Watchmen: 10 things we'd want in a television adaptation

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Oct 6, 2015, 6:38 PM EDT

With the recent report being confirmed, it does appear that fans of deep, politically laced watershed superhero satire could once again be set to watch the Watchmen, this time as a potential HBO television series possibly developed (once again) by Zack Snyder.

Alan Moore’s 1986 DC Comics series Watchmen remains universally acknowledged for inspiring seismic thematic shifts in the comic-book industry toward gritty, grounded pathos. Yet the nature of its meticulously interwoven narrative also made it quite the conundrum to crack for Hollywood, where a number attempts ended only in false starts. However, more than two decades after the book was published, an unlikely force in director Zack Snyder was tasked with adapting the story for the big screen, resulting in the ambitious (That's one word for it grumble grumble - Ed.) 2009 Watchmen movie.

Unfortunately, the film failed to resonate with wider audiences, possibly arriving too early to catch the crest of the broader comic-book-movie wave. The $130 million budget Warner Bros. allocated to the film only yielded $185 million worldwide, a number that, considering extra expenses, likely indicates that the film failed to make a profit. Yet, for all its failure at the box office, the film did, for all intents and purposes, manage to translate the pages and panels of Moore’s grandiose work quite well, condensed into a 2-hour-and-42-minute movie (Snyder’s stylistic choices and action aesthetics aside).

Now that we have the idea of Watchmen coming back to the live-action arena likely as a gritty, violent HBO series filled with “sexposition,” fans are rather divided, since the 2009 film did arguably cover the story well enough for a generation. While it is feasible that this project could also be an adaptation of the 2012 prequel comic series Before Watchmen, it is also distinctly possible that we could be seeing a complete reboot of the traditional Watchmen story play out in a format more conducive to its serial form.

With the latter scenario in mind, we decided to come up with a list of 10 things we’d want for a television adaptation of the original Watchmen storyline that would distinguish it from the 2009 film.

WARNING: The inclusion of plot SPOILERS are necessary for this list. If you haven’t read the Watchmen comic series or seen the film, be warned!

10. A new narrative approach to the beginning


The story of Watchmen starts with an intense, glass-shattering inciting incident with the death of former crime fighter Edward Blake, aka the Comedian. Anyone familiar with the entire story knows that his (arguably deserved) death becomes a profound moment when the potentially well-intentioned, but nevertheless heartless, machinations of Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, leave a first scatterings of breadcrumbs that our un-retired heroes begin to follow.

Consequently, a great deal of the original comic-book series and the 2009 movie was spent gumshoeing down the whodunit path of discovering the identity and motivations of Blake’s mysterious murderer. However, any serious attempt at a serial television adaptation of Watchmen cannot conceivably expect its core audience to once again get strung along episode to episode, waiting to find out something that they have already known for ages.

A possible solution to the inevitable déjà vu associated with a straight retelling of Watchmen is simply to tell the story in a structurally different manner. They could introduce us to the Watchmen universe through Blake’s eyes as he finds himself without purpose in a world on the brink of annihilation and eventually stumbles upon Veidt’s secret engineered Armageddon plan, something that ultimately claims his life. It’s a structural approach that’s similar to Psycho in that we bond with a protagonist for a portion before her demise, introducing us to the main threat.


9. Explore the nuances of Moore's universe


Part of the brilliance behind Moore’s original comic-book series was the way that esoteric interstitial content was used in between the main storyline. Said content, consisting of newspaper and magazine articles, along with several excerpts from Rorschach’s Journal and the biography of retired costumed hero Hollis Mason, aka the original Nite Owl, not only collectively illustrated the atmosphere of the Watchmen universe from the political perspectives of this alternate world, but also  presented the idea of costumed heroes in a realistically bleak manner never before portrayed in the world of comics.

Most notably, the main story was interwoven with the comic-within-a-comic called Tales of the Black Freighter, a quasi-historical pirate story that portrays the brutal ordeal of a marooned castaway and the ethical lines he crosses in attempting to leave the island on which he is stranded and get home in time to rescue his family before the arrival of a destruction-bent Black Freighter. Of course, the parallels to characters in the main Watchmen story are quite apparent.

The 2009 film obviously could not realistically integrate this seemingly random material, much of which was produced and adapted and released as viral content on the Internet (as seen in the video above) and in the form of an animated version of the Black Freighter, released on DVD/Blu-ray when the film hit theaters (which was later integrated into the “Ultimate Cut” release of the film). Thankfully, the format of a television series can effectively restore this dynamic.


