06 March 2009
I just came back from a matinee viewing of The Watchmen. Though I haven't completely digested it yet, I wanted to write down some immediate reactions so they can float around in the mess of other online blog reactions/reviews.
The Watchmen poses an interesting challenge in screen adaptation. While comic books and graphic novels have been getting adapted and put on the screen for a while now (at a groan-inducing rate), The Watchmen is set apart not only by its cult following and near-historic status, but by its incredible density and literary weight. While dense, honorific literature is constantly adapted for the screen, a graphic novel of the same stature and complexity poses a new problem since it is a visual medium while literature is not. Thus, adapting The Watchmen presents the problematic issue of "faithfulness" to not only plot and character but to the visual style as well, down to very specific frames. In this way, I would argue that the graphic novel offers less room for filmic interpretation since the visual blueprint is largely laid out already.
Zack Snyder's attempt, though not without some merits, fails to transcend this problem of interpretation and adaptation. Indeed, Snyder makes sure to be quite faithful to his source text, down to specific lines and visual frames, but this seems to sacrifice performance and a certain chemistry that would give the film a life of its own. And even the attention paid to things such as the art direction and sets is diminished by Snyder's inability to direct effectively. There are way too many close-ups, the actors give mostly stilted performances, and there is a distant, glossy look that undermines any attempt to really immerse yourself in the carefully crafted universe Snyder worked to create. I never, for example, felt the grittiness of the city streets which Rorschach writes about, even as the camera folllows him -- everything glides along too smoothly to allow that kind of sensory absorption.
Instead, Snyder hits us over the head with loud crashes, slo-mo revolving camera actions shots, and accentuated violence, most of which is unnecessary. There is violence in the graphic novel, of course, and it does play an important role, but it is more concerned with the philosophy and psychology of violence rather than showing guts splattered against the ceiling. There does need to be some visualization of the violence in order for it to have an impact within the film, but I feel like Snyder stepped over the line in order to satisfy some sort of fetishistic fascination with gore. The raw, organic images of graphic violence also don't seem to fit in the slick, distanced world Snyder created -- it always feels a little forced, never a natural occurence within a convincingly-created world.
As someone who's read the original novel I of course have some personal gripes (what's with the casting of Ozymandias as some skinny-necked, mopey pretty boy instead of the chiseled Herculean charmer he was supposed to be?) that affected my viewing, and I wish I could abandon that but I can't -- and this is a bit of a problem for me. I had trouble separating the novel from the film, making for a very unique experience that may have prevented my complete immersion. I found myself anticipating certain scenes, down to the framing and dialogue. I didn't want to do that, but it couldn't be helped. I usually hate comparisons between source material and its film adaptation, especially with novels, since they are two different mediums of expression and are thus largely incomparable -- but with The Watchmen it seemed to be unavoidable, perhaps making its adaptation intrinsically flawed. Or perhaps this points out that a filmmaker shouldn't worry about the original frames, shouldn't reproduce instead of interpret, shouldn't think about the fanboys. Is that possible?
In the end, The Watchmen felt like giving the of fans of Moore and Gibbon's original graphic novel the satisfaction of watching their favorite characters come to life. And seeing specific frames recreated down to the tee was actually kind of satisfying at times. To see, for example, Dr. Manhattan in his black suit or Rorschach in numerous scenes (his costume was mostly completely unchanged down to the one broken epaulette). Even the newer inventions, such as Nite Owl's suit, were admittedly pretty cool. The title sequence was also a lot of fun -- I especially appreciated use of Dylan. For those unfamiliar with these scenes or these characters, I can't even imagine how I would view this movie.
I don't see how it would be possible to reach the level of depth achieved in the original text, and perhaps it's not. In this way, I can't completely condemn Zack Snyder's film. Like I mentioned earlier, a graphic novel of this much literary weight paired with specific visual layout is a uniquely overwhelming challenge and, like Nite Owl and the rest, Snyder had to make some compromises. I just wish those compromises weren't so keenly felt.