Watching the Watchmen

Although I’ve categorized this under “Things You Should Read”, this review addresses the movie, not the graphic novel. (Which you most certainly should read, if by some chance you haven’t yet done so already.)

I will be blunt: storywise, the movie is a truncated version of the novel. Did we really expect anything different? I always wondered how such a long and complex series of events could possibly be represented in even a very long movie.

Generally, I think the plotlines that were eliminated were often those that weren’t absolutely necessary; the ones that were kept told the overarching story. But sadly, the nature of the primary plot was changed – I suspect not only because it was necessary to keep the special-effects budget down but because it required events and evidence to arise which could be eliminated through simplification.

I am afraid that most of the self-referential details that made reading the novel so rewarding, even when we’ve done so before, were cut. Single instances of those details made it into the film, but not only lost their meaning through only appearing once, there often wasn’t enough context to understand what they were and meant in even a non-symbolic sense. For example, readers of the novel know that among other things, Adrian Veidt (also known as ‘Ozymandias’) promoted a body-building system of exercises called “The Veidt Method”, and discarded pamphlets advertising that system appeared throughout various scenes, but as far as I could tell it appears only once, and very briefly. If a theatergoer happened to notice that detail, what would they make of it?

Other things were changed. The elder ‘Silk Spectre’ resided in a small, cramped dwelling that was part of a residential retirement community, living among the decaying remnants of her beauty and her dreams, eking out a meager existence on limited means. In the movie, her residences are luxurious prisons in which she’s drinking herself to death, giving the impression of a woman who has money but has nothing to spend it on but bitterness and recollections of a better age. It’s not a bad choice, but it’s a change, and one that wasn’t strictly necessary.

The casting of Daniel and Laurie was brilliant. Daniel conveyed a kind but introverted and lonely man who longs for the freedom his identity as ‘Nite Owl’ once brought him, and Laurie was perfect as the beautiful woman whose extraversion leads her to care deeply about others but to be unselfconscious of both her appearance and her own problems, pushed into a superhero role she didn’t desire to please her mother.

As for Rorschach… ah, Rorschach. He’s really the only sane one, although even he considers himself to possess a kind of madness. Brilliant representation. Some changes were made, I think more for shock value than anything else. Those who have read the novel and know his origin story will know what I mean – I will omit details for the sake of spoilers. Much of the most interesting details were eliminated, and the origin of his madness was altered.

The sex and violence scenes were acceptable and generally tasteful and well done. However, I was annoyed that extra time was spent on them, including some sexual humor, when the time could have been even better spent on story details that were eliminated. I also thought too much time was spent on physical combat, particularly an early scene where we see the murder of Edward Blake, real-time, in extended detail. This could have been done in flashbacks much more quickly, and more importantly, with greater ambiguity.

Do not less these criticisms give you a false impression. I consider most of the changes that were made to be necessary or at least needed for the task of translating the ornate and baroque story of Watchmen to the big screen.

But overall? I have to consider this project a noble failure – quite watchable, and worth seeing, but a failure nonetheless.

Why?

The defining feature of the novel, the sense of causality that leads inevitably to total annihilation – is missing. The characters know far more about Dr. Manhattan’s ability to see the future than they did in the novel, and instead of being immutable doom, the story is quick to assert that he sees possibilities rather than portents. Perhaps trying to create a greater sense of tension, I can’t say. But I think they stumbled badly. The key to Dr. Manhattan’s personality is his sense of helplessness in the face of external forces, the passivity that caused him to obey his father and study watchmaking, then abandon it for physics. The essential trigger of his transformation – the watch – was also changed. Originally it belonged to Janey, his girlfriend, and was damaged during their first date. He promised that he could fix it. It was left in his coat, which was left in the field chamber, on the day of the accident. It was his going back to retrieve it that lead to his entrapment and ‘death’.

That sense of causality – that feeling that the story turned out the only way it could, and could ever have turned out, even after the surprise of understanding what’s really happening – that aura of inevitability is missing.

That’s the heart and soul of Watchmen. And it was missing here.

I don’t consider the movie to have been a waste of my time and money, and I will certainly watch it again in the years to come. But I can’t consider it to be successful in an ultimate sense.

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5 Responses to “Watching the Watchmen”

  1. I actually liked the movie more than the novel. When I was reading the novel, I never felt surprised at all, even when they were revealing the whole plot. I don’t know why. In the movie though, I remember being more impressed when Veidt’s plan was revealed.

    About the lack of inevitability you mentioned – the journalist looking at Rorshach’s dairy did it for me.

  2. “When I was reading the novel, I never felt surprised at all, even when they were revealing the whole plot.”

    That’s a feature, not a bug.

    “In the movie though, I remember being more impressed when Veidt’s plan was revealed.”

    I’d say that’s because the plot came out of nowhere and was neither foreshadowed nor made logically derivable.

    “the journalist looking at Rorschach’s diary did it for me.”

    Remember, in the novel, the man is supposed to be a complete moron, and was given the choice between two options, one of which was Rorschach’s journal. There was meant to be a sort of Heisenberg uncertainty as to whether the world was doomed, or not.

    The rest of the plot is supposed to be wholly deterministic.

  3. “That’s a feature, not a bug.”
    In that case, I don’t think I like this feature.

    As far as the dairy goes, you are right – there is some uncertainty still.

    By the way, Bryan Caplan has a pretty weird (imo) interpretation of the book. Look at this, he says: “Watchmen may well be the most audacious literary challenge to utilitarianism ever written. “

  4. It’s ‘diary’. Diary.

    I don’t suggest that you need to like it. I’m suggesting that it is inherent to the message the novel is trying to convey. Determinism is a major theme, made explicit in Dr. Manhattan’s story and suggested by his narrative.

  5. I can’t imagine where you got the idea that I thought I had to like it. I was expressing merely expressing my preferences, just like you are.

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