How the Watchmen TV series should be handled
It’s official. HBO is planning to sign on a Watchmen TV series helmed by Damon Lindelof. While the project is still in very early stages of development with no actors attached to the leading roles, it gets us all excited for the potential of the second attempt at adapting Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel about an alternate world where superheroes are helping to influence the outcome of the Cold War.
The first adaptation of the comic came in 2009 with Zack Snyder’s film. While it was a good attempt where the storyline stayed true to the novel and many of the shots were legitimately taken straight out of the comic panels, it received mixed opinions from critics and fans alike. It received a number of criticisms which I will get into later, but the bottom line remains that it left quite a lot to be desired. I personally did enjoy the film, but must also preach to the choir of those who would criticise many of the decisions made in the movie.
With the recent news of a TV series being in consideration by HBO, I have compiled a list of points that might potentially help make this project be as good as it can be, while learning from the mistakes of the movie and making sure the comic is adapted in the most efficient way. After all, with a second attempt at an adaptation, there is no room for mistakes.
1] DITCH THE ENDLESS SLOW-MO
Zack Snyder is notorious for the excessive use of slow motion, and while it works well when intended to pinpoint moments from the comic, when done in abundance it turns a movie into a series of moments rather than scenes. The audience will not care about individual slow-mo moments (as spectacular as they may look) if there is no proper set-up to them. The audience needs good dialogue and characterization in order to connect with characters. Slow motion alone is an empty trick.
2] USE MUSIC WISELY
Following up from the previous point, Snyder has used a large selection of songs for the movie’s soundtrack that have release dates ranging throughout the entire Cold War in order to establish the atmosphere and mood of the movie. Many of the song choices are political or pop-culture-referential, and together create a vivid picture of a 1985 United States that has been at war with Russia for decades and is on the verge of a nuclear wipe-out.
For the most part, the songs are fitting to the Watchmen universe and enrichen it, but they also have to be carefully chosen to reflect the scene and not detract from it. The movie’s use of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” or Nena’s “99 Luftballons” is a bit questionable, and the TV series should be cautious not to make the same mistakes. On the other hand, Philip Glass, Jimi Hendrix, Nat King Cole or “Ride of the Valkyries” were brilliant in their respective scenes.
3] KEEP THE VIOLENCE REALISTIC
The Watchmen movie was violent. Very violent. R-rated violent. It was perhaps the first R-rated superhero film back then. Of course, with the themes it deals with, Watchmen is no Spider-Man, but at the same time, I believe the movie suffered from the over-reliance on over-the-top, comic book violence. We see bones get broken from up close, arms chopped off with a buzzsaw, faces bitten off and a man getting repeatedly chopped in the head with a meat cleaver.
Apart from many of the violent scenes not being in the comic (or being different), the problem with this is that the violence takes our focus away from the story and onto blood squirting from a freshly chopped off arm. It was pure shock value on Snyder’s part. In the series, they should keep the violence, sure. But also make sure it’s realistic and makes sense within the context of the story and isn’t made purely to make the viewers gasp in horror; you want people to watch your show, not have to turn their eyes away from it. Watchmen is a dark and serious story, heavily grounded in realism, and has no place for cartoonish violence.
4] KEEP THE TONE OF THE FILM
Credit where it’s due, the tone and atmosphere the movie has managed to create is near excellent for Watchmen. While I’m sure the series will try to distance itself from the film to some extent, it shouldn’t stray too far from the tone Snyder built. With the scenes involving Rorschach, the movie becomes an old school, gritty and nihilistic noir experience. With Dr. Manhattan it becomes a cheesy 80s science fiction. With Nite Owl and Silk Spectre it reminds us of 1989’s Burton’s Batman. It doesn’t seem like it should all work together, but it does, and mixed with each other creates an absolutely unique experience. The series should take note of that, and use it to its full potential.
5] KEEP THE COSTUMES ACCURATE
The movie did a fairly good job at character costumes, but it has changed a few things, namely the appearance of Nite Owl II, Ozymandias and Silk Spectre. While Snyder perhaps thought that their comic costumes might have been too flamboyant for a movie, Nite Owl ended up looking like Batman in shades, Silk Spectre got a super tight latex costume and Ozymandias was simply boring. Nay, I say. Let Nite Owl have underwear over his leggings. Let Ozymandias look like a sparkly techno Egyptian emperor. That’s the whole point. There’s not always the need for fake abs or dark leather or latex. Not everything has to be ambiently edgy. Screw that.
