Monday, April 27, 2009

“Watchmen:” The Graphic Novel and the Movie

Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” is arguably one of the most celebrated graphic novel of all time and also ranked among one of the best works of fiction ever written. Set in a parallel universe, it is both, superbly entertaining and deeply insightful as regards the political and the philosophical. It is creative, complex and has been considered un-filmable for the longest time by many including visionary directors like Terry Gilliam.

The plot of “Watchmen” is as follows: the story is set in a parallel 1985 where Nixon has been elected for a third term and the world is on the brink of a nuclear holocaust as the Cold War intensifies. It is also a world where superheroes/vigilantes had become an integral part of the social establishment till they were outlawed in 1977. While some decided to work with the government, others chose to give up their vigilante activities altogether. Here, a superhero, Edward Blake a.k.a. The Comedian is brutally murdered and a vigilante, Rorschach, who is on the run from the police for not giving up his masked identity, begins an investigation. What appears to be a political killing quickly shapes up into a part of a much more complex and horrific conspiracy in which the fate of the world may be hanging in the balance.

While the story may seem ordinary and even mediocre, the brilliance of the graphic novel lies in its crafting. The writers carefully sketch out the world they have created and flesh out each character, from the central ones like Doctor Manhattan, the Silk Spectres, Nite Owl, the Comedian and Rorschach to minor characters like Malcolm Long, Hollis Mason etc. with great care and attention. They also develop a story within the story, “Tales of the Black Freighter,” which provides an insightful allegory for the characters of the main story as well as human nature more generally. Their imagination seems limitless and the climax where the various parallel storylines finally converge is simply breathtaking. Right from the artwork to the dialogues, each frame of the graphic novel is memorable. Therefore, adapting a beloved and complex work of fiction like this is extremely difficult and tricky.

When Zach Snyder was brought at the helm for transforming “Watchmen” from a novel to motion picture, there was some hope. His previous work “300” was a faithful and satisfactory adaptation of the Frank Miller’s graphic novel. Of course, it was riddled with historical inaccuracies, a point for which it was lambasted by critics and viewers alike. Nevertheless, one could not take away form the fact that as an adaptation of a graphic novel, it was a solid book-to-movie transformation and made a monstrous killing at the box office.

Zach Snyder breaks down “Watchmen” to its bare basics. This is not to say that the movie is a simple one. There are enough plot twists and turns to keep the viewer on the edge of the seat throughout. Although it follows the graphic novel religiously, even panel by panel in select sequences, that is a forgivable flaw considering the quality of the source material itself. There are flashes of originality in several places, particularly in the title sequences which are arguably the finest credit sequence I have seen. Replete with cultural references from the novel and beyond, it is an excellent encapsulation of select sub-plots within 2 minutes and establishes the moral complexity of the subject matter. Within 10 minutes into the movie, the viewer realises that this is far from the conventional superhero movie. Another example of intelligent innovation is the climax of the story which is a departure from the graphic novel. Honestly, I thought Alan Moore went berserk in the conclusion of the graphic novel. Sure, it was exhilarating, uber cool and fit in perfectly with the sub plots developed in the graphic novel. But it was at the same time, ridiculous and preposterous. In transforming the graphic novel into film, Snyder and his team of writers innovate effectively in changing the climax of the story and still keeping the central theme and logic of the story intact.

Of course, at the same time, there are some sequences which were not as effective as they should have been. The sequence on Mars between Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre II is extremely crucial to the story. The thoughts and ideas that are discussed there form the crux of the point driven home by the story. They are intriguing and often, awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, most of these ideas are sacrificed probably to keep the runtime in control. However, one does wish this part had been given more time than say, the sequences between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II which are often long, meandering and unnecessary.

Technically, the film is flawless. From the soundtrack to the cinematography and special effects, everything is handled with great care for detail. At the same time, Snyder ensures that the technique supplants and does not overpower the plot and characters which are the life and soul of the graphic novel. The soundtrack takes popular classics like “Sound of Silence,” “Unforgettable” and “Hallelujah” and uses them effectively throughout the film.

The performances range from powerful to disappointing. Perhaps the finest performance comes from Jackie Earl Haley who plays Rorschach. He brings about the moral fanaticism coupled with a cold logic and a mad streak which his character demands. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is also well cast as the Comedian. He is powerful and effective as the sadistic and crass superhero who understands the chaotic and inherently selfish nature of man. Billy Crudup is excellent as Dr. Manhattan as he brings out the aspects of calm, composure and cold clinical logic combined with a subtle emotional vulnerability which are central to his character. Carla Gugino is well cast as Silk Spectre I and shines in a small role of the former superhero, aging mother. Malin Akerman looks beautiful but is unable to reflect the intelligence her character possesses. Patrick Wilson is just right as the Nite Owl and performs well as the nervous, occasionally bumbling but always sincere and caring superhero. But certainly the most disappointing casting is of Matthew Goode as Ozymandias. He is a thorough miscast and the charm and style of that is central to his character. He just isn’t imposing and interesting enough. The exotic accent doesn’t help things either. He is not only a far cry from the Ozymandias of the graphic novel but also a woefully uninteresting character independently.

So overall, comparing the book to the movie, the movie remains a faithful adaptation of the graphic novel. The liberties that are taken mostly work in favour of the film and not against it. There are certain individual sequences and actors that disappoint. Nevertheless, the superior quality of the subject matter and the effective transformation to the screen elevate the film to a memorable one that appeals to the initiated and the uninitiated alike. It is a dark tale that is laced with wit, humour and some striking insights n human nature. It is definitely a bold story for mainstream big budget cinema and Snyder and Warner Bros. deserve kudos for having the balls to tell it and even substantially do justice to it.

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