There is always a risk in taking a beloved book and turning it into a movie. It’s a lot to live up to the rabid fans or “fanboys” of the various books that have serious cult followings. These people get very rabid and upset over anything and everything. The complain about the actors playing the parts. They complain about the directors. At the same time they are often the first people in line when the movie opens or camping out for days before.
I know people who have been crushed at the adaptation of the books they love. I have a friend who loved “Memoirs of a Geisha” and was very much looking forward to the movie only to leave disappointed. I know a few people who were fans of “The Da Vinci Code” and came away from that one wanting to throttle the director. The list goes on and on and there is nothing worse than trying to make a movie that is considered “unfilmable.”
For me the book, or series of books, that truly affected me was Alan Moore’s opus known as “Watchmen.” It was originally published as twelve books in a special graphic novel format. However, it was always one large novel. Just like many of the works of Dickens were released piecemeal (at times inciting riots), so too was this series originally sent out a piece at a time. It has been collected under one cover many times since, bringing it together as a novel at last.
Each frame ran seamlessly into the other. The comic book was “cinematic” from the start and filled with images you could imagine on any screen. The plot was unlike anything I had read before. It kept me hanging on every word. It started as what appeared to be a simple murder investigation and then the plot began twisting in on itself. The details became more and more minute. Slowly, inexorably, the plot build and built and built until the climax at issue 11. I can still remember nearly shaking as the final panels appeared and the horror of the full plot fell into place. It was dazzling. It was brilliant.
So, how could any attempt to bring this to film hope to succeed? Well, Zack Snyder, who brought the world “300” not too long ago, has done just that. The thing about it is that you have to learn to divide the book from the movie. Much like the movie “The Shining,” which bears very little resemblance to the book, but is horrific and decent on its own, so does “Watchmen” stand on its own as a separate piece of fiction and separate from its parent publication.
The plot seems simple. A superhero, one of only two still condoned by this alternate 1985, called the Comedian is murdered in his apartment. One of the few costumed heroes who still works illegally, Rorschach, who is also hopelessly insane, decides to investigate. From that simple premise we are pushed into a world where costumed heroes were very real. They were celebrities during the 40s and 50s. During a police strike in the 70s they were hired by the government to try and bring law and order to the city of New York. Then a ruling by the government banned them. Most have retired. Only two are still allowed to keep working and they are the molecule-manipulating blue-skinned being known as Dr. Manhattan and the cynical, laughing, grinning, womanizing, woman-raping beast known as the Comedian.
This is a world where Richard Nixon, using Dr. Manhattan and his limitless powers, to win Vietnam. Seen as a hero, the term limits for the presidency have been repealed. Using the Comedian to assassinate Woodward and Bernstein, he is now entering his fifth term. Meanwhile, the United States and the Soviet Union have moved every closer to nuclear war.
Can the heroes who are now retired figure out who murdered the Comedian? Can they also somehow prevent the world from destroying itself in a nuclear holocaust? Those are answers you are going to have to find out for yourself.
What I can tell you is that the acting is first rate. Most of the actors are people you will not know. The costumes are amazing. The visual effects of this movie are amazing to look at. Visually, this movie is on par with anything you have seen before and brings many of the famous scenes from the comic book are brought to life frame for frame.
Billy Crudup plays Dr. Manhattan. In the comics, this character was a bit of a dud. I found him to be much more compelling and fascinating in the movie. Crudup played the movie in a motion-capture suit and he is rendered naked and blue throughout. In short, if you have a problem with male genitalia, you will probably not want to see this movie.
In fact, very little of this movie is for a lot of people. The violence is visceral and bloody. The sex is graphic and very naked. The plot is dark and very grim. The visuals, at times, are profoundly disturbing. The superheroes are not warm and fuzzy people. This is not the fun-loving times of “Spider-man” or “Iron Man.” These are very real people. Some of them are obviously mentally disturbed.
The major changes to the book come at the end. The ending of the book left me shaken and boggling at the brilliance of the villain. The movie’s ending, at first, left me feeling cold. I was waiting for that shock that I got in issue 11. It didn’t hit me until later, after I had seen the movie and let it sink in for nearly 24 hours, that the impact finally sank in. I decided that, while different, it was an ending I could live with.
The powerhouse performance comes from Jackie Early Haley as Rorschach. Where did Haley vanish to all of those years from the silver screen? Where did he go to suddenly become this good? Rorschach is a profoundly disturbed human being who brutally murders the criminals he seeks. He wears a mask that is constantly changing, creating strange shapes as he talks. His mask is as disturbing as he is.
In the comic book Rorschach got an entire book where he was in prison and talking to a prison psychiatrist. It was one of the greatest books I had ever read. It also had a passage where Rorschach explained how he became who he is that is still one of my favorite passages in all of fiction. I urge you to seek out the book and read that. In the movie, that passage gets cut short and that entire issue is reduced to a few minutes on screen. It is still disturbing, but it lacks the powerful punch the comic book had.
All in all, the movie “Watchmen” works on its own. Yes, it will forever be hamstrung from coming from a comic book series that influenced not only me, but thousands of others across the globe. I am sure that I am not the only person who feels as strongly about this book. However, the movie should be weighed on its own merits. Weighed on those, it is a very good film.
Comic book movies have truly come into their own recently. “The Dark Knight” set the bar high. “Iron Man” managed to jump over that. Now, “Watchmen” deserves to be set into the same pantheon as those other two movies.
The special effects and visuals are amazing. The performances are first-rate. The plot will force you to pay attention. The costumes will dazzle you. In short, this is a good movie. See it.