, he literally had to be resurrected and restart all over again from day 1, much like the way Dr. Manhattan had to in Watchmen.
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Old October 28 2008, 12:47 AM   #15
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Re: Is Watchmen unfilmable?(spoilers for those who haven't read the co

Blah, blah, blah...yes we know they are different mediums they are going to have a different method of storytelling. If one is adapted we have to accept it is going to be different and judge it on its own terms. If Moore has had bad dealings with Hollywood that's fine, but he really needs to stop being a baby about this.

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