Zack Snyder’s forthcoming film adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen is, by any measure, a long shot. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ comic book yarn remains one of the most densely plotted and satisfying examples of the form. The book is artful in its telling, at times ingenious, and rewards repeated reading. And this, for Synder, is part of the problem. The pleasures of Watchmen are very much about how the story is told, i.e., as a comic. The plot often hinges on tiny visual details; graffiti, partly-obscured adverts, a pocketful of sugar cubes – all of which become significant as the story unfolds. Skipping back and forth through the pages and revisiting these details is hard to avoid, and indeed is intended. How this might translate to film isn’t clear.
Moore described the book as “unfilmable,” not least because of its narrative structure, with flashbacks, supplementary “research” and a comic-within-a-comic that serves to counterpoint events. In an interview with Amazon, Moore recounted his reaction to Terry Gilliam’s abortive 1989 attempt to turn “the War and Peace of graphic novels” into a film: “I had to tell [Gilliam] that I didn’t think it was filmable. I didn’t design it to show off the similarities between cinema and comics, which there are, but in my opinion are fairly unremarkable. It was designed to show off the things that comics could do that literature and cinema couldn’t.” In The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, David Hughes quotes Gibbons making much the same point: “With a comic book the reader can back-track; you can reach page twenty and say, ‘Hey, that’s what that was all about on page three,’ and then nip back and have a look. We wanted to take advantage of that difference… We wanted to make a comic book that read as a straightforward story, but gradually you became aware that it had a symmetrical structure.”
Those unfamiliar with the comic’s plot can find a summary here. Essentially, Watchmen is a detective story set in an alternative 1980s in which Woodward and Bernstein were assassinated and Nixon is still president. The comic’s twelve chapters mark a countdown to armageddon as one by one a group of retired and questionable heroes are eliminated and the world teeters on the brink of thermonuclear war. Investigating the death of a former masked colleague, a disheveled vigilante named Rorschach uncovers a plot of unspeakable proportions and uncertain intent. The looming showdown of military superpowers could in theory be prevented by the one character with super-powers of his own, the casually miraculous Dr Manhattan. Freakishly disembodied by a laboratory mishap, Manhattan is, quite literally, a self-resurrected man. All but omnipotent, this blue transfigured being is assumed to be America’s deliverance and the ultimate deterrent. However, the doctor’s godlike perceptions are proving incompatible with human imperatives: “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there’s no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?”
Watchmen’s intricate plot and density of reference have inspired numerous lectures, lists and exhaustive annotations of the series’ 400 pages. Watchmen is, in short, one of the few graphic novels to stand serious comparison with more canonical literature and was voted one of Time magazine’s “100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.” Unfortunately, previous adaptations of Moore’s comics have been, to say the least, less than inspiring. V for Vendetta and From Hell were disappointing hokum and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen lost every atom of its original intelligence and sleazy period charm. Filming Watchmen – a much more daunting work - has already thwarted several directors, including Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and, more recently, Paul Greengrass. Snyder, however, is at least in sight of releasing an actual film, due in March 2009. As yet, there’s no way to know whether the results will be worth the anticipation or a grandiose disaster. A three-hour film based on a cult comic - and which children won’t be able to see – isn’t the most obvious commercial venture. And since its publication in 1986, many of Watchmen’s themes have been explored elsewhere in popular culture – most obviously in Heroes, the first series of which borrows a major plot point. Still, it’s hard to fault Synder’s ambition and attention to visual detail. And, given Watchmen’s infamous denouement is very much about ambition and thinking the unthinkable, it is perhaps fitting that Snyder should be doing precisely that.