Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Watchmen

I first read the graphic novel of Watchmen in the early 90s, when a large part of my life revolved around comic books. I came to funny books a little late in life, and it was publications like Watchmen that sucked me in - it, and series like Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, were being written for a more mature audience that would understand how the complexity of Bruce Wayne's life as the Batman could lead him to face challenges such as an addiction to performance enhancing drugs and would appreciate what that pollutant of the body could do to his mind.

These were not the perky shenanigans of Archie, Jughead, and the crew - after all, Betty and/or Veronica never got pregnant, Reggie was not the deadbeat father of a legion, and I do not recall Moose being imprisoned for assault.

The worlds that drew me into the comicverse were dark, moody explorations of conflicted characters who inhabited gritty realities in which right and wrong were divided by a murky and ill-defined line. Morality was relative at best. And they were illustrated in matching style, depicting worlds of shadows and fear that needed heroes - and heroes that were often uncertain whether they could or should meet this need.

From the Page to the Screen
The movies that have been made from these comic books have rarely captured this murky atmosphere or cared to delve into the twisted minds of the heroes/villains that inhabit them. There are exceptions, of course, in the form of Tim Burton's 1989 Batman and the franchise's two most recent outing, Batman Begins, based on Frank Miller's seminal "Year 1" (Batman 404-407), and the weaker but more politically/socially pointed The Dark Knight.

Other good adaptations abound, I am sure, but the Batman franchise sticks out in my mind because it is the comic book series that was nearest and dearest to my heart.

Perhaps needless to say, I had been anticipating the film version of Watchmen for some time, hoping against hope that I could add it to this list.

Who Watches the Watchmen
Watchmen (Zack Snider, 2009) (IMAX) A lot of fans of the graphic novel are watching Watchmen, that's who, and I think that for them - like myself - it is a rewarding experience. The movie is faithful to the graphic novel to the point of recreating exact panels from the pages (something that the better Batman movies have also benefited from, if in a less methodical manner), even to the point of limiting camera pans so as to frame each scene as if it were a cell on a page.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is the fact that Watchmen is faithful to the mood and ambiance of the alternative reality against which the narrative unfolds: a 1980s America where Nixon is serving his 5th term, there are rumours that an actor named Reagan may run for office, the world sits precariously on the brink of thermo-nuclear war, and costumed heroes have been outlawed.

It is a gritty, dismal reality in which signs of riches or privilege come off as brassy and cheap - tarnished by an aura of corruption and sleaze. Rorschach, the one hero who remains active, is our window into this world, and surely his twisted internal darkness lends to the oppressive feeling that imbues the setting.

Most of these heroes - which is one of the most intriguing aspect of the story for me - are regular men and women who have faded back into more-or-less regular lives. These are human beings that rose above their all-to-human weaknesses - fears and traumas - to become something more than mere man - like the Batman, they do not have superpowers, but via dedication and determination overcame their demons and kept themselves physically up to the challenge of fighting evil.

The only exception to this is Dr. Manhattan, a man who was turned iridescent blue and gained the power to manipulate matter at the atomic level through the standard scientific-experiment-gone-wrong. Interestingly, Dr. Manhattan is as tortured a character as any of his less superhuman compatriots, and spends much of the movie musing on whether or not he is still human and what - if anything - is his tie to the planet earth and the human race that he was born into.

I don't want to get into the minutiae of the story, as I do not want to risk spoilers for any who have not seen the film/read the book - also, the story itself is so complex and multi-textured that I feel a quick synopsis would quickly swell to fill the available space (which is how much exactly on the interweb?). However, I do want to emphasize that this is a story - and film - of questions.
  • Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
  • Are vigilantes and their personal crusades a ray of light in the darkness or a menace to society?
  • Can large for-profit corporations work for the common weal, or does their very nature render all such efforts self-serving?
Thus, I highly recommend that Watchmen neophytes sit down with the newly reprinted graphic novel and enjoy the delicious pleasure of reading a comic book when you obviously have "better" things to do ;) For the reaction of a first time reader, head over to Bookphilia to check out Dreamqueen's thoughts.

This recommendation brings to light the key problem with Watchmen. I really enjoyed the film, loving the already oft-alluded to ambiance of the reality presented. However, seeing as the original comic tale spans generations, continents, and even planets, it is a tall order to reproduce it faithfully on the screen. I am certain that many newcomers to the story are left more than slightly bewildered by the amount of information that they are called upon to synthesize - indeed, at the two-hour point of this almost-three-hour saga we are still learning back story that is essential to understanding the movie.

Thus, the main weakness of this film is its fidelity, its unwillingness to compromise on the smallest detail of the story - not that I care to imagine what would have been left out if the director had had to choose.

High Fidelity
Which raises an interesting issue that dogs many a film adapted from a novel: how much artistic license can be taken with the source material? Bad choices seem to greatly outweigh good in this area, with the original Harry Potter coming to mind as a stilted, slow, overly pedantic retelling of the facts of the book that did not offer anything new on screen.

At the other end of the spectrum sits a film like About a Boy. I just finished reading the book last night, and was shocked at how different the ending of the brilliant film is from that of the book - but how appropriate and true to the spirit of the story the film version is.

Watchmen is at the Harry Potter end of the spectrum for fidelity, but achieves the superhero feat of simultaneously occupying the About a Boy end for the initiated among its viewers. Read the graphic novel and I guarantee a good read - but I can't guarantee the same enjoyment of the film, I can only share my enjoyment of it.

1 comment:

DreamQueen said...

I'll read this after we see the film (hopefully this weekend). :)