Zack Snyder may as well have filmed his adaptation of the seminal comic book Watchmen in a different language, as the ideas and deep humanism that writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons attempted to convey are unfortunately beyond his grasp as a film maker and artist. Rather, like a teenage groupie playing air-guitar to his favorite rock band, Snyder goes through the motions but robs the work of its essence. His strengths, assuming he has any at all, lie in different areas than crafting a story, working with actors, or conveying thematic ideas. Watchmen is a curious work of adaptation, in all of its attempts to stay true to the arranged sequence of events of the source material, it robs the work of its spirit and, ultimately, its point. Apparently imitation is not the highest form of flattery.
The failings of Watchmen are two-fold; by simply condensing the novel’s plot into a nearly three hour film, it fails to transpose the ideas that made the original work rise above the medium, so it fails as a work of adaptation. By making the material damn-near inaccessible for anyone who hasn’t read the comic, it fails as a stand-alone entity. What we’re left with is a strange exercise in the art of adaptation--- a movie that wasn’t adapted enough. The few changes Snyder makes to the original work are for logistical reasons as opposed to creative reasons, and they still reflect his desire to be as invisible an adapter as possible. The only unique stamp Snyder puts on the picture is that he pumps up the violence to his typical quasi-absurd levels, which actually distorts one of the key themes of the novel. Instead of getting to the heart and soul of the work, he simply transposes the surface across mediums.
Gone is the pulp and camp tonality that Gibbons and Moore established in their novel; rather, like 300, Snyder turns the film into a (mostly) humorless and ultra-serious affair, his unwillingness to differentiate himself from the novel stifling his creative choices. The movie preserves the least interesting thing about the comic book, the McGuffin, and makes the ordered sequence of events its sole emphasis. Its focus lies solely in the moment-to-moment pleasures of trying to solve the central mystery, the exact kind of shallow pleasures that the comic book challenged its readers to move past. In the comic, the McGuffin was the catalyst for its formal deconstruction and rumination on the iconography of comic books, but Snyder believes that’s all there is to it. It isn’t a case like Jackson and his Lord of the Rings films, where the removal of the literature’s thematic subtext gave way to a flawless embodiment of Hollywood genre filmmaking. Snyder isn’t a very competent movie maker.
After a deliriously paced and cleverly constructed opening scene (and a spectacular opening credits sequence), the film segues into being a re-creation of certain panels and certain text that Snyder seems to think are representative of the whole of the work. It plays like a “Best Of” compilation instead of a channeling of a work into a separate medium. The inability to differentiate the film from the source material isn’t because of any particular failing of the film; the movie doesn’t even attempt to be thought of as anything but a literal adaptation of the comic book. For Snyder, condensing Watchmen’s labyrinthine plot into a comprehensible film is the ultimate accomplishment (if nothing else, the film is at least comprehensible.) While it is admirable how many details from the novel are preserved for the screen adaptation, in the end it’s all vacuous posturing.
The only time the film shows a life of its own is in its inspired use of soundtrack. This gives the images a sense of urgency and is an effective way of using film’s relation to music to express ideas, and it’s the only time I got even the vaguest impression that I was actually watching a movie. The opening credits sequence sets Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” to images of the Golden Age era superheroes, and while it seems like an obvious choice at first, it’s an effective way of relating Superhero mythology to folk-lore. Though the soundtrack is mostly well-known standards, these universal pop songs briefly evoke the cheeky post-modernist tone of the novel, and more importantly, the unique capabilities of cinema. When Snyder is forced to edit and time his shots to music, the effect is lyrical; it gives the images a sense of life (what Eisenstein called “synchronization of senses”) that the rest of the movie lacks. I can’t deny that I grinned giddily during one of Snyder’s bombastic pan outs—as the camera pulls back to reveal The Comedian’s trademarked smiley face permanently etched into the topography of Mars, Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower” comes blasting in through the theater’s Dolby Digital speakers, serving as both an effective scene transition and an evocation of the apocalyptic narrative. It’s an image from the comic book--- but unlike most others in the film, it actually feels relevant to the movie as a whole. In these instances, Snyder’s sensibilities as a commercial/music video director are thrust to center stage, and he excels, making the material feel like his own. The only questionable soundtrack choices are a somewhat tacked on (thematically speaking) use of Mozart’s Requiem, as well as a My Chemical Romance cover of Dylan’s “Desolation Row”, which ends the movie on a sour note.
I’m willing to admit that Snyder has a certain movie sense; he understands how images flow into one another, and he uses these effects in clever ways. During action sequences, however, Snyder can’t stay away from his 300-esque antics, relishing in the same violence that Gibbons/Moore sought to deconstruct and ultimately transcend. He turns Rorschach’s childhood tragedy into an opportunistic cheap thrill—slowing down and zooming in to make sure we get a strong visceral sense of the violence— but not analyzing the emotional and psychological repercussions of it. It’s reminiscent of the testosterone-fueled adolescent aggression that made 300 such a deplorable piece of movie-making.
The film reverses Jean-Luc Godard’s principle of screen color; in Watchmen, it’s not red, it’s blood. The violence in the film is meant only to titillate and excite, whereas the original work was resoundingly anti-violence and forced you to comprehend the morality (or lack thereof) of masked vigilantism. The most fundamental of these misunderstandings occurs with the character of Rorschach, played on screen by Jackie Earl Haley. In the comic, Rorschach is a broken man whose personal tragedy rendered him unable to function in the world, instead channeling his psychological maladies into a contradictory concept of ‘justice’. The film hijacks this character and transforms him into your average run-of-the-mill badass, relishing in his acts of violence instead of questioning the morality of a person who murders as ‘justice’ to others and penance to himself. This microcosmic aspect of the film indicates where the entirety of it goes wrong.
Ultimately, the film adaptation of Watchmen isn’t as good as it should have been, but it also isn’t as bad as it could have been. It’s a mostly empty shell of a movie that shows a sense of life and personality in fleeting instances, but it’s a compromised vision. While Snyder may think that being as pure as possible to the original work is tantamount to effective adaptation, sanctity to text subverts originality and true expression in Watchmen. It’s so devoid of original thought that it doesn’t even fail on its own terms.