I’d lose my geek cred if I didn’t review The Watchmen

Looking for some reading matter on the train last weekend I dug out my old dusty copy of The Watchmen. When I got to the station, I noticed another guy (a student maybe, from his age/ clothes) pulling a familiar looking yellow and black tome from a bag.

He looked over at me, grinned, and caught my eye. “Snap,” he said. We shared a smile. People in the UK don’t usually talk to strangers on trains. But some things transcend such minor local customs.

[Edited to add: mydeathknight notes below that in Scotland people are a lot friendlier. So it's mostly in London that we don't make eye contact with strangers.]

The Watchmen is one of the great literary works of the 20th century. The Watchmen is a graphic novel. The Watchmen is both a love letter to and a deconstruction of the superhero comic genre. The Watchmen is a kick up the 80s. The Watchmen takes you back into that world of cold war nuclear brinksmanship better than any other book I know. The Watchmen is one of the greatest morality tales ever written.

I was tempted to walk over to the (possible) student at the end of the journey and ask, “So, do you think he was right?” It is the same question that everyone asks themselves on finishing that book. But I didn’t, because we were both British soft southern gits.

This city is afraid of me, I have seen its true face

If Alan Moore’s book is a masterwork, Zack Snyder’s film is merely a flawed masterpiece. It is a paean to the book, an attempt to translate an unfilmable work to screen as closely as humanly possible. Fans of the book will enjoy the film. It isn’t quite a frame by frame translation but much of the familiar dialogue and action scenes are preserved. Rorschach is Rorschach, and “I did it 35 minutes ago.” We may carp about the film, complain about some of the material that was put in and some that wasn’t, and spare some wistful thoughts about the ideal genius film adaptation that will now never be made. But at the end of the day it was a brave attempt by a team who obviously love the original.

We have been waiting a long time (20 years?) for someone to make a ballsy, dark, violent film of The Watchmen. Not one that was safe and easy. Not one that was suitable for kids. And that, at least, we now have.

Some things really do work better on film than on the page. The violence is much more shockingly in your face. So is the sex. So is Dr Manhattan’s wedding tackle. The zeitgeist and background really comes clear when you watch that inspired opening credit sequence with the historical excerpts set to Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A’Changin”. I think that was a stroke of utter genius and for that, if nothing else, I am already planning to go back and see the film again while it’s still on the big screen. The soundtrack in general was absolutely brilliant, cinematography was fantastic, the whole package was a treat to watch.

Another amusing addition was Lee Iacocca’s getting shot up by an assassin who was really after Veidt. Apparently not so amusing to the man himself though.

The acting was also generally good. Special props to Jackie Earle Hayley’s Rorschach who might as well have just stepped straight off the page. The whole deal is a visual treat for people who wanted to see the book brought to life. It’s almost note perfect.

Because the angle taken was a straight translation, some of the facets of the book which don’t work so brilliantly (or to be fair, they work brilliantly for what the writer was trying to do, they may not work so well for non-fans) are there in the film too. The storyline with its lurch towards crazy superhero cliches at the end in particular — a non-fan is going to wonder why the smartest man in the world couldn’t think of a better plan. But the book revolves around the reader buying that because of him being the person he was, it was the only possible way for him to proceed.

Unfortunately, although the story survived intact, the heart and soul of the book was left in shreds. The human side of the story fell to the wayside; and it’s a shame because Moore was making some important points when he compared the reaction of the human protagonists to each other to the antics of the costumed heroes. We also miss some of the subtler hints of character development and how and why the protagonists make some of the decisions that they do. We miss the Black Freighter. We miss the follow up on Rorschach’s psychologist and what happens to him as a result of the interactions. We miss seeing quite how narrow minded and monstrous Veidt has become in pursuit of his goals.

It’s a good film, don’t get me wrong. Maybe even a great one. But when you’ve seen it, go read the book.

It won’t be the same as reading it back when it was written and the fear of the world being destroyed in a nuclear holocaust didn’t seem so fanciful. It won’t be the same as reading it in a Europe that was caught geographically between two superpowers that might have been ready to sacrifice it to their own  cold war. If you don’t remember the early 80s, you won’t remember that fear (and that’s a good thing, by the way).

When you’ve read the book, discuss it with a total stranger on the train (unless you are in London). Then go see the film again. I know it’s what I am planning!