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Will You Watch the Watchmen?

By 1996, I thought I knew everything about comic books. I had mastered the Batman mythology, knew about 12 members of the Green Lantern Corps, could recite the Spider-Man television theme song, and felt that Superman 2 was the best comic book movie ever made. Then my illustration professor told me to read Watchmen. It changed my life. And Friday March 6, the movie will open, changing the lives of many comic book fans, who are calling it the greatest day in cinematic history. I have a hard time swallowing that pill, and hope the movie does not kill one of the greatest graphic novels of the 20th century.

On the contrary, it may further its legacy, as many novels increase in both popularity and readership after being translated into films. Film goers will likely purchase the original graphic novel to dive deeper into the story, digging for clues they missed in the film. Or to read story lines omitted from the movie all together, such as the pirate comic book. (Yes, that says pirate comic book, and it is a story told within the super hero story.) This is unlike any comic book you have ever read because in Watchmen, the writer / illustrator team of Moore / Gibbons delivered a politically-charged, murder-mystery, sexually-graphic, exploitative, and tongue-in-cheek super hero story. On the surface, it humanizes super heroes by showing us their strengths, weaknesses, and quirks; at its heart, Watchmen is a noir murder mystery that involves the reader in tracking down who killed the Comedian. It’s a challenging read, even for second- or third-timers. The first time I read Watchmen, I did so in one day, and flipped backwards many times to track down clues I missed. (I even cheated by skipping ahead to look for answers.)

Time is a powerful theme that runs throughout the graphic novel, and you become even more aware of it as you push forward through the narrative, realizing that you missed something previously shown to you in words or images. Gibbons does an amazing job of peppering details here and there that help you solve the puzzle on your own, foreshadowing the next scene in advance. He drew the book frame by frame in a very cinematic style with pans, dissolves, and cuts transitioning from present day to the flashbacks and vice versa. The film will probably do justice to many of Gibbons’ illustrations, judging by the select few seen in the trailers. Most of them are direct representations of the original vision. But what about the time issue, and Dr. Manhattan’s asynchronous existence? Will film audiences understand, let alone appreciate, the fact that he occupies the entire length of the story all at once, and can see everything all at once? As the most powerful hero, who can leap forward and backward in time himself, he serves as the link connecting all of the flashbacks. But then again, so does Rorschach’s journal. And Hollis Mason’s Under the Hood tell-all book. And the Silk Spectre’s scrapbook items she sends to Silk Spectre II. And the Dr. Manhattan cold war briefings. And then there’s the pirate comic book, which didn’t even make the leap from graphic novel to film—it’s left out of the film, but will be in the DVD. It’s a lot to digest, and it’s a lot to transfer to the big screen, but Shakespeare would be proud to see so many plays within plays.

Reading these multiple story lines in the graphic novel makes it easy to rewind and fast forward, or skip something entirely. Currently I am re-reading it, and this time I started with all of the interludes (such as the book excerpts, Kovacs’ case file, and pirate comic book story); and after completing them will read the Watchmen book by itself—in an effort to get the prelude under my belt first, because honestly, I cannot remember who killed the Comedian. Translating such a story to film is a big challenge for even the most skillful production team. And even though Watchmen’s multiple story arcs could lose audiences, we have accepted some of these complicated non-linear narratives at the cineplex: time travel with Back to the Future I-III or 12 Monkeys, time order with Memento, or preludes (and this is a stretch) such as Star Wars I-III coming after Star Wars IV-VI. Then there’s Pulp Fiction. Even Pulp Fiction successfully time-jumped from one story to another, in a William-Burroughs-cut-up way, and audiences actually appreciated it—getting to see Travolta one more time, even after being blown to bits by Willis.

I’m optimistic that audiences will see Watchmen, but they may not handle the flashbacks easily, and leave the theaters wondering, What the hell just happened? Moreover, getting people to just show up at the theaters may be tough, following the likes of The Dark Knight and Iron Man. How many people are ready for another super hero movie following on the heels of Ledger’s and Downey Jr.’s awesome performances? (Did I forget to mention Oscar-winning Joker performance?) My bet is millions and millions will see Watchmen, but don’t expect it to break the $1 billion mark that The Dark Knight has staked. While we’re talking numbers, Warner Brothers producers would probably be happy with Watchmen earning greater than the approx. $40 million Friday the 13th earned during its opening weekend.

