While watching Watchmen on the big screen, I was reminded of a story I once read about a child genius summoned to perform a concert in place of a famous pianist.
He took the stage and played a section from Chopin that was accurate and perfectly replicated its notes and chords. The audience was pleased. However, the great musician, arriving just in time to hear the final three quarters of the performance was under-whelmed. Following the show, he patted the young man on the head and said, “Well son, you’ve shown you can play the notes. Maybe one day you will learn to play the music.”
Watchmen is a film that knows the moments, twists, lines of dialog, and interpersonal conflicts that made the 1986 graphic novel it is based on a classic. But the movie misses the essence, depth, fluidity and attention to detail that made the novel, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, one of the great achievements in literature in the past 25 years.
For those unfamiliar with the book, Watchmen tells the story of an alternate 1985 American where masked vigilantes are part of everyday society. Richard Nixon is still president, serving a fifth term. He recruits the world’s most powerful super being, Dr. Manhattan, a glowing blue man who can manipulate matter, to assist in winning the Vietnam War for America, thus winning the public trust like no other president.
But the vigilantes are eventually outlawed by the president. The heroes, most of whom are just regular, powerless humans, are forced to retire to mundane middle-aged lives. Some try to make money off their past heroic glories. Others-like the book’s most compelling figure, Walter Kovacs, a.k.a. Rorschach, continue to work illegally as a vigilante.
When a former vigilante is hurled out of a 20-story high-rise apartment window, Rorschach senses a conspiracy at work to eliminate the heroes. Rorschach (played by Jackie Earle Haley) reaches out to former members of their defunct hero allegiance, The Watchmen, to warn of the threat. The book was brilliant in the way it deconstructed superhero mythology, depicting its heroes not as morally-righteous super beings but as flawed, corrupt individuals driven more by their own narcissism and hunger for attention.
The book was very much about its time. There are allusions to Ronald Reagan and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and the Cold War. The film largely replicates these elements rather than reworking the story to fit current times. This may appease loyalists of the novel, but it was a mistake for the film because the book has a certain narrative that allowed these characters to emerge as three-dimensional individuals. Minus the larger context of the novel, certain scenes in the movie seem confusing or simply ridiculous.
Another problem is created by director Zack Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse. Their attempt to mimic the book’s dialog, plot developments and visual style created a movie with too much story, too little character development and too much gratuitous violence. To be sure, Watchmen was a violent book.
But Snyder, who directed 300 (2007), sets up scenes of intense violence more like a freak show rather than to further the story. One scene, for example, has our heroes fighting a street gang in an alley. In the book, it was a brief detour that barely lasted a page. But in the movie, it is five minutes of slow-motion karate kicks, severed limbs and splattered blood. Scenes like this go against the “normal-people-as-masked-avengers” theme of the novel.
The film is not without solid moments within its bladder-bursting 165-minutes. I just wish someone during pre-production patted Snyder on the head to tell him what the concert pianist told the boy.
He might have realized that before worrying about the book’s words, he first should have found the quintessence of it.