Rating scale: 9 (superlative) to 1 (execrable)
Short story: 9-7, recommended; 6-4, up to you; 3-1, eschew
Ratings intended for: adult SF&F fans
Watchmen (R, 2:37, Imax at Star) — 9
Books are not movies. They cannot, for example, set a scene at a glance.
Movies are not books. They cannot, for example, do introspection in an instant.
Neither form has proved adept at pre-digesting expository lumps.
Either form, at its best, can amaze, inspire, thrill, or move us.
It’s a challenge to adapt either medium to the other. Steven Gould’s marvelous novel Jumper became a wretched film of the same name. Conversely, about the best you can say of any novelization from a script (even one in the hands of a highly competent author) is “It was workmanlike.”. Not that a good cross-medium adaptation can’t be done at all, just that the odds are stacked against it. So many things have to come together just right that it’s like lightning striking twice in the same place.
The shining exception to this rule is, of course, The Lord of the Rings, an acknowledged literary masterpiece that could have been just horribly, horribly botched as a movie. But it had the good fortune to fall into the hands of friends, and the result was a masterpiece in its own right. (Bless you, Peter Jackson. And uncountable thanks to New Line Cinema, which literally bet the studio on you.)
Adding to the normal problems of adaptation are the added challenges associated with science fiction and fantasy. These genres get no respect in either realm.
Consider what it takes to win praise from literary critics. If you crank out a novel about an angst-ridden Jewish writer who lives in New York City, you’re almost automatically on the short list for that year’s top prizes in fiction. (That may have something to do with literary criticism being dominated by angst-ridden Jewish writers who live in New York City.) Skiffy? Fantasy? Forget it! Not “deep” enuf. About the sole SF&F work to crack this inner circle was Michael Chabon’s wondrously written Pulitzer Prize–winning alternative history, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which happened to be about angst-ridden Jewish comic-book writers who lived in New York City. (It probably helped that one of them turned out to be gay.)
Hollywood is just as dismissive of the genre, tho it’s more of a love-hate relationship here. After all, 80 of the top 100 box-office movies of all time have been either science fiction or fantasy. Money, sure; keep it rolling in! But respect? A different story altogether. Look at 2008’s crop of terrific comic-book films. What would it take for any of them to get an Oscar nomination? Would they have had to kill to get one? No; that’s an exaggeration. You do have to die, tho. Clearly, from the movie industry’s perspective, SF&F flix are like the good-time gal you hang out with as much as possible, not the one you take home to mom.
And, if these 2 establishments look down their snoots at SF&F generally, they are even more contemptuous of comic books. Even when comics are collated into more substantial form (in an appeal to “weightiness”) and recategorized as “graphic novels” (in a desperate attempt to evade “comicness”), they start out with a strike against them due solely to their roots. Maus, Watchmen, Fun House, Persepolis. I’m not out of fingers on my 1st hand yet, and I can’t think of any others that ever got taken seriously. It’s like the sad old story about women and black people struggling to make it in America: Due to mindless bigotry, you have to be twice as good to get half as far.
I suspect that part of the explanation for this lack of respect lies in the 1-dimensional axis along which standard fiction gets evaluated. At one end of the spectrum lies Plot; at the other, Characterization. English classes, film schools, and lit crit all go on endlessly about the proper balance between these 2 poles. I submit that, like A. Square in Flatland, they are oblivious to an entire additional dimension. A thoro analysis requires us to expand that 1-dimensional axis into a 2-dimensional triangle by adding a 3rd vertex, Setting.
“It had begun misting as she stepped out of the cab in front of the Waldorf-Astoria.” 1 sentence into your novel, and your readers already know a wealth of information about your world. Had it been a movie, the establishing shot would have burned Setting into their brains even more quickly. Because the familiar is handled so readily in mimetic fiction, it’s taken for granted by the critics and scholars.
SF&F, tho, have a larger burden to shoulder. For them, Setting is on a par with Plot and Characterization as something that must be dealt with. It’s necessary to create a whole different world for these genres, and doing so takes pages and frames that can’t be devoted to the other 2 vertices of the triangle. Thus, to a standard 1-dimensional critique, the genre seems to skimp on the elements that mainstream critics are predisposed to look for.
SF&F fans, of course, are accustomed to letting their eyes roam across the whole triangle of creative space. That’s why they can find delight in, say, the works of Arthur C. Clarke, which revel in new worlds built or discovered by cardboard-cutout characters. Doing right by Setting makes up somewhat for sins of Plot and Characterization. But only in the cloistered ghetto of SF&F, not in the great outer world.
You might think that graphic novels would be an ideal bridge between books and movies. After all, they partake of the time-decoupled, info-dense, and cerebral (both senses) aspects of the novel as well as of the immediacy, activity, and audio-visuality of film. As such, it would seem to be a shorter jump in either direction from the half-way point of the graphic novel. So far, however, what little jumping has occurred seems to have gone almost exclusively from graphic novels to films, and not many of those.
Which brings me, at last, to the specifics of Watchmen, based on a 12-issue comic-book series done in 1985 and 1986 by Alan Moore (writer) and Dave Gibbons (illustrator). It was called “unfilmable” by no less than Terry Gilliam (who knew 1st-hand that 12 Monkeys and Ice Pirates were filmable), based on his having tried and failed to do the job. It was one of the featured attractions in the 2001 edition of David Hughes’s The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made.
Like many devotees of the original, I was both anticipating and dreading the movie version. Would it be like Lord of the Rings or Jumper?
Well, it is quite faithful to the original. This alone has drawn both praise and condemnation from mainstream film critics. It did have to leave out significant material to come in under 3 hours. The running subplot between the young black kid cadging pirate comics from the crabby old white guy running the newsstand? Gone. Vaporized like the characters. Gone also any opportunity to wonder why, in a world with real, live costumed crime-fighters, comic books feature pirates instead of superheroes. Too nuanced. Indeed, while Watchmen has 10 times the subtlety of any other superhero movie, it still can’t do justice to the original. Perhaps nothing could have. A novelization would probably have fallen short in a different way.
But look at traps avoided. It’s stupendously common in movies to have 1 or 2 lead actors carrying most of the load. The “star”, the “hero and heroine”, the “protagonist” — all staples of cinematic convention, and a tempting lure for director Zack Snyder. But no, he stuck to the ensemble nature of the original. More heroic heroes, more villainous villains? No. Shades of gray all around. Long, drawn-out, semi-aerial fight scenes choreographed by Hong Kong martial-arts masters? Nope: Short, brutal, and to the point. And screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse trust the audience to be smart enuf to figure out for itself why Ozymandias can simultaneously be “the smartest man on Earth” (and presumptively the geekiest) and a better fighter than a trio of heroes who had just taken out a cell block full of rioting prisoners.
Casting? Suffice it to say bingo!
On 2nd thot, not quite sufficient. Jackie Earle Haley was beyond perfect as Rorschach.
In the final analysis, I conclude simply that Watchmen inspires ruminations like this one.
We have a winner.
*short attention span synopsis
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Well, you know, Nancy, with all the time we've spent shooting the movie and the sequel, I could have been president for 8 years.
-- Saturday Night Live actor, simulating Ronald Reagan's departure from the White House