"Half the reviews say it's too true to the book, and the other half say it doesn't do it justice," my darlingdearest said as we left for Watchmen. And both takes could be accurate.
It's because they're basically saying the same thing... or, at least, not mutually exclusive things. How faithful an adaptation is to its source material doesn't determine whether it does that material justice — for example, the Lord of the Rings films took some liberties, but they convey exactly the sense of close friendship and epic adventure that made Tolkien's trilogy classics. Moreover, lack of faithfulness can actually make for superior adaptations. The novel that inspired Die Hard stars an aging detective named Joe Leland, who presumably never would have screamed, "Yippee-ki-ay, motherfuckers!" — which is why almost no one knows that a novel inspired Die Hard. And scrupulous adherence to the original story is no guarantor of quality: As best I can tell, Clint Eastwood stayed true to Robert James Waller's book when he made The Bridges of Madison County, and that movie still blew.
So, what about Watchmen? Someday, if we're lucky, they'll invent something that lets you suppress specific memories temporarily (or permanently, in the case of my first marriage — hey-yo! ), because it would be nice to know how it felt to see the movie going in cold, without any idea of what the story was about. As it was, I felt like I was watching...an adaptation. It reminded me of the Harry Potter movies, to be honest, especially the first one: the painstaking replication of everything from the book, down to the verbatim dialogue.
But where the Harry Potter movies sweep me along into the action, with Watchmen I felt more like an observer. Obviously, that wasn't because I already knew the story, as shown by the HP counterexample (as well as that of Star Wars, Die Hard, and the countless other films I can get caught up in over and over again). In fact, I actually didn't quite know the story, and knew I didn't know it — since, like anyone who glances at this blog at least once a week, I'd heard there was no giant squid.
What was the issue, then? It wasn't the acting or direction or cinematography, the quality of which you might debate but which more or less satisfied my own, not all that critical tastes (remember: I never turn off Daredevil if I happen to catch it on TV). It wasn't that we all know Doctor Manhattan is supposed to sound like J'onn J'onzz on the Justice League cartoon, and not the youthful anthropomorphic protagonist of a Pixar joint. It wasn't even because I was still disappointed that Ozymandias hadn't won the first season of Project Runway.
It might have been because the naysayers were right, and Watchmen doesn't work as anything but a comic book, and especially not as a movie, a medium that's in some ways the antithesis of the comic form. As anyone who's been to my blog or been stuck alone with me after I've had too many drinks knows, I'm a big believer in the work of Marshall McLuhan, who labeled movies a "hot" medium (figuratively speaking, they're of a high resolution — the film provides every last detail) and comics a "cool" one (they demand that you fill in sound and movement yourself, in your brain).
And that's part of what snagged me, I think. There are, of course, comics that do translate neatly into movies — Alan Moore's own V for Vendetta leaps to mind — but in those cases, we're not talking about stories as tied up in the comic-book medium as Watchmen, or movies that hew so closely to their sources. When you do hew as closely as the Watchmen movie does, the transition's bound to get a little clunky somewhere. Example: There's a noticeable difference between hearing Rorschach's diary entries in your own head as you read them — a convention that works perfectly in the book — and actually hearing them read as a voice-over, which makes them sound a bit silly. Actually, some of Rorschach's regular old dialogue — specifically, when he speaks in single words and sentence fragments — comes off as unbelievable heard aloud, while it makes total sense on paper.
Comic-booky dialogue can certainly work on the big screen — see, for instance, Blade. But Blade is comic-book dialogue, and comic-book situations, all the way through. Where Watchmen runs into trouble is that it plays by comic-book rules sometimes, while at others, it becomes something closer to real life. In low-res comic form, that comes off as pure elevation; in the theater, we see the contrast more sharply, and it's disruptive.
Intertwined with all this is the fact that, like it or not, we come into the cineplex expecting certain things out of a superhero movie, and those are things that Watchmen as a story doesn't really deliver. The liveliest parts of the film for me — the parts where I did get caught up — all involved Nite Owl and Silk Spectre fighting bad guys or saving people. Ironically, of course, those parts aren't really essential to the story, whereas the parts I liked least — the emotional moments: Laurie learning about her father and Jon deciding humanity was worth saving after all — are. It's not that the movie cuts out too much of the foundation the comic lays for those emotional moments (it does cut out some — the book's prose interludes do more heavy lifting than we may appreciate); it's just that there are differences in pacing between the two media, such that the moments ring true in one and false in the other.
All that said, I should say that I did like the movie, or at least that I'm glad I saw it. It made me think; I noticed things about the story that I hadn't before. (For example, if you were a roomful of reporters who'd just learned that the guy in front of you might have given everyone close to him cancer, would your first reaction be to crowd around him?) It didn't sweep me up, but then, the comic never has either. The comic — which we shouldn't forget is as much a murder mystery as a superhero story — doesn't make my heart soar. It intrigues me, and it demands reflection.
The movie does, too. At least for me it does, as the previous 1,000-plus words demonstrate. And in that sense, even if it's not the masterpiece that the book is, it does do it justice.
Commenter Moff's real name is Josh Wimmer, and he would have helped Kitty Genovese, he swears. He can usually be found at scribblescribblescribble.com/blog.