Posted March 14, 2009 by William Dunmyer in Uncategorized

Watchmen: More a Transcription than an Adaptation

Director Zack Snyder might have loved the 1980s graphic novel “Watchmen” a bit too much. His feature-film adaptation falls a bit flat because it reveres its source material too much.

The film follows the graphic novel almost panel by panel. How much creativity does it take to do a page-by-page adaptation? It’s more a transcription than an adaptation.

Snyder, who also directed the moronic beefcake extravaganza ‘300,’ does not create his own vision. He mimics the visual take of Dave Gibbons, illustrator of the original novel. Why copy Gibbons? We already have Gibbons’ work to look at. Why would we need a copy?

The hack television-level screenwriters, David Hayter and Alex Tse, also do not show creativity in adapting the graphic novel. The original work, written by the reclusive and highly literary Alan Moore, was nearly perfect. It had ideal pacing for its medium and the perfect amount of story content. Cinema is a different medium though, with its own needs, limits, and opportunities. You cannot do as much in a feature film as you can in a novel because of time limitations. There is only so much story that can be told in two hours.

Hayter and Tse did not have the guts or artistry to whittle down a version of “Watchmen” that would be perfect for the cinema. One big excision they made was the elimination of the Black Freighter subplot. This was the right choice. But there needed to be more of this. The writers also showed no creativity in adding anything.┬áHayter and Tse will not be receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, of that I am certain. (Hayter previously wrote the screenplays for the X-Men movies and for the crushingly mediocre ‘Scorpion King.’ Tse is just beginning his career.)

I can only imagine the meeting when Moore met the artistically challenged trio of Snyder, Hayter and Tse. It’s no wonder that Moore insisted his name not be used in the credits.

Fortunately though, many of the strengths of the graphic novel do come through, so the movie experience is relatively good. Its derivative nature just makes it a bit uninspiring. If Snyder, Hayter and Tse did not feel they could match Moore or Gibbons artistically, then they shouldn’t have taken on the project. An adaptation is supposed to be a separate work of art, not a duplication of the original.


For those who don’t know, “Watchmen” was published in the mid-1980s at the height of the cold war. Ronald Reagan was U.S. president, of course, and he seemed to be gunning for a showdown with the Soviets. If you are old enough to remember that time, you probably remember the threat of “nuclear annihilation” and “mutually assured destruction.” It was a very tense time.

I remember having one especially vivid nightmare in 1984 or so that involved a nuclear missile landing on my house. I watched the missile coming toward me in the sky, knowing that I and my entire family were about to die and that the end of the world was at hand. Just before the missile exploded, I woke up, hyperventilating with terror and dread. It wasn’t a conceptual dream. It was real. I was not contemplating the idea of the end of the world; I felt the end of the world. Some kind of hormone had been released in my bloodstream, and my mouth tasted like battery acid. I was up for hours afterward. More than 20 years later, and I can still remember it like it was yesterday.

Alan Moore was no doubt having the same sort of nightmares at the time. His masterful novel explores the very real threat of human extinction. It is more in the spirit of hard-edged science fiction and dystopian literature than comic books. In reviews of the film, I keep seeing references to “fanboys” and “comic-book nerds.” “Watchmen” has much more in common with “2001: A Space Odyssey” than it does with “Spider-Man.” “Watchmen” is a work of literary fiction. Graphic novels are completely unlike comic books. Few movie critics understand this. If a Kurt Vonnegut novel were adapted for the screen, would anyone talk about fanboys? That’s how preposterous the term sounds in association with Moore’s work.


William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.