6] DON’T CUT OUT ANY BACKSTORIES
The story of Watchmen largely resembles a watch itself. Every piece is assembled in the right order to together form a fully functioning, coherent and circularly complete story. Plot develops in the right pace, and the developments are logical. Each of the Watchmen serves an important function in the story. And most importantly, we find out the backstory of the characters when we have to, and not before. In addition, the character backstories form a big chunk of the entire story, and all of them are important to either understand the motivations of each of the heroes or to advance the plot. Taking anything away from the mechanism would be stopping the watch. Don’t do that.
7] LAURIE IS IMPORTANT!
One character that the movie seemed to undermine a bit was Laurie, a.k.a. Silk Spectre II, the daughter of the original Silk Spectre from the Minutemen, and one of the six Watchmen. In the comic, Laurie is a strong feminist presence in the story, advocating liberal thinking and quite humanitarian in nature. She is an integral part of the story, which the movie undercut to great extent.
Furthermore, while the movie keeps the plot twist of The Comedian being Laurie’s father, it doesn’t seem to influence her behaviour in the final act of the story… and that’s mostly because she doesn’t play a big part in it. The series must address this issue, and make sure Silk Spectre is as developed as the rest of the Watchmen.
8] DON’T FORGET THE MINUTEMEN, TOO
The Minutemen were the forebears of the ‘modern’ Watchmen, a group of vigilantes that operated throughout the 1940s, fought a wide selection of supervillains, and inspired later vigilante movements in the United States. The theatrical cut of the movie only briefly shows us flashbacks involving the Minutemen, but the director’s cut expands on it a bit more. Considering the TV series will have way more hours to tell the story, it is crucial to include all the flashbacks and information about the old timey vigilantes, including the reunion with Mothman, as it helps to understand the story and the present day characters better.
9] DON’T TURN ADRIAN VEIDT INTO A COMIC BOOK VILLAIN
“I’m not a Republic serial villain,” Ozymandias exclaims in the comic after setting off his masterplan. As a nod to the graphic novel, Snyder replaced this line with “I’m not a comic book villain”. Ironically, that’s exactly what the character of Adrian Veidt was made into in the movie – a transparent, obvious bad guy. Rather than making him into a sophisticated and intelligent man with a plan to save the world, Snyder made Ozymandias into an obviously stereotypical, smug villain. All he needed was a moustache to twirl. And it somehow just doesn’t cut it to see his apparent regret when Nite Owl tells him that he’s mutilated humanity. Ozymandias would never regret it. When the series comes into fruition, hopefully it gives more depth to Adrian’s character than the film because he deserves it.
10] DON’T OVERSIMPLIFY THE ENDING
A lot of problems with the movie circulate around the last act and the ending. Towards the end of the story, Adrian enacts a scheme to end the Cold War by introducing an alien force bigger than anything the US or the USSR can handle on their own, forcing them to reconcile. The film lost a lot of nuance of that by cutting out key moments from the last act, such as Dr. Manhattan’s conversation with Ozymandias where Manhattan questions the nature of “the end”, questioning Veidt’s plan and the possible unforeseen consequences that may arise out of it. That is reinforced by Rorschach leaving his journal in the hands of the journalists, which the movie keeps.
The minor things like Nite Owl witnessing Rorshach’s death and lashing out at Ozymandias just weaken the ending as well, and in order to make it a believable, logical and engaging ending, Damon Lindelof needs to get rid of these tiny weaknesses that add up to be a bigger problem.
11] KEEP THE DAMN TENTACLE ALIEN… IF YOU CAN
Probably the biggest change from the comic, and one that divided the fans back when the movie came out was the exclusion of Ozymandias’ fake ‘alien’ – a gigantic, Lovecraftian tentacled creature that appeared in the New York city and made the world join forces against it. Instead, the movie changed the ending to Ozymandias destroying a number of big cities around the world and putting the blame on Dr. Manhattan.
