[3 March 2009]
It would be safe to say that nobody expected this. Watchmen, widely hailed as the greatest graphic novel of all time, is finally hitting the big screen, emerging from a messy production history with its hype intact. The film has been perfectly pitched to the public. Bubbling anticipation, false starts, surprisingly accurate and moody trailers, not to mention the comic’s already gargantuan reputation—all of these have worked together to build anticipation carefully, when it could have fizzled out long ago.
It has been a long time coming. There were murmurs way back in the late 1980s about a possible adaptation. In the early ‘90s, Terry Gilliam’s name was thrown around as possible director, which fell through due to funding issues. David Hayter wrote a script relatively recently that seemed to circulate a bit of excitement, but this came to a halt quickly and mysteriously. It seemed like it was never going to take off, with Gilliam’s claim that it was “unfilmable” echoing in the ears of anyone who wanted to see Watchmen on the screen.
Interestingly, one man not involved in this perennial kerfuffle is the writer of the original work, Alan Moore. Portrayed as an eccentric magician who lurks in some unknown corner of England called Northampton (which is just surreal if you’ve ever been to the place), he isn’t exactly someone who blends in with the crowd. He has also been the major detractor of the Watchmen movie, claiming, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, that he will be “spitting venom all over” it in the days running up to its release, bursting every blogger’s ecstatic spit bubbles in the process. He stated that this was ‘“not the culture I signed up for” and his patience had ebbed away a long time ago.
Indeed, Moore is not a person who minces his words when it comes to film adaptations of his work. In a recent feature for TotalFilm.com, Moore hopped on his tip-toes, clenched his fists, and threw his most barbed jabs yet:
The main reason why comics can’t work as films is largely because everybody who is ultimately in control of the film industry is an accountant. These people may be able to add up and balance the books, but in every other area they are stupid and incompetent and don’t have any talent.
It is for comments like this that Moore gets his reputation for being mean-spirited and elitist when it comes to the movie industry, but it’s only recently that people have really begun to take issue with his ferocity. From Hell didn’t matter—it didn’t do too well at the box office, and no one was exactly begging to see it adapted for cinema anyway. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film was a ludicrous idea from the start, and Moore’s objections couldn’t be heard over the groans and head-slappings that emanated from every screening. V for Vendetta was, well, a bit of a curious one. It seemed to have credibility when the news first broke, and there was a fair amount of excitement, but the contentious nature of the subject matter—with the obvious comparisons to the contemporary terrorism climate—didn’t get much of a rise out of the establishment and so missed out on some valuable controversy. It all came across as a little bit silly and a little bit desperate.
Watchmen is different. As a comic, it has attracted the broadest range of fans, sold the largest amount of copies, and there is just something inherently cinematic about the book itself. It is with this latest attempt to adapt Moore’s work that the creator’s voice now stands alone in its fury. All of a sudden Moore is old-fashioned and egotistic. He hasn’t got a grip on modern popular culture, and he should just learn to go with the flow. Doesn’t he want to see the fortress of Ozymandias on a high-definition screen? Not even a little bit?
It is a strange thing when being consistent in one’s beliefs brings about this kind of quasi-backlash. While he may be accused of going over-the-top at times, losing his cool and spitefully lashing out over something a lot of us would consider fairly trivial, Moore is often crystal-clear in his justifications and backs himself up with common sense. He explains that his contract with DC Comics was immensely unfair, effectively stripping him of any control of his own creations, and he reasons that a film costing 100 million dollars is bordering on the immoral, especially when the end result is so often disappointing, if not outright atrocious. In his own words:
100 million dollars—that’s what they spent on the Watchmen film which nearly didn’t come out because of the lawsuit, that’s what they spent on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen which shouldn’t have come out but did anyway. Do we need any more shitty films in this world? We have quite enough already. Whereas the 100 million dollars could sort out the civil unrest in Haiti. And the books are always superior, anyway.
Perhaps this is uncomfortable for us to confront. All we do is spend a few pennies to see the film, enjoy it for two hours or so, and then go back to our lives—it all looked expensive, but what does it matter how expensive? Once we are faced with figures reaching over 100 million dollars our minds tend to go fuzzy.
To put it in perspective, consider the budget for the comic. The work of a couple of people, printed on ordinary paper, distributed at a relatively cheap price, 23 years ago. The fact that it takes millions of dollars, decades of stop-start progress, and incessant promotion to even adapt something that—if we’re being honest—is seriously unlikely to top the original just seems like a waste of time. Call me a square, but why not just read the comic? It is available to everyone, after all.
The situation takes on a vicious edge when you consider how Moore’s objections have barely been acknowledged by the fat cats over in Hollywood. Zack Snyder, the director of the new blockbuster, has managed to cobble together some praise for Moore and a few meek near-apologies, but he took up the job anyway, knowing that the man he supposedly admired was against it. One can easily relate to Snyder’s apparent eagerness to direct such a genre-defining comic, but I really don’t see how he can be all that comfortable knowing that somewhere, deep in Northampton, England, the writer of the original work is doing all that he can to deflate—if not magically curse—the Watchmen merchandise machine.
What is perhaps a unique feature about the most recent Moore adaptation is how apparently faithful to the source material it is, as well as (reportedly) quite good as a film. Early reviews have been reasonably positive, and it doesn’t seem like there have been too many compromises in bringing the film to a potentially new audience. The reason Moore stopped accepting checks was, after all, because of the poor quality of From Hell. He didn’t want his name associated with such debacles, to the extent that he asked that his name be completely absent from the V for Vendetta adaptation (and that became a fruitless struggle, leading to an even greater rift between him and the American comics industry). Perhaps he should be happy that, finally, after all these years, one of his works will not be presented to the wider public as a complete travesty.
Of course, to Moore, this is not the point. Aside from the mistreatment of such a revered writer, one has to ask how necessary the adaptation really is, and what this means for both the comic and film industries. Who is not sick of the constant lack of originality in Hollywood? Fair enough, characters like Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman are beyond comics—it would be ridiculous to claim them for one artistic form only. When it comes to just taking entire stories and adapting them, however, especially when the story is so steeped in comic lore and makes use of specific techniques that would either be impossible to reproduce on screen, or would just cause scratching heads among the non-comic-reading audience, it becomes greedy. This pillaging of an art form is merciless, and, in cases like the recent film of The Spirit, disrespectful and depressing.
But it also works against the comics industry. In Moore’s case, he’s been pushed away so often that he vows to no longer work for mainstream American comics, which is a loss to all of us who like to read them. On a larger scale, we are stuck with comics that resemble movie storyboards, ready for the screen, rather than works that celebrate their own form and are not glancing towards the film execs with every wide-screen shot and every sickly piece of snappy dialogue. Both fields—at least in their mainstream form—are in a constant bridge-building process, sharing their respective, heart-stoppingly unexciting ideas.
I want to add my voice to Moore’s, not because I’m snobbish or I see movies as the enemy, but because I care about both forms and want to see the best out of each of them. I also care about the treatment of one of the greatest comic creators of all time, and feel bad for people who are put off from exploring his work because of a rubbish film involving Sean Connery. It has to end here, with Watchmen. I’ll do my bit to send a message by never stepping anywhere near the film, and if you think that’s childish, do feel free to watch it. Just don’t complain when a film sequel to Watchmen becomes a harrowing reality.