Blogs > Liberty and Power > In which I explain why I liked the film version of Watchmen

Mar 10, 2009 4:05 pm

In which I explain why I liked the film version of Watchmen

Some L&P readers may be interested in my take on the film version of my favorite graphic novel, Watchmen. It's below the fold.

I saw Zack Snyder’s film of Watchmen today. I couldn’t think more highly of the graphic novel on which the film is based – I’ve read it at least 15 times, I’ve taught it in classes, I’ve lectured on it, and I’ve published on it. I have a fanboy love for it and a philosopher’s respect for it. I was nervous about the film being made, because it was very important to me that it not disrespect the book. Alan Moore’s works have not fared well being made into movies, and Watchmen in particular is so much a creature of its medium – it’s not only a comic, it’s about comics. Moore and his collaborator Dave Gibbons used the medium to its fullest potential, so it was reasonable on several levels to be concerned about a film adaptation. But the news is good: Snyder did a great job translating the story to film. Part of what I mean by that is to recognize that movies are fundamentally different from comics, so the concept of “being faithful to the source material” is complicated. Some said Watchmen was “unfilmable” – in one sense, that’s literally true: watching a movie is simply a different sort of experience than reading a comic. So too is making a movie different from making a comic. So for me, “faithfulness” here is mainly about staying true to the story – not just the plot, but also the themes, the psychological insight, the philosophical ideas explored. If some layers of depth are left out, that’s sad, but in some cases unavoidable, and in any event excusable provided that the central story is still getting told, and as much of the deep stuff gets in as possible. An example of getting this right would be the film of The Name of the Rose. There was a lot of philosophy and theology and history in the book that couldn’t make it into the film, but I was impressed with how much of it did. On the other hand, the film version of V for Vendetta, while enjoyable on one level, not only lost a lot of its depth, it changed the underlying themes in important ways. Watchmen did not make that mistake. Snyder omitted some story elements, and of course the psychological portraits aren’t as in-depth as in the book, but what made it successful is that so much of the deeper stuff did manage to get in, and Snyder remained true to the main themes. Indeed, he was extremely faithful to the story for the most part. By now probably everyone has heard that he “changed the ending,” but that’s not exactly correct: he changed the mechanism by which the ending was achieved, while leaving completely intact the nature of what has happened, the ethical ramifications of it, and the dilemmas faced by the protagonists in response to it (as well as one of the best lines ever). Was it sad to miss the omitted elements? Of course. The book is richer and deeper. But I like movies too, and this is probably as good a movie of this book as it was possible to make. The fight choreography was spectacular, the visual effects were incredible, the cinematography was very evocative of the panels of the novel. I thought the acting was fine, Jackie Earle Haley’s in particular, but there weren’t any performances I thought were weak. And someone watching the film who has not read the book should be able to grasp the awful dilemma of the film’s end as well as its characters’ ambivalences. That means it was a success. A or A-. I am eagerly awaiting the deleted scenes on the DVD.

UPDATE: some readers have expressed interest in my 2005 essay on the subject, if you don't want to buy the book linked in the post, try here.

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