Though reviewers are polarized, they seem to agree that Watchmen is not terrible. But to call it a successful film would be a mistake. The movie works as an accompaniment to the text, but any moviegoer unfamiliar with the comic would be confused to all hell.
Watchmen author Alan Moore, who fought vehemently to get his name off the film’s credits, called his work “inherently unfilmable.” I don’t think a good Watchmen movie is impossible, but it’s important to understand the difference between adapting something for the screen and merely translating it: Adaptation recognizes the unique qualities of both mediums and acknowledges that changes must be made. Translation attempts to imitate, line by line.
Moore’s skepticism reminded me of seeing cartoonist Adrian Tomine speak last fall in Seattle. During the Q&A, someone asked him if there was any interest in adapting his comic Shortcomings to a film. Tomine argued his work didn’t lend itself to the medium. The pacing, style, and dialogue couldn’t be adapted into a screenplay without substantial rewriting, and even then, it might not work.
The question was pressed further: would he consider the film if it was animated? Annoyed, Tomine declared, “it’s just not the same.”
Though it’s always interesting to see how a screenwriter, director, and actors interpret a novel, there’s something lost in the space where you, as the reader, imagine the text. That’s not to say there haven’t been great films inspired by literature, but they are distinct experiences. Comics are powerful for the way we interact with the text. As comics theorist Scott McCloud argues, the magic of the medium is in the gutter—the space between the panels.
I think there’s an assumption, even among dedicated readers, that their favorite comics will adapt well to the screen. Maybe it’s the fact that comics provide a textual and visual experience; maybe it’s because they already look like storyboards. In the same vein, Moore lamented the state of comics as becoming fodder for film studios:
There are three or four companies now that exist for the sole purpose of creating not comics, but storyboards for films… Comics are [becoming] a sort of pumpkin patch growing franchises that might be profitable for the ailing movie industry.
The recent trend of filming every remotely popular Marvel and DC Comics character has yielded a handful of successful adaptations, but there’s a difference between superhero movies and comic book movies. While superheros are found in comics, their movies are adaptations of their mythology rather than a direct interpretations their stories. The films take bits and pieces from decades of serialized plot lines and, even then, bring them together to tell a new, unique story. Spider-Man 2 has familiar conflicts and villains, but the story itself is completely new; The Dark Knight is a brilliant composite of several recent renderings of Batman.
Separated from superhero movies, the number of comic book films gets much smaller. The few successes are easy to count, and even then, they seem like exceptions. Ghost World, A History of Violence, and Road to Perdition, all excellent, deviate heavily from their source material. More importantly, all these examples are adapted well.
The failures, on the other hand, make up a big chunk of Alan Moore’s bibliography: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, and V for Vendetta.
Though Watchmen is about superheroes, it is not a superhero movie. Moore’s work is a self-contained story, one where every line of dialogue and every panel contributes to the greater achievement of the work. But director Zack Snyder’s attempt to capture the complexity of Moore’s narrative is where the movie begins to stumble over itself. Rather than adapting Watchmen to film, Snyder tries to render the comic as a movie. Many of the shots look exactly like the panels from the comic; most of the dialogue is lifted exactly from the text. But while this is all cool to an extent, it’s hard to appreciate if you aren’t already familiar with the source material.
Early stills from the film were intentionally compared to panels from the comic, and Snyder assured fans that they were doing everything in their power to make the film look as much like the comic as possible. He said that he kept a copy of the comic close to him at all times during production. Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons was brought in to blog about his visits to the set.
But to me, these were the biggest red flags. This panders to the idea that adaptations don’t succeed because they aren’t faithful to the source material. Watchmen’s greatest fault is that it stayed too close to Moore’s vision, rather than adapting to an experience suited for the cinema. In that way, Watchmen is lost in translation because it should’ve been an adaptation.