Rather than going for a straight-up adaptation of the twelve issues that make up Watchmen, writer and executive producer Damon Lindelof has declared that the HBO TV series will be a “remix,” comparing his series to the TV adaptation of Fargo. While the TV show will be set in the world of Watchmen, it will diverge significantly from the source material, including its setting being moved to the modern day.
For comparison, the graphic novel is set in an alternate reality 1980s, during which the existence of superheroes is common knowledge and superhero work has been subsequently banned. When The Comedian, a creepy murder-clown style antihero, is murdered, it sets his former teammate and sociopathic "hero", Rorschach, on a hunt to find clues and warn the remaining members of their team that someone seems to be homicidally opposed to superheroes. Watchmen follows the gritty, messed up lives of these former heroes as they stick to their vigilante ways, sink into civilian life, build mega-corporations, become covert governmental agents, and literally leave the planet.
Where the Watchmen graphic novel wrestles with the politics of the ‘80s, the TV series will grapple with contemporary issues. “[Our adaptation] needs to resonate with the frequency of Trump and May and Putin and the horse he rides around on, shirtless,” Lindelof wrote in a five-page letter to fans on Instagram. (His letter does double duty as an homage to Dr. Manhattan’s own origin story within the graphic novel.) He assured fans that they can expect to see some familiar faces, but there will be new characters as well. “The tone will be fresh and nasty and electric and absurd,” Lindelof continued.
Given Lindelof’s status as a die-hard Watchmen fan, it’s hard not to feel hopeful. Not only does he care deeply about the work, but he at least seems to be taking seriously the lack of representation in and problematic aspects of the source material. “In [our Writers’ Room], Hetero White Men like myself are in the minority and as Watchmen is (incorrectly) assume to be solely our domain, understanding its potential through the perspectives of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community has been as eye-opening as it has been exhilarating,” wrote Lindelof. “We’re committed to doing the same in front of and behind the camera.”
And, so far the series has kept true to that commitment. Nicole Kassell, who is also an executive producer on the project, directs the pilot episode and the series has a stellar cast. Regina King is playing the lead character and is joined by: Jeremy Irons, Don Johnson, Tim Blake Nelson, Louis Gossett Jr., Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Adelaide Clemens, Andrew Howard, Tom Mison, Frances Fisher, Jacob Ming-Trent, Sara Vickers, Dylan Schombing, Lily Rose Smith, and Adelynn Spoon.
We don’t know much about the characters, yet, but this adaptation has already blown the source material out of the water in terms of representation. Look at that cast list! We might finally get to see a Watchmen universe as vibrantly diverse as the world we actually live in.
While there is a lot to appreciate about the Watchmen graphic novel, it is exciting to think that the lives of women, LGBTQ+ folks, and people of color will be given center stage in the adaptation. In the graphic novel, there are only two notable female characters: Silver Spectre, aka Sally Jupiter, and Silver Spectre 2, aka Laurie Juspeczyk.
Sally is portrayed as a vapid narcissist, first becoming a hero to forward her modeling career and later forcing her mantle on her daughter, Laurie. While working as a costumed hero, Sally is sexually assaulted by The Comedian. He horrifically corners and attacks her and Sally is defended by Hooded Justice, a closeted gay man she later pretends to date.
Laurie, on the other hand, is a put-upon sixteen-year-old girl who doesn’t really want to be a superhero. But, when she meets Dr. Manhattan, she commits to working with and dating him. Outside of the fact that she’s a child in a romantic relationship with a god (or at the very least a super-powered man in his thirties), Laurie is relegated to being a device within the narrative. Her presence catalyzes male characters' development.
For instance, we find out that much later Sally and The Comedian have, presumably, consensual sex, which resulted in the conception of Laurie. And, when Laurie first meets The Comedian and her mother whisks her away angrily, he just seems so sad. Really makes you think maybe there’s more to this rapist piece of garbage, doesn’t it? That’s not even mentioning the fact that Laurie is treated as a prize to be passed between male characters, leaving Dr. Manhattan for another costumed hero, Nite Owl. Even the revelation of her parentage doesn’t get to just be Laurie’s. Instead, the realization is crystallized as the moment that makes Dr. Manhattan reconsider humanity’s complexity. Give me a break.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Queer characters may as well be footnotes and people of color are generally non-existent or treated as framing characters, there to help deliver the story to the (implied) white reader. Clearly, there’s room for improvement in an adaptation.
If Lindelof keeps to his professed values and King is given ample space to strut her stuff, you can color us cautiously optimistic about the Watchmen adaptation.