I’m not going to lie – I did enjoy this version of the ending and don’t mind it at all. It gives Manhattan’s character more full-circleness and makes absolute sense – considering Manhattan’s lost all interest in humanity, it places him at a convenient position to be considered the culprit of the destruction and keep the countries with nuclear weapons at bay in fear of him.
On the other hand, the idea of the giant squid terrorizing New York is brilliant too – just because it’s just such a great and over-the-top twist in an otherwise dark and serious story. It doesn’t make anyone within the universe question what actually happened because the actual truth is much more ridiculous than a Cthulhu invasion. But I’ll understand if the series wants to change that, simply because time and budget-wise adding the giant squid might be a bit too much.
12] MAKE USE OF ALL THE DETAILS OF THE COMIC
Besides the actual story in the panels, the comic also offers looks into the characters and the world through little details such as the psychiatrist’s notes and other snippets of information. They enhance the world and make the characters richer than ever, and if the series manages to get a hold of these details, it will greatly increase the chance of the series becoming a hit.
13] SO WHAT’S UP WITH THE BLACK FREIGHTER?
Right. The graphic novel also has a side comic-within-comic called Tales of the Black Freighter, a dark story about a phantom ship that collects evil souls to serve on it. It is substantially relevant to the main story, serving as an analogy to Adrian Veidt’s character, and realising that helps to make Ozymandias even more complex. If you look hard enough, you can even find similarities with other themes and characters within the comic. The movie’s ultimate cut includes animated segments of The Black Freighter, and the movie doesn’t suffer for it. Should the Watchmen TV season have 10-12 episodes, it might do well to include this story-within-story.
14] WATCHMEN IS NOT SHALLOW
Another thing to consider. Watchmen is probably Moore’s finest work, a deep and sophisticated story charged with politics, philosophy and allegory. It explores themes like violence as a means to an end of achieving peace, identity and moral ambiguity, among others. It deconstructs the superhero genre by presenting the main characters as flawed people, where even the “Superman” suffers from an identity crisis brought on by his unlimited power. It asks the rhetorical question of what would happen if superheroes really existed and brings out multiple points of view concerning the topic, all with their own good and bad points. And in the end, it leaves it up to us to answer this question.
While the movie attempted to tackle the depth of the comic, it suffered from the Hollywood syndrome, where the story was oversimplified and a great focus was placed on action scenes, where in the comic they barely matter. On top of that, the main characters were given superhuman fighting powers and abilities beyond the reach of mere mortals, where in the comic it was only Dr. Manhattan that had any real powers. And that misses the entire point of the comic – these heroes are NOT superhuman. They’re only flawed people, trying to navigate their muddled up and scary existence full of identity crises and real and imagined danger lurking behind corners.
The TV series must consider all that to be a sophisticated, HBO-worthy piece of entertainment. Make use of the quotes that end each comic issue and don’t forget each character’s distinct life philosophies. Don’t turn it into a faux-philosophical piece or strip it of the actual depth that the novel has. Don’t turn it into an action flick, full of pointless fight sequences and over the top slow motion. The only way the series is going to hold up against modern elite television is if it doesn’t hold back on the nuance and complexity of the comic and appeals to mature, intelligent audiences that want a bit more than your average Avengers movie.
15] STICK TO MAKING A MINISERIES
One last thing. For the love of God, HBO, I know you love milking your money with anything that is remotely profitable (coughfivegameofthronesspinoffscough), but do Watchmen and yourself a favour and stick to making a miniseries. Don’t expand Watchmen into multiple seasons and don’t make no franchise out of it. Just tell the story as it is. Introduce it to a wider audience. That is your job – nothing more.
Here’s a hint – the comic has twelve issues. Twelve is a good number of episodes for an HBO season. Might be worthy of consideration.
All in all, a Watchmen series has potential to become a fan favourite, but HBO has to be considerate of the way they adapt it. Alan Moore has created a full, rich and complex universe in 12 issues, and that is what Lindelof should ultimately show us. Mr. Moore has already suffered enough with the movie adaptation, so if there really has to be a miniseries, then at least let’s make it right.
Image credit: DC