8. Character-centric episodes


With such an elaborately complex continuity traditionally thrust upon the audience from the onset, a Watchmen television series could start things with a world-establishing pilot episode before transitioning to character-centric episodes that explore each character’s very different corners of the universe. This approach might be a better method of hooking television audiences rather than an overwhelming overload of context-setting nuances about this alternate universe.   

The main contemporary lineup of heroes, including the effervescently blue, often-naked accidental deity, Dr. Manhattan, the brilliant, enigmatic entrepreneur and Egyptian-obsessed Ozymandias, the sexy second generation femme fatale, Silk Spectre II, the gadget grappling Nite Owl II, the cigar-chomping sadist, The Comedian and, of course, the brutal, eccentrically uncompromising Rorschach, are quite the diverse group, whose points-of-view collectively illustrate the Watchmen world better than any influx of exposition could ever accomplish.

Showtime’s Penny Dreadful has successfully taken this individuated approach. While that show obviously has not constructed as a deep of a continuity as Watchmen, the character-centric method has effectively grown the show’s mythology without getting lost in the minutiae of attempting explaining the relevance of the main threat to each character in one broad stroke.


7. Provide more insight into the Ozymandias character


While this might go hand-in-hand with the “character centric-episodes” idea, the Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias character is the most critical of them all, being the architect of main threat of the original Watchmen storyline. Thus, any time the series would devote to the building of characters would benefit from substantive exploration into Veidt’s rather emotionally detached, “the ends justifies the means,” almost apocalyptic endeavors. Plus, some insight could be gained looking into his past as a child of German immigrants fleeing Nazi rule who began his combat training to fight off bullies.

The structure of both the original Watchmen comic series and the 2009 film surrounded the mystery of The Comedian’s killer and put our main heroes on quite the path of sleuthing before discovering Ozymandias’ plot. By contrast, the television series should not even bother indulging in portraying the identity of the assailant as a mystery. Instead, we should get to know Veidt/Ozymandias’ character and learn for ourselves quite early on (possibly through The Comedian’s story) of his elaborate plan to unite the world in perpetual peace by utilizing a hideous genetically-concocted creature with a hint of genocide.


6. The Doomsday Clock


Probably the most consistent imagery that the Watchmen comic utilizes on its covers is the classic Cold War Doomsday Clock. The comic series is quite visibly an alternate universe allegory in which a version of the Cold War has been accelerated by a number of different variables; notably the existence of the all-powerful Dr. Manhattan, whose presence may have tipped the scales so much in the favor the United States, that its enemies may just upset the whole apple cart in desperation and end the world in nuclear Armageddon.

With each issue, the Doomsday Clock on the cover inches ever closer to the position of the impending global catastrophe at the stroke of midnight. However, as Dr. Manhattan tells Ozymandias after being asked if his plan worked out in the end, “nothing ever ends.” Thus, the series could utilize the imagery of a Doomsday Clock, possibly in the opening and closing of episodes as an impending reminder of where the continuity stands relative to Armageddon; a time which could fluctuate upon the occurrences in each episode as certain actions could delay or maybe even set back the clock on occasion.



5. An "out" for Rorschach's Death


By the time both the comic series and film version of Watchmen reaches its blistering crescendo, Ozymandias’ good-intentioned, but conscience-detached plan came to fruition and saw the forces of the world unprecedentedly unifying in one cause. Consequently, the group arrive at the reluctant conclusion that this hideous die has already been cast and that exposing Veidt’s plot would only dissolve the good that resulted. However, Rorschach was the lone dissenter and, rather than living with this secret, defiantly tells Dr. Manhattan to kill him, going out on his own terms.

To even explore the idea of Rorschach’s climactic death, as depicted in the comic series and film, might be putting the cart before the horse. However, a straight adaptation of the traditional Watchmen story would likely see this enigmatic radical of a hero in Rorschach (arguably the mascot of the series) dead possibly by the end of the series’ first season. However, such an adaptation seems unlikely and a prospective television series will need to come up with a way to both honor the key moment of his death in the traditional depiction while devising some way to undo the crippling permanence of his absence.


4. A bigger role for minor characters


Much like any deep franchise continuity, Watchmen managed to cram in its own cast of side characters in the short period of time of its 12 issue run. The 2009 film even pays homage to some of those background characters who, in their own way, help define the broader narrative.

There would definitely be room in a television format to explore characters who while remaining on the sidelines are integral to the mythology such as the aged surviving members of the 1940s costumed hero group, The Minutemen. Along with the scattered context-setting articles, the sporadic flashback moments seen in the comic series and film help the story delve behind the veneer of altruism and perfection that the public had of costume heroes, which could be further explored with a television series.

