Watchmen — Post 2

Continued from here.

As this weekend has continued and more and more people actually see Watchmen, the reactions have not been surprising. People near me at the midnight showing were audibly disappointed, others very impressed. Some friends report going with friends or s.o.’s who knew nothing of the original comic and really enjoyed it; others talk about silent and audibly disappointed audiences, often split along gender lines. A mix, a match.

One of my favorite reviews so far has been that by my friend Matt Maxwell, a sharp culture maven in general and a comics person by interest and trade. He’s well aware of the necessary differences between comics and other media and as a result his own take on Watchmen is required reading. To quote a key part:

Zack Snyder’s WATCHMEN wants desperately to be accurate and succeeds on some levels, but just as often, proves to be tone-deaf to the source material.

Let’s us be clear. WATCHMEN the movie is not WATCHMEN the graphic novel. It won’t deliver the same experience and can’t. I think that Mr. Snyder knows this intimately, but still can’t help himself from trying to do so by attempting to control the flow of time, for instance, much as the reader can do in comics (and as the authors themselves strive to.) By changing panel size and density, the authors can constrict or dilate time, at least they think they can, but there is nothing preventing the reader from jumping ahead or back with more or less speed than perhaps the authors intended. You can’t control how the text (as us lapsed English majors sometimes refer to things like books, comics and movies) will be read. You can try, but you have to let go long enough for the reader to arrange their own conclusions. If you fail to do that then you get simple and on the nose didacticism, which doesn’t make for thrilling or inspiring work.

So WATCHMEN won’t be the graphic novel. Get over it. I know that I certainly tried to, but found it nearly impossible to generate any kind of meaningful critical distance between the film and graphic novel. I can literally read WATCHMEN without having the book in front of me, the work has become internalized to that degree. So it’s entirely likely that I can’t ever write a fair review of the movie. So be it.

With that in mind, a further consideration of Dune and Watchmen.


The section I’ve quoted by Matt could be written by someone who saw Dune back in 1984, allowing for certain necessary adjustments given the differences in source material. The bedeviling nature of the ‘proper’ adaptation in the cinematic age, following on from the equivalent between print and theater (and followed in turn by radio, television, etc.) is too vast a subject for me to address easily off the top of my head. But its increasing visibility as a key factor in the making of certain films is the result of numerous trends — widening literacy in general, alternative canonical construction, organized subcultures, self-reinforcing fanaticism. By the time Dune was made, all these factors were in place and well-developed; by the time Watchmen was made, they had been extended to the nth degree. The difference is in fact only one of degree in the end.

Alternative examples can be cited — in fact, there’s an obvious one that should be addressed — Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. There are plenty of arguments out there against the films and against the films as adaptations, but it cannot be denied that the films were still massive successes on both a commercial and critical level. A key reason for this is something that Jackson and his collaborators constantly emphasized throughout the production and release of the films — that they were always referring back to the original book when possible but that they were ultimately not simply trying to film the book as written, and that they were not going to try and do that.

This was retrospectively the key for the films succeeding as they did. Jackson enjoyed the books but was not steeped in them; he is an admitted fanboy about many things but he is not a chapter-and-verse quoter of Tolkien’s writings. He sees himself as a filmmaker first and foremost, and his goal was to create entertaining films. The results speak for themselves, and by finding core plotlines to focus on and ways to create a version of the story that was ultimately consistent within the interpretation of that story cinematically — something that made self-contained sense even where it did not match with the written text — he was able to concentrate on making film versions that worked as films. It’s not Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings but it should not be taken as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and to complain otherwise is to miss the point.

Strange to say, perhaps, but the point I’ve just made about self-contained consistency actually provides the high point of Snyder’s changes to Watchmen, but more on that later, because ultimately it’s an isolated example. Turning back to David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune, there are three choices made which resulted in the film being hobbled as it did — there may not have been exact solutions for these problems, or Lynch might not have been allowed to find his own solutions for them in the scope of the production given the pressures from de Laurentis and others.

First, massive frontloading providing reasonably exhaustive detail results in a rushed, crushed and heavily changed second half — while the ‘Secret Report Within the Guild’ actually provides a sharp way to swiftly introduce the core planets and powers in the story, along with putting both the Guild and the Emperor in the mix at the start instead of only fully emerging as actors at the end as in the book, after that things start to turn a bit leisurely. In ways this reflects the equally leisurely pace of Frank Herbert’s work — he luxuriates in detail, and in doing so allows the story to develop into something more than white knights versus black. Sequences like the book’s banquet scene almost function as individual short stories, power plays where morality is secondary or used as a function for other means. New characters are introduced constantly throughout the story, other power bases, other actors in the larger story, and even when the disaster falls upon the Atreides family, it takes many pages and scenes to fully account for.

