About fifteen years ago, a dear friend of mine was shocked to learn that I had never read this classic and so gifted me the complete graphic novel for my birthday. This would be my first experience with the prolific writer Alan Moore. I am thrilled today to be sharing my comparison of his meaty masterpiece Watchmen to the 2009 release of Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut with SHOWSOTROS.
The difference between the Ultimate Cut and the US Theatrical release is the latter was missing a comic book short by the name of Tales of the Black Freighter, as well as excerpts from a pseudo-autobiography called Under the Hood—the contents of which were condensed to the first five minutes of the film's opening credits without much explanation. I was personally disappointed by the US Theatrical release in part due to these exclusions, so I was excited to discover that an Ultimate Cut does exist to rent and buy.
The premise of Watchmen is masked avengers are dropping off like flies and our antihero Rorschach is on the case to find out who is behind it. In this universe, it is 1985; Richard Nixon is still president; We won the Vietnam War; Real life superheroes have been banned by the government. And now the big question: Where does that leave us? This is where the story begins.
Above: Visuals like this one were unique from the novel and nodded to our own timeline.
These fun little details made the film more believable and worth repeated watching.
There are things I liked about the film adaptation, don’t get me wrong. For the most part, the use of Bob Dylan's music was powerful. I even caught people openly weeping in the theatre during the thoughtful transitionary montage that was the film's opening credits paired so bittersweetly with "The Times They Are a-Changin'." However, the gratuitous slow motion sex scene edited together with Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" was more than a bit cringe-worthy.
The main issue I have with the movie is the melodramatic beats of the direction. For example, Janie Slater's confrontation of Dr. Manhattan during a talk show seems a bit much, and it's notable that the scene doesn't even exist in the novel. Similarly, Rorschach's death also falls pretty flat in the film and we don't even get to see Laurie's heartbreaking epiphany over who her father is. Despite these underwhelming moments in the movie, there is also a great attention to detail in the film that somewhat makes up for it. Just little things like mail addressed to the character of Jacobi, for example.
Another glaring difference between the novel and movie are the intentions of Viedt, who is first introduced as someone researching seemingly compassionate alternative energy resources with the motivation of ending trade struggles. Paraphrasing Dr. Manhattan: "If Adrian and I can solve the energy crisis, war may be averted." The script also explained the effects of tachyons very early on in the storyline; That being the obstruction of Dr. Manhattan's ability to see through time. Viedt is also confronted about the murder of The Comedian much sooner in the film than in the comic.
These changes are probably to fit screenwriting guidelines more than making actual sense when compared to the original source material, where Viedt has hired artists and writers to produce a doomsday device. Symmetry of the images in this novel have been well documented; Some more often than others. One example is on page 7 of Chapter V where we see in the background the image of a Buddha splattered with blood. This particular image of Buddha is perfectly juxtaposed next to the sketching of an interdimensional Cthulu-like monstrosity on page 11 of Chapter VIII. This is the brainchild of writer Max Shea (author of Tales of the Black Freighter); A creature that eats its way out of the womb—an abomination of creation but perhaps larger metaphor for the violence in life and the conflicting nature of mankind. If you read closely, enough you will get the chills as Watchmen was very foreboding of millennium madness and more. Take for example terrorist attacks upon concert viewers since 9/11, and then turn to page 1 of Chapter XII to see a mob murdered by a monster at a concert arena. Most people disliked the movie adaptation due to the exclusion of this manufactured beast which was instead replaced with a ground zero-like explosion and all the allusions that signifies. The reason why the change was so disappointing is it seems to take from the murder mystery feel of the original story where the reader has to deduce along with Rorschach who the killer is.
There are so many details in the art work of this novel that it is well worth, repeated reading. For example, when we are with the news vendor, reading along to Tales of the Black Freighter, we see a fallout shelter sign as well as a missing persons poster of author Max Shea, writer of Tales of the Black Freighter, and a building labeled Institute for Extraspacial Studies in the background. There is also a wink to the film The Day The Earth Stood Still which you can't help but compare to the appearance of Dr. Manhattan to the public at large.
Above: Look closely and you will see that in both the movie and the novel
there is a story within a story and it is no fairytale!