Additionally, stories focusing on the characters of Hector Godfrey and his bungling assistant, Seymour, would be intriguing. With Godfrey being the publisher of the right-wing-leaning newspaper The New Frontiersman; a favorite of Rorschach’s, we could see a fascinating dynamic of reciprocity develop between the two, almost the polar opposite of the one between Spider-Man and J. Jonah Jameson.


3. Original secondary storylines


This is one entry that has perhaps already been implied to a certain extent when it comes to what could be expected of any Watchmen adaptation that wishes to distinguish itself from the strong comic book fidelity of the 2009 film. However, original storylines will be necessary for a television series tackling an ambitious, sprawling, but ultimately familiar and limited story (A predicament in which Game of Thrones currently finds itself, having already run through most the existing source material).

In essence, this time around, the source material (the comic series) needs to serve not so much as a script, but as a general guidepost for the main points that the series would eventually hit throughout the course of a few seasons. Of course, HOW the series would get our characters to those points would necessarily be more circuitous than any previous depiction. In fact, episodes focusing on flashbacks to the 1940s heyday of The Minutemen could work as episodes. Additionally, material from the 2012 Before Watchmen series could also be adapted, possibly in a chronologically different manner.

Just as the previous idea about “a new narrative approach,” when it comes to how the story unravels, a Watchmen television show would need to focus on sustainability and character development rather than “twists” that everyone and their uncles can see coming a mile away. While there would always be a level of fatalism in knowing generally how some characters’ fates will pan out, as the saying goes, what’s important is the journey, not the destination.


2.  A modernized timeline


Understandably, this has potential to be the most controversial item on our list. With Watchmen traditionally taking place in an alternate world setting in 1985, it became a dynamic sand box for Alan Moore to illustrate some then-timely political allegories about the state of the still active Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union at a time when things were frosty.

Undoubtedly, the aspect of being an oblique form of Cold War agitprop was an integral part of Moore’s thinking when conceiving the Watchmen story. However, when examining the philosophical themes laced throughout the series relating to contrasts between Rorschach’s inflexible absolutist approach to justice and the consequentialist reasoning behind Veidt’s plot, one might conclude that there’s very little of the substantive points that are intrinsically tied to the traditional quasi-Cold War setting.

Seeing as a television adaptation would be looking to avoid déjà vu-ism at all costs, the 1985 Cold War aspect is something that could feasibly be altered in favor of a more modern setting. As fun as the 1980s are to visit, rest assured, there are plenty of reasons in this day and age that the Doomsday Clock would keep ticking.


1. The Giant Squid!


In the Watchmen comic series, Veidt’s coldly calculating plan to unify the world and stop the impending Cold-War-caused doomsday came about in the form a gigantic creature resembling a squid unleashed upon New York City and designed to fool the world into thinking Earth was under attack by aliens. Veidt secretly spent a vast amount of resources creating the creature using genetic engineering on a hidden island. While the plan’s devastating denouement killed millions, it did end up achieving the desired effect of unifying the governments of the world against the perceived shared threat.

We know the means of this achievement didn’t sit well with Rorschach, who was still unwilling to accept the positive outcome, due to the maniacal methods. Uncharacteristically, the plan also didn’t work for the typically amoral Edward Blake/Comedian, whose demise eventually came about at hands of Veidt after he learned that Blake discovered the island and the purposes of his plan. The creature, unbeknownst to the reader until the end, was always the critical component to everything that occurred in the storyline.

Ironically enough, despite its importance, the creature was also rendered an interchangeable concept. In a move that outraged segments of the fan community, the 2009 film, after what had to be some serious deliberation, made the choice to cut the “Alien Monster” from the film version, substituting a plot by Veidt to frame Dr. Manhattan for explosions killing millions that match his energy signature. It’s an understandable alteration since the concept of a giant alien squid was such a radical thematic departure from the rest of the film.

A prospective television series would not need to work under such constraints and could feasibly bring Veidt’s killer calamari to life in some manner. Plus, if the showrunners take the suggestion in not making Veidt’s plans into a late-story plot-twist/revelation, then there would be plenty of time to foreshadow the arrival of the creature and maybe get more bang for their CGI buck by taking the squid action farther than the comic series, which had the creature die almost immediately after it arrived and wreaked havoc.

Have your own suggestions for how HBO could adapt Watchmen? (Other than obligatory gratuitous nudity, which you know they have covered.) Head down to the comments section and let us know!