I went to see Watchmen today. I am sure there are many people who take it pretty much as a foregone conclusion that I liked the movie. And I did, but with some reservations. Probably the most important one is that I would not recommend everyone and their mother go and see it. In fact, I think that people who have little or no prior exposure to comics really need not apply. Sure enough, the movie is a visual tour de force, but that was pretty much to be expected from Zack Snyder, given his past performance. Also, Watchmen is one of the true classics of the genre – in fact, at the time of its publication it was sui generis. It is precisely because Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight why now (some) comics are referred to as “graphic novels”.
However, while original Watchmen won the Hugo award and was elected among 100 most important novels of the 20th century by Time Magazine, it is still a genre piece and as such requires some at least passing familiarity with comics. And that is especially true with movie – when people pick up a comic book they expect to see a comic. When they go to the cinema, they mostly tend to expect to see a movie, not a “graphic novel” filmed – and many things that are perfectly okay in a comic may come across as over-the-top violent, pretentious, infantile, lacking any subtlety, unjustified, outright silly or any combination thereof. Of course, a great deal of regular fare shown and seen in movie theaters is display varying degrees of same features, but comics often take it to the extreme. It really is a genre thing. And in a way, Watchmen is very much aware of it – in fact it makes several subversive references to both comics in general and superhero comics in particular. But in order to notice it, one must know what to look for.
Another smaller gripe that I had was the cast. While nobody really sucked, no one really shone either. I guess this has something to do with Heath Ledger pushing the bar in the Dark Knight Returns, as compared to the raw and unadulterated lunacy of Joker, Roschach came across simply as an angry man. In general, the movie was faithful to the book (with an important exception regarding one certain giant squid), at least as far as I can remember – and as I don’t have the book at hand I can’t really check. There are, however, some necessary modifications and omissions. The main one is cutting out the whole Tales of the Black Freighter, a parallel storyline embedded in the original novel. It will be issued on DVD as a separate animated feature, but this still severs the connection and allusions that it creates in the comic. Yet another thing that is lost in comic book to movie translation is the unique and creative structure of the original, from 9-panel master layout and using of textual interludes as flashbacks to the internal symmetry of issue 5, titled “Fearful Symmetry”. This all is of course invisible to those who haven’t seen the original, and those who have know it anyway.
However, there are things that a movie can do which comics can’t. Watchmen has a great soundtrack which gives the movie a whole new dimension – it is in a way a tribute not only to Watchmen and comics in general, but also to eighties. Background music to some superhero post-mission emergency sex, Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” from his 1984 LP “Various Positions” (pun obviously intended), got the whole auditorium 11 of Regal Cinemas’ Union Square cinema singing along.
All said and done, Watchmen will surely join Sin City, Dark Knight Returns, V, and 300 in the growing list of translations of classic dark comics to movies that have become classics on their own. It is not, however, something that everyone will enjoy, as just like the original novel, it makes some demands to its viewers and has no intention to apologise for it.