Watchmen DVD: Introducing Bowdlerization Ratings

I was into the comic novel way-back-when, and I so wanted to see this movie in the theaters.  I was busy in February, taking an intensive training to teach English, and therefore missed it.

Today, it came out on DVD, and I’ve just finished watching it.  It’s one of these deals where you knew they were going to screw it up, but you want to see it anyway.

So, yeah, they screwed it up.

They didn’t screw it up badly.  They stayed as close to the graphic novel as they could in the 2hr 40min time-frame.  It wasn’t like Bladerunner, which bears no resemblance to the novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  Bladerunner fails as an adaptation, but as an independent movie does quite well.  In contrast, Watchmen works as an adaptation, but it’s pretty eh as a movie.

In a lot of ways, especially in the beginning, they really knocked me out in the way they adapted the story to cinematic language.  In the graphic novel, there’s a long back-story showing how the comic-book history diverged from our own.  They didn’t have room in the movie.  But they got it mostly across while the intro credits rolled.

Here’s how:

After the murder in the first scene, they zoom into the eye of the smiley-face pin of the dead man.  Then they show a series of news photos and media clips catching us up on the last few decades; all done to the tune of Arlo Guthrie’s The Times They Are A-Changin’.  The credits are overlaid on these vignettes.  When we’re caught up to the present, the camera zooms out, back, out of the smiley-face eye.

This is all the stuff the smiley-face has seen during its time, in other words.  It’s very impressive.

And that continues, throughout the first third of the movie.

In the second segment, they have to make cuts.  And that means they sacrifice some story.  Just bits and pieces here and there; few scenes are cut.  It’s not too bad.  But many of the surviving scenes were compromised needlessly.  There are some bits that come across as only pretty-good, which for ten or twenty seconds more of screen time would have been stellar.

By the third and last segment, we have serious compromises of story.  We also have compromises of plot — the ending is simplified considerably — which is fine.  But there are a number of minor characters cut out, who could have been written in to the movie for a small investment of time — ten minutes — which the ending really suffers without.

And that’s unfortunate.  It really sucks the emotion out of the end.  But it’s also unnecessary.  They spent too much time on the set-up at the beginning, introducing scenes to make sure we understand what the stakes are.  And the most important minor character cut is a newspaper vendor, who in the comic comments on global events for great storytelling economy.

It’s irritating that the movie takes things that are implied in the novel and presents them up-front, as if the characters are giving you Cliffs notes.  Almost, we have the main characters looking the camera in the eye and saying, “He’s joking.  Because life’s a joke.  Just like the Comedian said it was before he died.”

They really stupid it down.  Or up, as the case may be.

But, that’s not what’s dreadful.  What’s dreadful is that they take existentially bleak characters and Disnefy them just enough to make it on the screen.  They no longer cheat their way out of facing the existentialist bind because they no longer face one.

In many ways, the movie characters end up being the exact opposite of the comic characters.  In the comic, the characters are all superficially nice (kind of) people, who just below the surface fall short of being human.  And this is creepy in a way you can’t quite place.  In the movie, the characters are all superficially flawed people who just below the surface are thoroughly human.  And this is reassuring.

So, they killed it.  They took it to a very good taxidermist; but they killed it.

This pattern extends to other things.  The idea in the comic is that, in reality, America losing the Vietnam War caused us to grow up.  I don’t think the movie makers quite grokked that.  Here’s why:

SPOILERS

Baby Boomers vividly remember when Russia invaded Afganistan.  And there was much outcry against that from US citizens.  There was footage on the news of kids in third-world villages throwing rocks at Soviet tanks.  And all across this country, people were shouting at their TVs:  “Why aren’t we doing anything!?”

We weren’t doing anything because Russia had nukes; that’s why we weren’t doing anything.

In Watchmen, America has absolute strategic superiority over Russia.  Russia has nukes, but we have something better than nukes.  So we won in Vietnam, and we never grew up.  Our development is arrested, and one way that’s demonstrated is that Richard Nixon is still President (in the ’80s).

Then, through a plot twist, the threat we use to keep strategic superiority vanishes.  With that threat gone, Russia launches an invasion of Afganistan, and the Cold War heats up.  And it’s made very clear in the movie that Nixon intends to launch a nuclear strike against Russia.

In the comic, Nixon and his people talk about launching a nuclear strike; but they hold off.  And they keep holding off. 

In my opinion, we are supposed to look at our history and say, “Oh; of course we didn’t respond to Russia invading Afganistan.  That would have started a nuclear war.”

One of the characters uses the impending nuclear war to justify doing something drastic.  And this is the trick:  from our viewpoint in our “alternate” history, we know nuclear war wouldn’t have happened.  But, the movie doesn’t play that way:  it makes it very clear that Tricky Dick has his hand on the big red button and is ready to go.

So, they doublely killed it.

END SPOILERS

So, overall they made two lethal decisions that killed the movie:  they stripped out the existentialist angle and they botched the working-through of alternate history.  And they made one crippling decision, to emphasise the (wrong) alternate history set-up at the expense of establishing minor characters that would have made the ending more emotionally meaningful.

Also, they stripped out quite a lot of the visual language of the comic, which really served to structure and add depth to the story.

Altogether, they just stupided it up (or down).  Apparently on the theory that the American public would run screaming from a story with a real existentialist angle.

Bowlderization Rating (which is intellectualese for “how much they stupided it down”):  5.

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Published in: on July 21, 2009 at 4:03 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. hm i have to say i completely disagree with you here. i’m one of those who discovered the movie first and then the comic, and have to say i found the movie version to be superior in more ways than it fell short of the comic.

    i’ll probably stop posting here now because it is obvious that our divergences of opinion will lead to my posts becoming basically “trolling”

  2. ps check out Adam Cadre’s opinion of the movie for more info (mathes mine pretty closely)


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