Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Who will watch THE WATCHMEN?

WARNING: This post is neither humorous, nor is it particularly coherent. Continue reading at your own risk.

As the Beat reports, production will begin on The Watchmen movie, a movie that has been rumored to be in the making since 1987.

How would I make my Watchmen movie? Well, since no one has asked, I'll tell you.

First off, I wouldn't make it into a movie, per se. I wouldn't try to cram everything into a 2-3 hour movie. There's no way to condense that much raw storytelling into so short an amount of time, and still carry the same emotional and dramatic impact.

Instead, I believe Watchmen would be best translated to the screen via an HBO or Showtime mini-series. That way, you can almost shot-for-shot translate each individual chapter into its own episode.

Why does Watchmen work so well? Because it operates on a number of different levels. It's not just the main plot line of a detective story/murder mystery that captivates readers. It's the depth, and the commentary on the artform as a whole that speaks to readers on deeper levels. The format and pacing of Watchmen is just as important as the detailed minutia of the world they inhabit. To streamline it in any way takes away the things that made it so unique. When reading it, you had several different plotlines running throughout the series that somehow all managed to converge into a thought-provoking conclusion. Would Dr. Manhattan's decision to leave our plane of existence have been so dramatic if we hadn't taken a pause in the action to recount his personal story? Would our connection to Hollis Mason be as strong without the excerpts from his autobiography to flesh out his character? A movie version has a number of difficult hurdles to overcome, not the least of which is deciding which elements to cut and which elements to keep.

A mini-series would solve a number of these dilemmas. In a mini-series, you can keep all of the elements. You can capture the pacing and the depth of each individual comic book chapter, taking the appropriate time to delve into characters' backgrounds and psyches, without interupting the dramatic flow. In a movie, you can't just abruptly halt the linear progression and spend 20 minutes recounting Dr. Manhattan's past. It wouldn't have the same impact and it would seem disjointed. Movies have a different tempo, one that Watchmen would have to be molded to fit. With a mini-series, you could capture the essence of each chapter, making each individual episode its own distinct piece, but a piece that fits neatly into the overall puzzle. And just as each issue of Watchmen provided readers with some background history on the characters and their world, so too, could you translate this to the small screen. The first episode could end with Hollis reading from his autobiography, a la books on tape, over either illustrated storyboards or even grainy re-enactments of his prose. There are a number of possibilities. In this way, you could capture the same spirit of storytelling that made reading Watchmen so unique.

The Pirate comics.

A minor, but important, parallel in the book is "the Tales of the Black Freighter." Why is it important? One, it cleverly answers the question of what kinds of comics are produced in a world full of superheroes? (A: Pirate comics!) Two, the Jolly Roger Skull and Crossbones of the pirate flag neatly mirror several other symbols in the comic, including the radiation symbol, the neon drug store sign, and at times, the image of Rorschach's mask. Three, it's written by one of the authors who ends up on the secret island and helps create the "space alien" for the story's climax. Four, the pirate story cleverly parallels a hero's decent into madness, as the protoganist in the pirate story inadvertantly becomes the monster he is trying to protect his loved ones against. Ozymandias ultimately becomes the villain in his mad plot to "save" the world...and he even mentions a dream of swimming toward a black ghost ship, evoking the final image of the Black Freighter story. Again, while a minor point, it serves as a nifty symbolic outline of the story's overall dramatic structure. A powerful flourish that most likely will be lost in translation to film, but one which could be kept in television series, through animated sequences as the boy reads his pirate comics. While a movie would almost certainly need to cut these sequences for time, a series provides the flexibility to more fully explore all of the book's themes.

I also think the story needs to be set in the alternate reality of the 1980s, as almost a retro-neo-futuristic cautionary tale - one which wouldn't really work as well if set in a post-9/11 world, for obvious reasons. Which is another obstacle a movie version would have to overcome. The electric cars and Gunga Diners serve as subtle distinctions of how superheroes changed the world and could be set in modern times...and yet, to set it even 20 years in the comic book's future (our current time) takes away from the immediate impact of those Cold War heroes. The characters are very much of their time and to update them in any way would drastically alter them. The Comedian who lived through the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War would be a very different figure from the Comedian of the comic book.

The format of Watchmen (I believe) is just as important as the content, as the style comments on the substance and vice versa. Watchmen was as much a commentary on the comic book art form as it was a commentary on the geo-political and social turmoil of the 1980s, and to adapt it into something else takes away from its power and prestige. If you can't make it right, I'd prefer it not be made at all.

Being a fan, I wish the movie makers the best, but I wonder if trying to make Watchmen into a movie isn't a losing proposition - a project destined to fail; an ambitious attempt doomed to fall far short of expectations; an impossible ideal. A noble effort begun with good intentions that will ultimately lead down the dark path of lunacy and straight into the icy depths toward the shadowy silhouette of "the Black Freighter."