Continued from here.
As the days continue and more and more people see the film, the expected breakdown of opinion continues as well — lots of love, lots of hate, lots of ambivalence, with the third category being where I still firmly sit. The most amusing piece I saw today came from Patton Oswalt, who, intentionally or not, seems to capture what is the pro-camp in extremis, essentially saying what the far more ambivalent Matt Maxwell also did the other day — ‘it’s not the comic and you can’t expect it to be the comic’ — but adding what seems to be a further belligerence along the lines of ‘why can’t you people appreciate what you’ve got, jeez!’
I sympathize to an extent, I’ve felt similar about many other adaptations. But only so far, because there’s a feedback loop already settling in that basically insists that Snyder and crew haven’t compromised, have shown incredible ambition, and so forth, and that this alone is reason to praise sight unseen (which, as Oswalt hilariously notes, is literally the case with him — he wrote and posted his thoughts having not yet seen the film). But if there’s no room for nuance, no room for questions or unsureness or outright detestation of certain elements even while thinking the film is worth seeing, then we might as well all go home. If Watchmen‘s reception ends up being totally divided between love and hate, then I think it’s actually a greater failure than if it was universally hated.
My fifth and final post on Wednesday will be where I actually talk about what I love about the film, and while it’s worth seeing despite all my caveats. But I can’t ignore those caveats and, importantly, they’re not simply a matter of translating over the three overriding flaws of Lynch’s Dune that I discussed in detail yesterday. However, those are the starting points, and those points are, in the end, somewhat unavoidable, no matter the adaptation and no matter the adapter.
Each of the three adaptive flaws of Dune apply to Watchmen, though not necessarily in the same sense or scale. They hobble Watchmen, at best providing plenty of problematic moments, at worst providing a poor substitution for equivalent dialogue or scenes in the book that ends up making the movie less interesting than it could have been. I’ll repeat again here — just because they hobble Dune badly as well doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the film. But they can’t be handwaved there, and they can’t be handwaved here.
The first flaw — massive frontloading providing reasonably exhaustive detail results in a rushed, crushed and heavily changed second half — is not as completely disorienting as in Dune. It helps that it’s a familiar enough setting that the world of Watchmen presents, similar yet different, with immediately recognizable elements. The necessary expository detail falls less on the world of Watchmen than it does on those characters whose stories are exposed and/or detailed, and the unavoidably episodic nature of the original work did at least provide room for each of the major characters to have ‘their say’ — even the Comedian gets this via the funeral flashbacks. Meanwhile, the sequence that I’ve noticed has come in for a fair amount of complaint as slowing both original story and movie down — Dr. Manhattan’s removal to Mars, first on his own and then with Laurie — contains what I think are some of the best moments in both versions, with Billy Crudup’s serene voice jumping through the chaos of simultaneous time. How his story is summarized and presented is an example of fine adaptive skill.
But the rush of the second half loses this balance, in a way that left me initially uneasy, then cold. Two sequences in particular stood out — the revelation of Laurie’s true parenthood, a moment of admittedly high melodrama that I think missed a step in only including the first meeting between Laurie and the Comedian rather than the angry second, something I think is important given the extremely unsatisfying final resolution of that arc at the very end of the movie — more on that in due course, but this was a shortchanging that put too pat a conclusion on one of the most wrenching parts of the entire story.
Meantime, a more problematic — though admittedly probably more insoluble — dilemma came with Ozymandias. The absolutely entrancing portrayal of his backstory and perversely attractive sociopathic megalomania via his extended monologue to his servants in the original could never have been filmed as it stood — it really would have slowed the film down to a crazy degree. The substitute scene touches on this in shorthand, leaving the burden to be carried by the fight scene in Karnak between him, Rorschach and Night Owl, where as in the original Ozymandias almost diffidently explains his decisions in between thumping people.
And yet it just didn’t work. Strange to say, but the fact that I knew where he was coming from and what he was doing and why, rather than filling in the lacunae that the film version inevitably created, left me feeling distanced towards Ozymandias as filmed. And for all that I’m talking about adaptive flaws here, to repeat: the character in the film simply hadn’t earned his moment for me to feel a full connection, the simultaneous attraction and horror that Ozymandias represents. Without it, a major element of the conclusion disappears.
Was something possible? If the reactions of others who hadn’t read the book and enjoyed the film are any indication, it was not only possible but was there in full force. I cannot predict how I would react in their shoes, yet the fact remains that where I felt the connections to other characters in the film as clearly as I did in the book, the compression of time and mechanics in the film compromised Laurie’s story and wrecked Ozymandias’s. It’s deeply regrettable.
The second flaw — the perhaps inevitable problem of translating things to the film medium that read well but shouldn’t’ve been carried over — is, as noted, near inevitable. Hammering on examples could go on forever, really, and I’m not interested in a cataloging. But what made me first think of Dune while seeing Watchmen, as it turned out, was a device that is simply essential in the book but which far too quickly caused me to laugh to myself, and not because of intentional humor — Rorschach’s journals.
It should be noted that I think Rorschach’s own writing is something that within the first page of the book is sent up as a red flare to readers that an unreliable narrator is being dealt with, or at least one that has a worldview that may make intrinsic internal sense but which is removed from that of most readers. There is, I think, humor to be found even in the grimness of what he writes.
Yet despite the fact that I think Jackie Earle Haley’s portrayal of Rorschach is one of the acting highlights of the film, and despite the fact that the journal simply could not be removed or dropped without completely undercutting the absolute conclusion of the film, hearing him narrate the journal against the various visual sequences, just as in the book, somehow first called to mind Kyle Maclachlan’s whisperings and random looks.
