Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Ruminations on the Watchmen movie

Jerry Stratton, March 15, 2009

I saw Watchmen Thursday night. It was a very good movie, and well worth seeing; I’m probably going to see it again. The dialogue was often pulled straight from the comic, and the scene framing as well. It was a beautiful movie and well cast. Except for some odd direction, Moore’s dialogue works well on screen.

There isn’t much else to say about it that isn’t a spoiler. I went out to eat with some friends afterwards and once of them hasn’t yet read the book, so I had to keep from talking about what was most interesting about the movie to me.

I have not been one of those who think Moore’s books are unfilmable, just that they’re difficult to film within the Hollywood system (this is what killed V for Vendetta, for example). But seeing this movie, the best-scripted, best-filmed adaptation of an Alan Moore book ever, I begin to realize why it’s hard to turn his books into movies. Alan Moore has so many subplots and subtexts running through his works, that all fit together, that it’s difficult to cut enough of them even for a two and a half hour movie.

Everything is interconnected, woven together. Pull one thread, and the whole story begins to unravel.

This is going to ramble a lot, and be filled with spoilers.

I found myself wishing throughout the movie that they had cut more, so as to give what they kept more development. But from the little things, such as “how powerful is Veidt?” to the bigger things like “who is Laurie’s father”, everything felt cramped and hurried. Most of the cuts that were made were good. But they drastically affected what was left in.

The ending was the most important cut. It was very efficient. Cutting it also cut the missing writer subplot and the Tales of the Black Freighter substory. They’re doing a DVD of Tales of the Black Freighter. It’ll be interesting to see how it’s relevant; its entire connection with the plot was cut when the psychic brain was cut. The whole psychic brain thing only worked, and barely, in the comic when it had an entire subplot all its own. That would have been practically another movie (and I’ve often thought that Moore should have had a psychic superhero in the mix, or something, to foreshadow the existence of psychic powers in an otherwise hard world where Jon is the only visible superhuman).

That cut made a lot of sense. It was practically necessary. And yet the story still lost a lot by its removal. Instead of people toiling anonymously for their own destruction, Jon himself is the architect of “his own” destruction; it’s Jon’s destruction, not ours. Movies focus on fewer characters than books do, throwing out the unnecessary side characters. Watchmen threw out the rest of the world. One huge difference is that the movie’s crisis becomes an American crisis, and America’s fault. That doesn’t just change the tone of the story, it also makes the crisis less likely to succeed in the ambiguous period after the closing credits fade to black.

How powerful is Veidt? was another of the questions running through the series. This is not a world where the superhero always wins. The Silhouette is dead; the Comedian is dead; Dollar Bill is dead; Moth Man’s in an asylum; Hooded Justice has disappeared. Except for Doctor Manhattan, Adrian Veidt is the most powerful superhero in the world: he has more resources than any man on the planet, he’s the smartest man in the world, and is the most skilled warrior of any of the heroes.

Rorschach and Nite Owl know that they’re probably going to lose. Rorschach says so in his diary. That subplot’s still there, but cut below the bare minimum to be usable. In the end, he’s just another superhero. When Rorschach and Nite Owl go to visit him it isn’t out of the same sense of honor that (at least for Rorschach) compels them in the book.

Rorschach’s diary… His last journal entry was chilling, spread across several slow panels in the comic; in the movie, it was hurriedly dealt with, an important plot point that had to be shown as quickly as possible. A lot of Rorschach was lost; he’s a much less compelling figure in the movie, less compassionate. His symbolism was the story’s solution. He recognized that most of our beliefs are excuses to impose meaning that isn’t truly there, but he went further than Jon did. Rorschach understand that we still must choose to act, no matter how meaningless our choices seem to be. Our choices matter if for no other reason than that they are our choices.

Rorschach and his blots complemented Doctor Manhattan’s dispassionate view of the world, that “there is nothing else.” Past and future for Manhattan fit together like an intricately structured jewel—that’s gone along with Rorschach’s stripped dialogue, and Doctor Manhattan’s streamlined scenes on Mars. That loss made Jon’s conversion at the end less of a conversion and more of a plot device.

In the book, the tachyon interference was important because it gave Jon the ability to make choices unhindered by what he knows is going to happen. Assume, as I think Moore wants us to, that nuclear war was inevitable. Did Adrian do wrong? Was Rorschach’s choice at the end a good one knowing that it might cause nuclear war? Was Jon’s choice a good one? Why did he make that choice?

The mystery of Laurie’s father was an example of patterns coming into view; Moore kept that subplot completely invisible until it came into focus at the end of the comic. Even in the movie it was part of the reason Jon decides to stay, even though it was mostly cut. Moore managed to keep it a hidden thread throughout the book, invisible until our perspective shifted along with Laurie’s at the end, when it became all too clear, like switching a tapestry to the front. It was lost in the movie, and relegated to a revelation from Doctor Manhattan and his special movie-only time-memory power. And yet this was what convinced Jon to return to earth.

The plots remaining needed more development. But what else could go? Even the New Frontiersman subplot was completely removed, and it was essential to the ambiguous ending. They kept the ending, but got rid of the rivalry between the New Frontiersman and Nova Express. Nova Express, of course, was essential to Adrian’s plans, so it had to be kept as a bit player.

I have no idea why the Gunga Diner kept such a prominent place in the movie. When I watch it again, I’m going to be keeping an eye out for that.

All of my rambling sounds like complaining, but it isn’t meant to be. It’s meant to be a meandering realization that Moore really is right when he says that movies about his books aren’t movies about his books. Despite that, I still think that Watchmen is a good movie; it ain’t the end of the world. You know, figuratively speaking. I mean, in the final analysis.

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