As far as Tales of the Black Freighter goes, it does parallel the primary story of Watchmen with certain phrases acting as voiceovers. The newspaper vendor is unknowingly ironic and eloquent at once, "Y'Know super-heroes are finished. These days it's all pirates...Back in '39, before the real masked men showed up, superhero comics were enormous. Guess their appeal wore off..." This is said just before the reader (shown above) of Tales of the Black Freighter complains about the story not having a proper happy ending and returning it to the merchant. This is all noteworthy because the truth of the matter is Watchmen, the graphic novel, is as gritty as the pulp fiction of Tales of the Black Freighter and also does not have a happy ending. Unfortunately, the US theatrical release tried to pigeon hole Watchmen into a fairytale formula, unnecessarily so, as it upset many Watchmen fans.
Tales of the Black Freighter mirrors the trajectory of Viedt's morally misguided plot. Sure he saves the planet from WWIII by conjuring up an alien invasion, but to do that, he literally kills millions. Viedt claims to be having dreams of swimming towards something that haunts him. I could not help but think of the final image of the main character in Black Freighter, swimming towards something of a Flying Dutchmen. This character suffered from a delusion of vengeance, possibly killing his own wife in front of his children, whereas Viedt was arguably just as insane and similarly is damned for his actions. Tales of the Black Freighter really is such an important addition to Watchmen for this reason. It was a shame that the US theatrical release completely eliminated the story along with any mention of the Institute for Extraspacial Studies and removed the enormous blood bath finale as though US audiences couldn't handle it.
Viedt seemingly has a God complex as he reveals his study of ancient philosophies concurrently with what can be described as "culture mapping," which is currently happening in our world today through the use of consumption analysis. Although for now, this is viewed by the general public as being benign and trivial. Viedt has a room devoted to television and social studies of that medium. The reader must then question the implications of such modern marvels as genetic engineering as well as subliminal messaging when controlled by the likes of ambassadors to the previously unknown, Viedt and Dr. Manhattan. In fact, Jon refers to a remote control as an "Ultimate Weapon" to which Viedt agrees.
Below: The adaptation of The Comedian's funeral to film was arguably more poignant than the novel, aided by the use of Simon and Garfunkle's "Sound of Silence."
The namesake of Watchmen is Dr. Manhattan, previously known as Dr. Jon Osterman, who was born to a watchmaker. After extreme exposure to radiation, he re-animates himself into the character we know. This is a creature outside of space and time that begins to question the mechanics of not only watches but the universe itself. The interesting correlation of watchmaker as a profession is that Jon's father says due to the existence of atomic warfare there is no longer a need to tell time, no longer a need for watchmen. Furthermore Hollis Mason, aka "The Night Owl," justifies his retirement by explaining that with the existence of a superhero like Dr. Manhattan, who is comparable to a walking H-Bomb, a masked vigilante, has become obsolete. Ultimately this Super-man has an epiphany at Laurie's revelation that she is a product of rape and that this father, whom she never knew, was a complicated man who wasn't inherently evil. Dr. Manhattan concedes that Laurie's existence is a miracle; Her coming into being is no less probable nor marvelous than spawning salmon killing themselves in the desperate need to further their species.
Above: The panel on the left is from one of the more striking sequences in the novel, but as you can see the expansion of the cropped image to film has much more impact.
While the movie runs a bit weaker than the novel, it does make up for it by offering up much more scope to the imagination as exemplified in the scene above. In the novel, silhouettes of lovers embracing is symbolic of Hiroshima and the shadows of people that were lost in the bombing. These mirror the embrace by Laurie and Dan above. We also see a watch with frozen hands, reminding us again that to Dr. Manhattan, Time is a relative concept. In fact, at the end of the graphic novel and film, he reveals what could be considered something of a happy ending when he says, "Nothing ever ends."
At the end of the day, if you really are a stickler for the original check out the complete motion comic which includes Tales of the Black Freighter and Under The Hood available on Blu-ray. Keep your fingers crossed too that the forthcoming HBO series of Watchmen is any good. From what I have read, they are only going to loosely base the story on the comic book. However, this is being spearheaded by the co-creator of Lost, a show that was groundbreaking in dealing with sublime transcendent issues in the realm of spirituality and metaphysics. When you look at it from this perspective, the prospect of another Watchmen sounds very promising indeed!