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This Week in Genre History: Watchmen was perhaps too faithful to the 'unfilmable' comic

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Mar 3, 2021, 2:42 PM EST (Updated)

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

What do we want from adaptations of our most beloved, lasting works? The idea of doing a movie version of a book, a comic, a TV show, or even a video game is, by its very nature, flirting with disaster, because it sets up a dynamic that not even the most talented filmmaker can overcome: No matter what they decide to do, whatever they make will never live up to the image fans have in their own heads. Sometimes a filmmaker will use a work as a springing-off point. But sometimes the adaptation is better off living in one's own mind.

Which is one of the many, many reasons it was absolutely insane for Zack Snyder to try to make Watchmen into a movie. Terry Gilliam, who once gave it a try, famously said Alan Moore's legendary graphic novel was "unfilmable," and if Gilliam, who tried to make Don Quixote for roughly half his life, gives up on a project, you know it's impossible. But forget how difficult it would be to make a movie adaptation that makes the fans happy. How do you deal with the actual logistics of the thing? You have to have the characters age decades. You have to introduce absurd concepts that were designed by Moore specifically to work only on the page. And what about Dr. Manhattan's nudity? And what about the squid?

Snyder's approach, which was basically just to make an exact copy of the graphic novel with one notorious exception, ended up getting the movie made and released, on March 6, 2009, 12 years ago this week. But it also showed the perils of giving fans what they want — or maybe just what they think they want.

Why was it a big deal at the time? Moore's (and Dave Gibbons') Watchmen isn't just a graphic novel. For people who didn't respect comics as a medium, the series, a mature exploration of superheroes and 1980s American culture, is "the moment comic books grew up." Time named it one of the best novels of the 20th century. Taking on such a project was a recipe for disaster, which is what made Snyder the perfect guy to do it. Snyder was fresh off the monster hit that was 300, another comic book adaptation, and when he was approached to do this, he was just young and brash and cocky enough to go for it. If he could conquer this, he could conquer anything.

Tellingly, like with 300, Snyder tried to stay as true to the look and feel (and even the story) of the comic as possible, even using the book itself as a storyboard. It got to the point that certain angles of shots were exactly what they were in the comic, leading to the sense that Snyder was just trying to precisely replicate the graphic novel itself. But maybe that wasn't the worst idea? After all, if people want Watchmen on film... maybe you just give them Watchmen on film.

That said, there were some omissions due to the length of the original comic, and he did change the ending — dropping the part where a giant alien squid lands on Manhattan, reasoning it would be impossible to explain. The squid does make sense in the context of the comic, if you've read it, but even on the page, it's a somewhat baffling twist. So, Snyder can perhaps be forgiven for trying to simplify this one thing in an otherwise extremely faithful adaptation.

What was the impact? Watchmen came out during the comparatively early in the world of comic book adaptations, back when it was still almost novel to see one. (As opposed to now, when two or three seem to come out every weekend.) But the thing that really sold Watchmen was its instantly iconic trailer, scored to the Smashing Pumpkins:

That had the scope and grandeur Warner Bros. was going for, and it helped launch the film to a $25 million opening weekend, which was big (especially for a nearly three-hour film) but the opening hinted that the movie had fanboys coming out but not as many "normal" multiplexers as much as they would have liked. (A dramatic dropoff the second weekend suggests this was indeed the case.) But, the general consensus was that the movie was, almost compulsively so, geared directly to the people who obsessed over the graphic novel. It was made for the fans.

This is why it was so ironic that the reaction to the film was so split among those fans. It seemed like half loved Snyder's dedication to the vision of Moore (who of course wanted nothing to do with the film) and half hated how much it felt like a Xerox'd, uninspired copy of the original. And you know what? You can make a pretty good argument that the first half was going to love it no matter what (after all, that the movie existed was a validation) and the second half was going to hate it no matter what (after all, they didn't want the movie made at all). Which made Snyder's approach somehow both perfect and pointless.

Has it held up? The best parts of Watchmen are the biggest moments of the novel, which makes sense: Even if Moore was trying to make it unfilmable, there are moments so brilliant and awe-inspiring that hardly any filmmaker could mess them up. The movie still feels impressive but uninspired, like Snyder added his signature slow-motion touches but not much else. It still plays as it did then: If you wanted them to make the movie, you liked it, and if you didn't, you didn't.

And we found out just how limited Snyder's approach was more than a decade when Damon Lindelof did his own Watchmen adaptation, as a TV show for HBO. Lindelof's brilliant insight was that Watchmen was such a foundational text that the most interesting thing to do with it would be to use it as a launching point for a sequel — something that was spiritually similar but, in terms of plot and characters, entirely different. He ended up doing something true to Watchmen and its fans: He respected enough to nod to it, but otherwise leave it alone. And of the two adaptations, it's inevitable, and telling, that his is the one that will end up lasting. And, for what it's worth, Lindelof's did have the squid.

Will Leitch is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Tim Grierson review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.