How to adapt Watchmen. (or a how-to for good adaptations in general)
So it was my birthday yesterday. And, in addition to the lovely presents I received from important people in my life and the well-wishes of several girls and women (woooooo), I bought another copy of Watchmen. See, my first copy of Watchmen, which I read in about three hours flat, has somehow been lost to the sands of time. If I find it again, I’ll let y’all know–I’ll have to sell it, right? But I bought another copy of Watchmen for two reasons. First, I really really wanted to re-read Watchmen. I just finished chapter 4 at the moment (Dr. Manhattan’s flashback chapter) and I can safely say that twenty bucks was totally worth it. This is one of the greatest novels ever written. The second reason being that Wanted also cost twenty bucks, and is only six issues long. Nice one, Millar, you won’t get me that easy.
Now, Watchmen is a work of groundbreaking depth and complexity in any medium, but it’s charged specifically with changing the history of comic books. (I refuse to call them graphic novels.) This is because, as I mentioned earlier somewhere, probably in one of the (I’m) Not a Gamer posts, Watchmen was written with the express intent of being a comic book. There was never any confusion over what it was, and as it was being written by a mad genius, the end product is definitely a comic book. Its story is told primarily in ninth panels, it uses episodic storytelling to the fullest extent it can, it can pull several narrative tricks that film–being a medium of reduction–can’t pull. You can listen to a narrator, look at a scene and know that the narrator is out of the scene, cos comic books have an omnipresent narration. Whereas in a movie, the moment you see someone on screen while the narration is running–the jig is up. You know that the person on screen, whomever they may be, is the narrator.
And I was thinking about all of this, and I thought: wouldn’t it be great if someone made a movie and/or cable miniseries out of Watchmen? Wouldn’t it be absolutely fantastic if that happened? I mean, it’d have to be somebody with great respect for the medium and the author, of course. You couldn’t just seek out the approval of Dave Gibbons, the co-creator, and ride on that. No, you’d need to get the big name: Al Moore. Ole Affable Al. See, I know why going to Alan Moore for approval in this case would be a frightening prospect. On the surface, you’re saying to him, “I know that you wrote Watchmen to demonstrate what comics can do that neither movies nor books can do, but I want to turn it into something that will severely inhibit its ability to do what it does best”. In fact, that is literally all you would be saying. And it’s easy to chicken out under that kind of pressure! Play it off in public like he’s some cranky old man who will never be satisfied. Ole Alan Moore.
But really, that would be the first step in adapting it. Buy the rights, go to Alan Moore and present yourself as a humble student to his teachings. Tell him you will make all of the tea for however long it takes for you to discuss the entire book, page-by-page with him. Talk about what he wanted to achieve with each character, each story, each chapter, each page, each panel. Because, I assure you, being the crazy man that he is, Alan Moore had goals for those 1/18th panels in Nite Owl’s dream sequence. He had details written out for those 2/9th panels where you can see a newspaper, a clock, a sign for a car repair shop that indicates that they service old models. You don’t want to look at the comic book and replicate it on screen exactly. You want to do for comic book movies what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and Watchmen did for comic books. And whatever their goals were, you have to make them your goals too, and translate achieving them into film terminology.
Watchmen has a big, weaving and intricate plot, populated by truly fantastic characters. All of these people are real people, living in the page. Leaving their dialogue on the page alone when translating to film wouldn’t work. There are things that work on the page and things that work on screen, and the dialogue, sometimes, would not work if spoken. But if we take a step back and look at it, the reason Watchmen has so much dialogue is because it’s really a character piece. It’s not about big, fancy graphics showcases. It’s not about hyper-advanced CGI. It’s about the people talking to each other and feeling for one another, bruised souls trying to connect in a harsh, unforgiving world. It’s about the women who loved men they shouldn’t have loved, the men who were so deliberately amoral as to be monsters who could still care. And as the widest panels in these books are roughly 1.85:1, that should be your logical choice for an aspect ratio.
Yes, an aspect ratio sounds like a really nitpicky choice, but it’s also the first layer of interaction the audience has with your work–something Alan Moore was quite aware of when he and Dave Gibbons decided to write the comic in 1/9th frames. I come back to that very often because that one creative choice said a lot about the creative drive and attitude behind Watchmen. It says, first, that it wants to be unfilmable. You couldn’t hold the book up, look at the set and say “Bam, we have our shot!” because none of the frames will fill any conventional aspect ratio–not even Academy Ratio! It also forces every frame to be of a portrait style on a human being’s face. It’s not a flashy framing choice, meant to draw your attention to the visuals–it’s meant to draw your attention to the people. The people are the most important part of Watchmen.
I could go on and on for days about how to adapt Watchmen. There’s the meaning behind “who watches the watchmen?” that Alan Moore always meant: not “who makes sure the crime fighters aren’t criminals” but “who looks after those who look after us”. I have charts of characters by type, plotline and political alignment that demonstrate which characters are absolutely vital to understanding the plot and which are vital to understanding the world–and exactly which stories to sacrifice to achieve both of those things in a limited time frame. There’s even a way to do what Alan Moore does toward the end of the novel, when he trusts the reader to see two unrelated events as not consecutive, but concurrent. But mostly, what I hope is that one day, a skilled director or someone with creative ambition comes along and makes not Watchmen, the transliteration off of the page.
I want them to make the Watchmen of cinema, and show us what modern movies can do that books and TV just can’t.