What The Dark Knight has proven is that audiences are ready for a mature, politically-charged, and albeit noir spin on the super hero story. Watchmen the comic book possesses all of those attributes, and then some. Let’s see how the movie fares. Or don’t, but at least read the book.

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PUBLISHED ON Feb.26.2009 BY Jason A. Tselentis
Kevin’s comment is:

I'm very excited for this release, at the same time I share your concerns that the movie adaptation won't live up to the comic.

A vital correction though, Alan Moore WROTE watchmen, Dave Gibbons was the penciller. Also, I think its crucial to mention that Alan Moore did not throw his approval behind the film (though Gibbons worked with the team), which makes me even more nervous. However, he's a bit of an eccentric, so its understandable he didn't want to see a perversion of the form.

On Feb.26.2009 at 05:01 PM
Jason A Tselentis’s comment is:

I stand behind your author credit, Kevin, and to clarify: the piece states writer / illustrator team of Moore / Gibbons; meaning writer Moore / Illustrator Gibbons; although I did not get into the graphic novel specifics about pencils versus inks versus colors, which you correctly mention.

On Feb.26.2009 at 06:41 PM
JDsgirlBev’s comment is:

An audience coming in cold, with no foreknowledge, may be a little lost at first. I believe however, that most people are going to be engaged enough with the story to give it a chance. If they do exit the theater going What the HELL just happened? they may just go back and see it again!

Watchmen isn't an easy read, it demands something more from the reader than just a superficial skimming. It demands it's reader absorb some pretty deep themes. If readers don't GET it, the comics aren't going to spoon feed them the answers.

Whether the movie has legs outside fannish audiences is yet to be seen. I doubt the movie is going to spoon feed the audience answers any more than the comics did. I can't see the movie opening at less than 48 million dollars, and I think an opening weekend of 55 million isn't pushing it all that much.

On Feb.27.2009 at 12:33 AM
Su’s comment is:

crucial to mention that Alan Moore did not throw his approval behind the film

Worth a mention, but that statement also requires background context, as it doesn't mean nearly as much that it might seem.
Sure, he hasn't endorsed the movie, but that's more likely because he's pre-emptively removed himself from these licensing deals wholesale for some time now after having seen other projects screwed up(in his eyes). I think I recall seeing somewhere that he's actually signed whatever his share of money would be over to Gibbons, for that matter.

It's not that his silence is some sort of condemnation of this movie; he's just plain not involved. Whether or not the project would have met with his approval, he will probably never even see it, though he has made one semi-approving comment about the script being "as close as he could imagine anyone getting."

On Feb.27.2009 at 06:41 AM
brooklynmatt’s comment is:

some interesting (and disappointing) info on how the movie will be different from the graphic novel: How 9/11 Changed Watchmen

On Feb.27.2009 at 11:49 AM
Jason A. Tselentis’s comment is:

Thanks for that link, Matt, especially since 9/11 has been on my mind while reading the novel. Changes to the story were inevitable. Gibbons uses the twin towers in some of the scene backdrops, and it has a more powerful resonance now that they're gone. However, I did not consider the violence angle that the article you shared brings up.

On Feb.27.2009 at 02:04 PM
Josh B’s comment is:

I ... hope the movie does not kill one of the greatest graphic novels of the 20th century.

Alan Moore has plenty to say on that topic and others.
(Loquacious much? Sheesh.)

On Feb.27.2009 at 03:19 PM
KirkM’s comment is:

Hey, The Watchmen's flashbacks influenced the guys who produce Lost… I think any TV viewer addicted to that show will recognized the format, will not be confused by the sequencing. Unless it is not done well, of course.
FYI, a story in the Times today says early indications are that The Watchmen will do a brisk business at the box office.

On Mar.01.2009 at 08:32 AM
Panasit’s comment is:

I never read the comic book, although I know the jist of the plot.

I didn't think the movie was too hard to follow. Quite the contrary, I thought it was a lot simpler than I expected (until the Oh so satisfying ending). I'm just not a big fan of slow motion. They (they being Zack Snyder and the writers) had to leave out many things because there weren't enough time, but I think editing out all the slow motion (and some of the so-awkward-it's-funny sex scenes), they can fit a squid in there.

On Mar.07.2009 at 04:27 AM
Panasit’s comment is:

Oh I forgot to mention, I do like it >_

On Mar.07.2009 at 04:30 AM
Jason A. Tselentis’s comment is:

Now, Panasit, go read the book. Jisting [getting] the plot and reading the book are not the same.

On Mar.07.2009 at 07:47 AM