Every couple of years, someone gets the bright idea to adapt Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel Watchmen into a movie. Some work is done, then the project falls flat. To get an idea for how long this has been going on, I wrote about it on this blog over five years ago, and at that point, it had already been stuck in “development hell” for over a decade.

For a long time, Terry Gilliam was attached to direct. He was a big name, but he was also quite ambitious and known for getting mired in long, failed productions. By the end, he wanted to make a 12 hour film (or mini-series) out of the comic. One would have to applaud that sort of ambitious thinking, but it’s easy to see how Gilliam didn’t get anywhere. In any case, he eventually fell off the map, and in one of the more retarded Hollywood moves of recent history, screenwriter David Hayter was brought on not only to revise the existing Sam Hamm script (which was good, except for the changed ending) but also to direct. Hayter had achieved some clout because of his involvement with the X-Men films, but handing such a complex story to a first-time director seemed quite foolish. Luckily, that period didn’t last long, and a few years later, up-and-coming indie director Darren Aronofsky attached himself to the project. This was all kinds of cool and the film geek community was delighted. Actors started clamoring for roles, including Jude Law, who’s apparently quite the fanboy. Alas, it was not to be. Aronofsky left the production to focus on his dream project, The Fountain.

Paramount was still anxious to get the film started, so they sought out a replacement and eventually settled on Paul Greengrass. Though not as well-known as Gilliam and not as hip and trendy as Aronofsky, the choice of Greengrass was inspired and of all the directors who’ve expressed interest in Watchmen, I think he would have been my favorite. Like Aronofsky, Greengrass is an up-and-coming director. However, unlike anyone else attached to the project, Greengrass has also proven to be quite adept at making movies with a political element that doesn’t suck (United 93, Bloody Sunday), while at the same time being able to direct a decent character-based action movie (The Bourne Supremacy). Watchmen would involve interweaving elements of both, among other thematic material. Unfortunately, an executive shuffle at Paramount meant that Watchmen would again get the boot. This is understandable. When a major studio undergoes a change in leadership, all greenlit projects are scrutinized. Watchmen had a long history of false-starts, a big budget, and a story that was… not family friendly (to put it nicely). Put yourself in the position of a newly appointed studio head, and then ask yourself if you’d really want to start off by attempting to make what many consider an unfilmable movie?

So the plug was pulled yet again, and Greengrass went on to make United 93 instead (and it’s a masterpiece, imhbco). The movie sat in limbo until about a year ago, when director Zack Snyder, who was in post-production for the now-released hit 300 (an adaptation of Frank Miller’s classic comic), was tasked with bringing Watchmen to the screen. 300 was released last week and ground it’s way to an astounding $70 million opening weekend. I saw it, and while I enjoyed it, I have to admit that I’m not sure he’s going to be able to handle Watchmen‘s complex themes. He’s certainly talented, and I’m not counting him out, but his previous work simply doesn’t tackle anything as ambitious as Watchmen. He directed a spirited remake of Dawn of the Dead that was quite entertaining (certainly among the best of the recent spate of horror movie remakes) but not exactly challenging. Ditto for the cliched but gorgeous and action-packed 300. I have to admit that I’m intrigued by the possibility of a Watchmen movie, and Snyder isn’t a bad choice. Indeed, the unexpected success of 300 augurs well for the Watchmen production, which is now slated to start shooting this summer. For that alone, Snyder deserves some credit, as he might be the one who will finally bring it to the screen.

Indeed, Snyder appears to have begun some early concept work on his new project. Last summer, at the San Diego Comic-Con, Snyder and Miller showed some footage from 300 and did a Q and A. The footage was too bloody for an official widespread release, but of course, you can’t stop the signal. It appeared on You Tube shortly after the comic-con and has supposedly played an important role in the marketing of 300. However, just a few weeks ago, someone discovered a little secret burried in the footage. Hidden between warring Spartans and Persians is a single frame of what appears to be Rorschach (perhaps the most recognizeable character from the Watchmen comic):


Well, it’s a little dark (click the image for a much higher resolution image), but it’s definitely Rorschach. The high resolution image was released by Harry Knowles, who also confirms that it is an official “test shot” that Snyder worked on (i.e. it won’t be a part of the final film, it’s just a concept shot).

I think it looks great, though it’s a little difficult to tell with a static image how they’re really going to do the mask (in the comic, the ink blot pattern changes from frame to frame, though there are some duplicates and consistency at work).

My guess is that after all this time, Watchmen is finally on its way to the big screen. Will it be good? The talent is certainly there, from the producers to the screenwriters to the director (though I really wanted to see what Greengrass would do with it, I’m sure Snyder will do fine and may even surprise me), but I’ll believe it when I see it. I have to admit that I’m a little hesitant about how this film will turn out though, and I worry that it will fall into the same traps that V for Vendetta did. Watchmen seems to be very much a product of its time, for instance, and I’d worry that the filmmakers will want to update it. To be fair, I have not heard that this will be happening, though I was mildly disapointed by the change to the ending that I read in Sam Hamm’s original script (however, I read that script a long time ago — Hayter has supposedly revised the script to be more faithful to the source material, but time will tell). Adaptations in general are challenging, as some of the things that make a piece of art work in one medium don’t necessarily translate well to another medium. In the end, I’ll still be excited to see this finally reach the screen… and for the first time in many years, it looks like there’s a fair chance that it’s going to happen.

Unrelated to Watchmen, but pretty funny, is that the tendency to sneak a single frame into a trailer is apparently becoming somewhat common: see the hidden frame in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto trailer. Hilarious.

2 thoughts on “Watchmen”

  1. I’ve never read “Watchmen,” but I would very much enjoy seeing this project come to fruition…but I have to agree with your caveats.

    “300,” “Sin City,” and “V for Vendetta” (to name a few recent graphic novel adaptations)were good (though I thought “V for Vendetta lost steam as the movie went on…), but not exactly what I would call subtle, and from what I know of this story, it requires some subtlety.

    It seems that graphic novels transfer to the movie screen as splashy and effects driven…this was a strength for the recent Frank Miller adaptations, but for something like “Watchmen,” at least from what I know of the story, I worry the more subtle bits might lose out.

  2. The visuals in Sin City and 300 are noteworthy because they’re, well, spectacular. I don’t know about V, but Watchmen is considerably different. It’s a sorta throwback style, with strong primary colors, etc… evoking a sort of 50s feeling (useful in a story that involves fear of nuclear war). I don’t think that Watchmen would involve a visual component that’s similar to Sin City or 300. The visuals are, of course, great, but the great things about the comic are story related. They sorta pushed the boundry of the comic book medium, which, unfortunately, is something that may be a little difficult to translate to the screen.

    The subtlety of many elements in the story are indeed a concern, and like you say, 300 (or Dawn of the Dead) isn’t exactly a subtle story. I really didn’t like V for Vendetta, and that was also a story by Alan Moore, so I’m a little worried that this movie will fall into the same traps.

    Still, it should at the very least be something that’s interesting to watch…

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