NEVER COMPROMISE: A REVIEW OF WATCHMEN (Print Version)
by Bradley Doucet*
Le Québécois Libre, March 15, 2009, No 265.
SPOILER ALERT: The following discussion tries to be oblique, but if you haven’t seen Watchmen—or better yet, read the original work—be forewarned that some plot details, along with the moral dilemma at the crux of the story, are revealed below.
Alan Moore, author of the wildly successful comic book series (sorry, “graphic novel”) upon which the movie Watchmen is based, has made it clear on several occasions that he does not believe big-screen adaptations of comic books can be any good. Given this latest attempt to turn one of his works into a film, I am forced to admit: maybe the man has a point.
To give credit where credit is due, the film is visually stunning. The look is true to the original comics, with actors chosen to resemble their comic book characters, and carefully-crafted costumes and gadgets. The special effects are also mostly top notch. The actors did a reasonably good job, too, and the major story arc from the comics was even largely preserved. In fact, many of the scenes in the film are lifted straight from the panels of the comic books.
This sounds pretty good, right? So why isn’t this film more enjoyable? There are many factors undermining the power of the original work. One of the first things that threw me was the wretched soundtrack, with painfully obvious song choices taking me right out of the story whenever they imposed themselves. I actually like Simon & Garfunkel, but I don’t need to hear “The Sound of Silence” in a movie ever again. The worst moment, however, is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (another good song) playing during what is surely the most ridiculous, embarrassing sex scene in the history of cinema. In the comics, the scene is tasteful and touching.
Violent and Vapid
Just like the film version of V for Vendetta, another (better) Moore adaptation, this film is chock-full of excessive, graphic violence. Scene after scene of appropriate violence in the comics, often taking place off-panel, is stretched out and made explicit, or changed altogether to be more disgusting. There was no need for the filmmakers to pander to those who get off on gruesome gore. The greatly extended, hopped-up fight scenes are also a major contributing factor to the unwieldy length of this 2 hour and 43 minute monstrosity.
And although the characters do largely resemble their comic book counterparts, the female lead, the Silk Spectre, is of course younger and sexier. (Nite Owl, on the other hand, is still sporting some middle-aged paunch.) Bowing to political correctness, the Silk Spectre also could not be allowed to keep her smoking habit, as she is one of the more sympathetic of the protagonists. Smoking is bad, you see, and good people do not smoke. Whatever. But in the comics, the Silk Spectre is wanting to light a cigarette when she accidentally sets off the flamethrower in Nite Owl’s airship; in the film, as she doesn’t smoke, she sets it off for no reason at all.
Many of the little touches of humour scattered throughout the comics did not make it onto the big screen. Much of the humour is lost because it is provided by supporting characters who were cut entirely from the film. This might seem a minor point given that the major story arc is largely intact, but it very much affects the tone of the story. For these and other reasons, whereas the comics are engaging, even uplifting despite the darkness of the material, the movie left me feeling pretty empty.
Anyone who wants to experience the graphic novel that revolutionized comics in the 1980s, and the only graphic novel to make Time magazine’s list of the all-time best 100 novels, should skip this film and head straight for the original work. There, they will find dark musings about power, arrogance, and human aggression. Whereas V for Vendetta is a story about rebellion against a dystopian dictatorship, Watchmen is a cautionary tale about a utopian dreamer who believes the end justifies the means. In contrast to this darkness, there are also musings about the meaning of life, and a strangely sympathetic sociopath with an uncompromising commitment to justice as he sees it.
What would you do if given the chance to save the world from possible nuclear Armageddon? What if all you had to do was condemn a few million innocent people to certain death to avoid the potential destruction of billions? These are the questions that confront the reader of Watchmen. The film does preserve this moral dilemma, if you are willing to wade through the cheesy music, the pathetic sex scene, the compound fractures, and the lack of comic relief.
The value of the Watchmen comic book series, aside from being a damn fine yarn, is that it prompts the reader to ponder how this dilemma might apply to the real world. One thought that comes to mind is that “predictions are difficult, especially about the future.” No matter how powerful and sophisticated computer models get, they are only as good as the assumptions upon which they are based. Even really smart people can be mistaken in their assumptions, and to make matters worse, smart people are more likely to think their assumptions are rock solid. To murder millions based on such assumptions brings a very literal dimension to Hayek’s notion of fatal conceit.
The utopian dreamer argues that making the world a better place is a noble end, and that this end justifies the means, however horrible they might be. To any such claim, we must ask: better for whom? Certainly not for the millions of innocents to be killed by the utopian’s scheme. I’d wager that they would choose possible Armageddon over certain annihilation any day. Are their wishes overridden by the interests of the surviving multitudes? Are human lives so interchangeable?
It is precisely those people who think they are who cause most of the conflict in the world. The root of all evil is not money or greed; it is the refusal to see others as individuals with the right to lead their lives as they see fit. It is this mentality that has been willing to draft young men to fight pointless wars in the past. It is this mentality that might one day unleash nuclear Armageddon on the world.
Utopia is by definition unattainable, but if we are to reach at least a stable and lasting peace, it will not be based on a lie. It will be based on a critical mass of people finally recognizing that individuals are not to be sacrificed to anyone’s master plan. The Watchmen comics do not come right out and state this conclusion. They just give you the space in which to contemplate the issues for yourself, at your leisure. This is what made them so successful, and what makes them worth reading and re-reading. How many viewers of the overly violent, largely humourless film will feel like contemplating its deeper message?
1. Versions of this quotation are variously attributed to Yogi Berra, Niels Bohr, and others.
* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.