Collider confirmed recently that director Zack Snyder is in talks with HBO to adapt Watchmen, the influential comic series from writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons. Well, confirmed-ish. Said HBO: “Preliminary discussions regarding Watchmen have occurred but we have no additional information and no deals are in place.”
So, let’s put aside the fact that this is Hollywood, and “preliminary discussions” usually mean as much as the pinky-swear you got back in fifth grade on the playground. And let’s forget for a second Zack Snyder already tried a Watchmen movie, in 2009, which wasn’t so much an adaptation as it was him putting a camera up to the actual book and flipping the pages super fast, changing absolutely nothing. Let’s, just for the moment, assume HBO and Snyder will adapt Watchmen, and not the Alan Moore fan-fiction published by DC in 2012 known as Before Watchmen.
And let’s definitely try and ignore the fact that Alan Moore once said he would be “spitting venom all over” that 2009 movie, and that Alan Moore also worships a snake god, and that the combination of those two things is genuinely kind of frightening.
Let’s just focus on the fact that Watchmen just doesn’t work on a screen, be it film, TV or otherwise.
For the unfamiliar, Watchmen is one of the first anti-superhero superhero stories, a send-up of the spandex-and-tights-wearing characters of the 30s and 40s. At its core it’s a murder mystery, but the murder victims are retirees of a vigilante collective known as The Minutemen. They also happen to be awful, vile human beings once the costumes come off. Not super villain awful. Just, guy-who-spreads-his-legs-on-the-subway awful. Everyday awful.
Oh, there is also an all-powerful man-god known as Dr. Manhattan who is blue and constantly naked. It’s a strange book.
It’s also, coincidentally, incredible in terms of comic book history. In 1986 the collected version of Watchmen, along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Art Spiegelman‘s Maus, reminded comic audiences that these funny-pages weren’t just for children. They could be art. They could be legitimate literature, and they could move you. Watchmen was violent, and it was dark, but at the same time Watchmen was human.
It was also controversial. It still is. But occasionally, for some young people who picked it up, it was life-changing. Until I grabbed Watchmen randomly off a shelf about seven years ago, I didn’t really understand that writing could be something I did outside a school paper. I didn’t know that “writing” could be a combination of images, words and subtleties. I had no idea “writing” could be anything but linear, or that words could do anything but describe what was in a picture, that they could also emphasis what wasn’t.
Moore plays a lot with the way words interact with picture in Watchmen, usually to distort perspective and the reader’s understanding of the time-line. But he also toys with the idea of a comic book itself. He upended the tropes. If we ever wondered what “heroes” looked like at our level, Watchmen showed we wouldn’t like what we saw. If traditional comic books were a children’s TV show, Watchmen showed when the taping ends, and all the actors go the dressing rooms to drink whiskey in their costumes because they fucking hate kids. It all works so well because it’s a comic book, laughing at comic books the whole way.
Something has to be lost if you translate all this from the page to the screen. Dave Gibbons’ designs for the Minutemen are often gaudy, ridiculous, and over the top on purpose. Say HBO keeps the gaudy look of Watchmen, like Snyder did for the film the first time around. You still lose the majority of the book’s subtext. You miss the way words flow across the image, and connect from panel to panel to keep everything together. You don’t get the juxtaposition between cartoon and violence. You’re left with people lumbering around in costumes pretending to be serious, more unintentionally funny than effective. In the book, Doctor Manhattan is a tragic figure. The confusing layout of his chapters highlight his disconnect from humanity. Conversely, the movie version played by Billy Crudup is perhaps best known for his massive blue CGI dong.
The solution then, one would think, is to modernize it all. Update the visuals. Do what Christopher Nolan did to Batman, or what Netflix did to Daredevil. Do this, and the entire point is lost. This was the biggest problem with Snyder’s first foray into Watchmen territory. Watchmen‘s heroes are not made for slow motion action scenes, or to be made into merchandise. They aren’t supposed to be “cool.” Nolan-ize the characters of Watchmen, and it becomes the exact self-serious thing the original graphic novel would mock.
There’s no happy medium. Something has to be lost if you translate Watchmen from page to screen, and it won’t be Watchmen anymore.
Look, despite a True Detective or two HBO is the most reliable network on TV right now in terms of delivering quality content. It’s done wonders with A Song of Ice and Fire, novels that in the wrong hands could have resembled a Lord of the Rings fans’ dirtiest diary entries. And Watchmen checks off all the ticks on the HBO story wheel (rape, murder, explicit sex, paranoia, mustaches). I trust the network, I don’t trust the timing. This reads a little too much like a reaction to Netflix’s Daredevil, or AMC’s Preacher, or maybe just the great superhero rush we’re in the middle of right now.
I’m afraid networks are unaware that a similar rush happened after 1986, too. As Watchmen and its adult-themed brethren kept selling, publishers amped up the production. And then the 90s happened. Mature comics gave way to a main stream filled with ultra-violence and women drawn by people who had apparently never seen a woman, nor knew how they are shaped. This drawing from artist Rob Liefeld sums up comic books in the 1990s. Actually, Rob Liefeld didn’t really know how men were shaped either. But that didn’t matter. Thoughtful, adult-themed comic books dropped the word “thoughtful,” and capitalized the word “adult” in bold-faced letters then added the letter X to the word “comics” for no reason.
History is repeating itself. Networks are realizing comic book adaptations aren’t just for the CW. They can be “prestige.” The question now is: Would HBO’s Watchmen be the game-changer that Moore’s Watchmen was in the 1980s? Or is Zack Snyder the Rob Liefeld of comic book TV history?