The best way I’ve found to think about the movie adaptation of Watchmen, I’ve found, is in the context of something that appeared a couple of years before it was first published.
In late 1984 I was excited as heck, thirteen years old and awaiting the Christmas season with more than the usual interest. A couple of years beforehand I’d first read something that had enthralled and intrigued me, and I’d reread it a few times since, along with its then available sequels. I’d learned about how it had a huge reputation among aficionados, and certainly to my mind I couldn’t imagine a life without knowing about it, one had to know about it, surely.
And a movie version was coming out! I knew about the director’s previous project though I was too young to see it, perhaps — the ads were memorable, its own reputation strong. The publicity machine had long since kicked into full gear, spinoffs and tie-ins were filling various bookstores and toy stores. I still have the ‘making of’ book somewhere around — not a bad effort, actually, if inevitably colored and slanted towards a happy-face presentation rather than all the details that went into the production, and of course it had been written and prepared before anyone knew the fate of the movie. No matter, I lapped it up.
My mom dropped me off at the local mall-theater that was showing the movie — it wasn’t her thing, in fact I was the only member of the family who cared at all about it — and I took a seat on what would have been a Saturday afternoon showing. The theater wasn’t empty but it was definitely underpopulated, I’d say a quarter-full — and given this was opening weekend, that might have been a bit of a sign as to the film’s eventual fate. I’d read a review or two already that were mixed at best — I seem to remember Roger Ebert on TV being pretty dismissive — but David Ansen in Newsweek devoted a lot of space to it and found it flawed but compelling, and for some time to come that review what quoted prominently in the film’s advertising, probably because there were so few other good reviews out there.
But none of that mattered. I just knew that something really, really cool surely was about to happen, and I knew that they would be telling the film version of the story I enjoyed very much — and surely with all appropriate fidelity, all the details, surely. I settled into my seat, popcorn or something similar to hand I’m sure, waited for the lights to go down and saw Virginia Madsen fade in on the screen, talking to all of us.
And I proceeded to watch Dune.
As I think and rethink again about Watchmen, I should preface where I go first by noting that, in fact, I don’t hate David Lynch’s take on Dune at all. Far from it — I ended up taping both the original theatrical cut off TV and, when it was later released, the reedited, extended version done for syndicated TV, something Lynch did not control and which he invoked the Alan Smithee pseudonym for, and which was noticeably different in how the music cues were handled and in the rather sternly anonymous narration provided by someone in place of Madsen’s own. Yet that version did include many scenes from the book not in the theatrical cut and it was worth it just to see that — even if, in a later context, it’s wonderfully strange to realize that Jean-Luc Picard (or if you prefer Professor Xavier) could rock out on a baliset.
But the lesson of Dune for me was one of realizing the value of dampening expectations based on knowing something in advance. Actually I’d already learned this lesson once already that year with the release of 2010, having long since previously enjoyed 2001 in movie form and read and reread Arthur C. Clarke’s book sequel to the Stanley Kubrick collaboration. But Dune sticks more in the memory on this front, partially due to the eventual reputation of its director, partially because Dune was pitched ‘wide,’ as it were, to a mainstream audience. (It’s not that 2010 wasn’t, I’m sure, but, legendarily, The Terminator came out around the same time and James Cameron’s work pretty much crushed that anemic sequel from Peter Hyams to the point where I can’t even remember seeing a commercial for it.)
But that ultimately is another discussion — Dune is a fabled ‘if only’ still, something that Lynch himself has often regarded as an aberration (at a lecture he presented at UCI a few years back, he was introduced as the director of numerous films, all mentioned by name except one — prompting a question and comment by an audience member later professing an honest love for the film, in turn causing applause and which Lynch acknowledged with good grace). It was of course a massive big budget project, a Dino de Laurentis production with all that implied — and when one considers how perfectly he’d backed a landmark genre entry three previously, John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian, it makes Dune‘s failure, if not per se surprising, further evidence that his touch was ultimately sporadic when it came to such things.
Again, though, Dune is not something I think flat out sucks, and that’s the case, as mentioned, with many others. Instead, it’s something with a lot of flaws that still contains much of interest, but those flaws can make it sometimes hard to love. It’s a product of its time, it represents a combination of inspired patchwork and flawed execution, a tension between trying to do right by the original material and trying to make it function in a cinematic context. There’s a lot worse out there but I can’t rank it as a true favorite.
Which brings me to Watchmen, and you can probably guess where I’m going with all this.
The comparisons to Dune started for me towards the end of Watchmen, but that was because only then could I get a better sense of perspective on the whole film. I actually saw it in its opening midnight showing — it wasn’t something I was planning on going to, but friend Tom, who I’d turned on to the original book shortly after the first trailer came out last year, was going to be away all that weekend and suggested we go for the midnight showing instead. No problem with that, done that plenty of times in recent years so why not again? IMAX was sold out but one of the spillover theaters was good to go when he checked and so we found ourselves among a pretty packed crowd — that much was different from my first Dune experience, at least.
Without restating my introduction to this piece, though, you can sense the parallels otherwise, something that only suddenly crystallized upon viewing. Talking about Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original work in great detail is not something I want or really need to do at this point — like Frank Herbert’s novel, by the time Watchmen appeared on screen an entire generation had grown up with it, canonized and acknowledged and referenced and studied and more besides, seen as a ‘mature’ variation of the form by those who would never want to read or study anything else in the form.
I’ve found myself running out of time today to talk more about this — I am off to a long-planned party shortly — but tomorrow I’ll hopefully have more to say about the comparisons to be drawn between the two films, and my impressions in general about Watchmen as a film. But I will leave for now with the advice I’ve been giving people — see it as a matinee showing instead of full price. But you should still see it.