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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Musing Pictures: The Watchmen

It is quite rare that I find myself reacting to a film with exactly the opposite sentiments of Roger Ebert (whose tastes generally parallel my own). Ebert's review focuses on the story behind "Watchmen" (that is to say, on the innovations of the plot, of the characters, and of the way they break certain 'comic book' molds). Unfortunately, those innovations almost certainly did not originate with the film, but rather with its source material, a very popular and groundbreaking graphic novel.

After giving credit where it is due, the film itself lacks almost everything that would make for the outstanding classic that it could have been. It lacks what a good film truly needs (clear narrative, compelling characters, propulsive rhythm, etc.) and showcases a lot of what a good film really doesn't require (high-concept visuals and fancy effects). In many ways, this is much like Zack Snyder's earlier nightmare, "300", which also featured a paper-thin narrative, exceptionally flat characters, and all the evidence of a clear value judgment that opted for flashy visuals over pithy substance. Both films, despite being 'action' films, got rather boring, as there never developed any reason to engage with or worry about the central characters.

Ebert is right about one thing: the innovations and serious issues presented by the "Watchmen" narrative are extraordinary. This makes the film's choice of style over substance all the more befuddling. Why aim for style when the substance is what makes the source material so effective?

This is one of those films which really shouldn't have been released. The intrinsic problems with it are so elementary, so clearly on the surface that they should have been spotted and fixed by the many people who managed the production before it hit the screens.

The Hollywood system has produced many outstanding films over the years. Why was the ball dropped with this one?

-AzS

5 comments:

Dave M! said...

Here here: http://www.illdave.com/blog/2008/09/watchmen-trailer-review.html

Jesse A. said...

I think a big part of the problem was that the source material was more or less unfilmable as is. Moore's innovations were as much formal as they were related to plot and character. Those sorts of formal innovations don't translate well to another medium. It could have been interesting to try to critique the current run of superhero movies in the way that the original Watchmen critiqued the comic book medium, but that would have been a substantially different movie, and it would have had to deviate from the book significantly. I think the moral may be that when Terry Gilliam gives up on a project because he thinks its unfilmable, he's probably right.

AzS said...

Jesse, I think that's a fair assessment. But there have been all sorts of revolutionary works that have been adapted to the screen... I think that the point is that an adaptation really needs to reflect the differences between the initial medium and the new medium. A movie version of "Watchmen" probably wouldn't convey the deep critiques of comics that the graphic novel conveyed, but that's because if a movie is meta-anything, it's going to be meta-cinematic. I don't believe that stories can be 'unfilmable', only that stories in one medium must undergo transformations in order to 'translate' well in another medium. "Watchmen" in its original form may be impossible to convey on screen, but there must exist numerous versions of the same story that could work beautifully, and the responsibility of anyone who dares to adapt a classic is to find the balance between faithfulness to the original and faithfulness to the demands of the new medium.

-AzS

Jesse A. said...

This is true to a large extent, but the question is, at what point is a story so completely transformed that it becomes a different story? My Fair Lady is not Pygmalion by a long shot, and I think it would have taken that kind of radical transformation to film watchmen properly.
Take the character of Dr. Manhatten, for example. Scott Eric Kaufman has been arguing that he's a figure of the reader in the original comic book (http://acephalous.typepad.com/acephalous/2009/03/dr-manhattan-as-a-figure-of-reader-of-alan-moores-watchmen.html), and I think he's substantially right. One way in which this works is his ability to see all of time simultaneously, but not to change it in any substantial way, just as a reader can look at one panel, many panels on a page, or flip back and forth within the book to view many pages in close succession. This is not true for the medium of film, where a viewer more or less has to sit down and take in the movie sequentially and at its own pace. Consequently, Dr. Manhattan's power to see the future becomes a kind of useless appendage. It basically became a the sort of thing that characters could point to and say, "See how powerful and detached he is?" I think Dr. Manhattan has to be a very different character in a film of Watchmen, with a very different set of powers. But because the various powers he does have, and his ability to see the future specifically, also impacts on various plot points, that has to change the plot as well. And that's just one example, there are others. By the time you get done with it, you have to say something like "Inspired by Watchmen." Which is fine, but a much more difficult sort of task.

AzS said...

Dr. Manhattan can still represent a reader, even though we are watching a film. Alternatively, Dr. Manhattan could represent a viewer (who, in this day and age, can also 'flip back and forth' along the duration of a moving image. I don't think that would necessitate such drastic changes.