Then, more damagingly, I couldn’t hear him actually say “Rorschach’s journal” plus the appropriate date or time without thinking of an even more familiar figure from TV four decades back starting out each episode going “Captain’s log…”
Meanwhile, the final adaptive flaw — obsessive microfocus, diffuse macrofocus — is actually the one that Watchmen overcomes the most thanks to the most successful element of the adaptation, the changed mechanism of Ozymandias’s conspiracy. This deserves all the praise it gets and I’ll talk more about it in the final entry, but in ways it makes Watchmen even more frustrating — it got a lot of detail just so, it got a core element of making it work as a self-contained film right, but in between there’s a lot of things that took me out of the film far too quickly, too jarringly.
I should preface this by saying that there’s no one through line on the examples that come to mind — there are various, and they function in different ways. Further, the absence of a detail should not be taken as a sign of lacking wider focus — for instance, while the exclusion of the running Tales of the Black Freighter sequence and the characters of the newsstand operator and the comic fan is unfortunate on the one hand, it’s also completely understandable on the other.
Still, consider these two examples, one a question of screenwriting and editing, the other of directorial intent, both I think reflective of a film that can’t quite decide what it is trying to be:
First, the character of Hollis Mason is briefly introduced in the sequence, as in the book, where he and Dan Dreiberg chat over a beer and reminisce. It’s nicely done and on a detail level it works very well, but his absence from the rest of the film made me retrospectively wonder why he should be included at all. It’s already been said that his story arc will be kept in with the extended DVD version and I’m admittedly fine with this since such similar work helped radically improve the too-brusque story of Faramir in The Two Towers, for instance.
Consider, though, a complete removal of Hollis from the theatrical film — in otherwards, we first encounter Dreiberg as he returns to his house, finding to his surprise it’s been broken into. We don’t know who this man is at all, and neither do we know why Rorschach would be there in his kitchen. The scene could then play as it does, and with a bit of careful editing, possibly an extra line or two as needed, could build up to that moment where Dreiberg, Rorschach’s dismissive “You quit” ringing in his ears, slumps down to sit, his costume (already revealed and shown during the credit sequence of the film) hanging in its case. The question such a shortened scene would raise would still be answered, Dreiberg’s role still clearly identified, in a way that lets the visuals do the job.
This is of course the luxury of Monday-morning quarterbacking, of seeing the film and thinking back on it and going “Well you know…” rather than thinking of it at the time. At the time I watched the scene there was no way of knowing whether Hollis would be in the film any more or not. Yet it seems in retrospect that his scene feels more fanservicey than necessary, something that, if removed, could theoretically free up time elsewhere for other detail, for instance — and given that the filmmakers did eventually prove to be bold in the big change, one wonders why the hesitation in the smaller scale at points. Include Hollis’s sequences in full in the DVD if one likes, but why the half-hearted inclusion in the theatrical?
When it comes to intent, meanwhile, I think the first truly “Okay, wait a minute” moment I had with the film came with the capture of Rorschach. As written, and as filmed, it’s actually a marvel of compact storytelling — Rorschach’s insane self-beration and survival instinct in overdrive, his refusal to back down against all odds, an illustration of his autonomous nature at its angriest and most destructive. In both versions he breaks out through a window with a snarl and crashes to the ground.
In the comic, the fall pretty well knocks the wind out of him and he’s then quickly overcome, leading to the climactic moment of his being unmasked. In the film, though, he springs to his feet and, in a sequence that almost feels comical, proceeds to take down one cop after another in an action sequence that’s certainly pure post-Hong Kong (and its many derivations in America and elsewhere) in impact. He’s then overcome and the sequence concludes as in the book.
I knew it felt wrong when I watched it, at least to me. However, it wasn’t because Rorschach fought back, therefore not being ‘just like the book’ — in fact, it wasn’t until I reread the sequence the following day that I realized he didn’t really fight back at all, aside from struggling violently against the police who were already subduing him. The fact that the film Rorschach would fight back fiercely seemed perfectly keeping in character. Yet his crisp moves, his take-em-down-one-at-a-time approach, all that, however swiftly done, felt wrong on a wider level. This wasn’t ‘Rorschach’ as I understood him at this point in the film — instead, he suddenly transformed into a ‘superhero’ and then back again to just being a regular guy.
I can see an argument for this in the film’s logic — Rorschach (and to a different level Night Owl and other figures) have to be to some extent or another superhuman to truly be superheroes in the context of Watchmen as filmed, especially given the final confrontation in Karnak. I’m not entirely on board with this argument but even so, I understand it. Something does not quite gel, though, in this sporadic, sudden there-and-gone burst of power — it’s maybe not so much a lack of focus as a refocusing that raises more questions than answers.
It took me out of the flow of the film, and it was just one moment of many.
I fully realize that in the course of these posts it seems like all I’ve done is dump on Watchmen, explicitly or implicitly. So to reiterate, in my final post I’ll talk more fully about what I enjoy — or even just appreciated — about the film, and the reason why it’s compelling enough to watch at least once.
But before that, having put the Dune parallels to bed, I’ll talk more about those decisions and choices that were Snyder’s alone to make as a director and overall guiding light of the film version. I have never seen a Snyder film before this one, I should note, so this is not relying on comparisons to 300 or whatever. I will see Watchmen again, but I have no desire to ever see another Snyder film in the future now. In fact, I have an overwhelming sense of active, complete avoidance — I’m not interested in seeing Watchmen again because of him, I’m interested in seeing it again in spite of him.
More on that tomorrow.