I was a huge comic book geek in the mid ’80s, and bought and devoured each issue of the Moore-Gibbons masterpiece as soon as it hit the stands. The comic book side of my geekiness has waned considerably in the last two decades, but I’ve read Watchmen so many times it’s embedded in my brain. Leading up to the film’s debut, I’d been watching every trailer, reading every review (even ones from people who obviously don’t know what they’re talking about), even downloading the iPhone app. This was a movie I was going to see as soon as I could, and I was thrilled that my recovery from surgery was going well enough that I could handle a trip to the theater on opening day. If you’re as big a fan of the original graphic novel as I am, I’m willing to bet you felt the same way: elated that the movie was supposed to be remarkably faithful to the source material, and anxious to see for yourself.
The question is, then, why? Without this movie, Watchmen was pure—a groundbreaking, iconoclastic event in comic book history. It was a unique, brilliant piece of work that needed no embellishment. No matter how good a movie was made from it, then, it couldn’t really improve upon the original—so why have so many people tried to make it? And why did all these fans of the original, including me, want so very badly to go see it?
Is it just that we wanted to see if it was possible to make a good film out of something that’s been called "unfilmable" so many times? Did we just want the chance to flex our critical muscles by picking apart the things we thought didn’t work? Or did we just want the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the world of Watchmen without having to take the time to reread the graphic novel?
I’ve pondered this question before, especially with really faithful adaptations. I disliked the first two Harry Potter movies, for instance, because they were too faithful to the books. I felt that they added absolutely nothing to the source material, and moreover had less content due to time restrictions, and were therefore completely pointless. I liked the other three movies (thus far) better, because I thought the directors took the source material and ran with it, rather than treating it as a bible. In general, I like adaptations that find something different to do with the story. That’s why Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were so good: they took the stories you already knew and twisted them into something recognizable but different enough to grab your interest and hold it. It doesn’t always work as well as that, as anyone who’s seen Spider-Man 3 can attest, but when it works it can be phenomenal.
But then I return to Watchmen. Unlike nearly every other adaptation, this one has source material considered sacrosanct by its fans. Every difference between the movie and the graphic novel has already been identified, analyzed, and criticized (not necessarily negatively). We fans have been fairly generous in doling out praise for the things they got right—in my case, I’ve been marvelling at how amazing a job Jackie Earle Haley did as Rorschach. But even that praise is tempered by the fact that we started out with a set limit in our minds of how good anything could be, because we venerate the source material so. The director and actors never had a chance to do better than Moore and Gibbons did; the best they could hope for was to do as well, and nobody would dare give them that much praise lightly.
So, please, help me understand: What was really the point? Was it really just laziness, because the nearly-three hours of the movie is still a lot less time than it takes to read the graphic novel? Why make an adaptation when you know nobody will ever think of it as better than the original? And why go see it? I went opening night, and enjoyed myself, and I’m not really sure I know why.