On film, though, the translation of this leisurely pace means that we do get a lot of this initial backstory in the final theatrical edit — some further scenes were filmed but were ultimately left out, yet even so there’s quite a lot of material presented, despite understandable telescoping of dialogue and sequences. The net result, though, is that by the time the movie is half over, it’s only just reached the conclusion of the first third of the book — and from there on in, things have to speed up rapidly. In doing so, much about the larger contexts of the story’s scope — nearly everything to do with the Harkonnens, for instance — as well as much of the internal philosophizing and stress of many of the key characters is completely lost. A good amount of this was done in the script to start with but the final edit makes everything absolutely brutally quick and contextless — Paul almost becomes the leader of the Fremen by default as a result, and that’s just the first of many things that go by the wayside. A couple of honestly striking scenes aside — most notably, not least because it differs from the book, when Paul drinks the Water of Life, portrayed on screen vividly with sandworms towering over his prone figure — the ending of Dune is basically a portrayal of vengeance against the bad guys, with an extended battle sequence getting the most overall detail. Whether or not less time easing into the story in the first half would have solved these problems is impossible to say, but it would have allowed more to happen in the second half to give the film and its story greater heft within the same running time.

Second, the perhaps inevitable problem of translating things to the film medium that read well but shouldn’t’ve been carried over — with Dune, sometimes this is down to dialogue, with familiar lines awkwardly used and deployed (the sheer shock and joy that Gurney Halleck and Paul feel when they reencounter each other in combat turns into Patrick Stewart awkwardly barking “You young pup!” twice — it’s exactly what he says in the book at that stage, but it sounds pretty goofy). But more telling is the use of monologue — in Dune, internal monologues are absolutely key to the story. Herbert dwells inside his characters’ heads to a massive degree, as they think, consider, build up to decisions, review the past, ponder a next move, philosophize, wonder what will happen next, or, perhaps most importantly, regard with increasing unease what the inevitable result of their actions will mean. The epic sweep of the story carries a reader, especially the first time through; the internal considerations of the characters grounds it in turn.

Translating this kind of approach to an audio-visual medium like film is the world’s biggest mountain to climb — I’m not sure myself if I’ve ever seen something like it actually carried out successfully. But since, as noted, so much of what happens in the book has to be placed in that context — without at least some acknowledgment of it, a large amount of the characters’ actions would be incomprehensible — Lynch’s solution was to try and replicate that with endless shots of characters walking, staring off into space, carrying out physical actions without saying a word, all while often-whispered voiceovers delivered sometimes crucial information (at other points, just illustrative).

It’s not an unfair way to literalize the parallel sequences in the book — if anything, it’s a perfect description of how we ourselves think in our heads as we silently carry out actions, walking down the street while talking to ourselves or whatever. But it’s pretty unengaging in terms of film, and by stripping down so much of said internal monologues to quick line quotes, they become less extended struggles and more unanswered questions and glib, often strictly plot-driven bon mots. In this case, maybe there was simply no solution that could be found.

The third problem I’ve already mentioned in my consideration of both previous problems, but needs to be brought out to the full — obsessive microfocus, diffuse macrofocus. Fanservice is the more common term, not a favorite of mine, but it applies — it’s the idea that certain things MUST be kept in order to keep the fans happy, because that way it really is the book on screen. The problem of course is one of measure — a completely reworked story and film that bears no resemblance at all to the source text deprives filmmakers of a core audience eager to spread approval (or disapproval) by word of mouth, but a completely faithfully accurate story and film that ties into the source text is absolutely unfilmable. Different media, different expectations — it can’t happen, it won’t happen. Therefore, how to split the difference?

There are multiple possibilities, but if the difference is split by making sure certain things are just right no matter what while not attending to the key point of making a good, stand-on-its-own film, then there’s a failure. It can be minor, it can be catastrophic, but it’s a failure. As such, Dune fails — lumbering, stop-start, trapped into certain scenes that it can’t escape from that end up looking sometimes faintly ridiculous, sometimes heavily ridiculous, dedicated to making sure that someone says the line “A million deaths are not enough for Yueh!” even though that was only in the original book as a quote from a children’s song in a chapter’s epigraph, it misses the forest for the trees near-completely. What matter if the stillsuits look awesome when the actors act anonymous in them? Lynch’s eye for the grotesque is what allows him to put his own stamp on the story at its best — the heart-plugs the Harkonnens wear are absolutely disturbing, for instance — but those individual touches were not enough to make the film fully connect.

And yet, as I’ve said and will repeat, I do enjoy Dune. I don’t love it for its flaws, instead I appreciate it for its attempt, I often admire some of its overreaches just as much as I reject other moments. When at its technical best it looks marvelous — only David Lean, at least among Anglo-American filmmakers, has captured what the feeling of a mythically empty desert is like — and it can be looked back on with the knowledge of the compromises that were made due to the time, the audience, the way it had to be delivered to a wider population that had ever heard of the book. The film turned out to be a smash success in Europe and was a major hit on video; it’s not that there wasn’t interest and appreciation in it from the start, acceptance of — or overlooking — of its manifest flaws.

Ultimately, it was the closest that one could get to the story at the time, a frustrating, imperfect effort that was still watched then and now. This, many are now starting to agree, is also the clear case with Watchmen.

As before, I’ve run out of time to continue at this point, so a third post will follow, possibly a fourth. Hopefully all this time spent on these framing points vis-a-vis Dune will help clarify my Watchmen observations — otherwise I might as well be doing what I’m talking about in my first problem observed here, an overloaded first half!


One Response to “Watchmen — Post 2”

  1. Watchmen — Post 3 « Ned Raggett Ponders It All Says:

    […] Watchmen — Post 3 March 9, 2009 — Ned Raggett Continued from here. […]

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