When writer Alan Moore was reportedly approached by the director Terry Gilliam on how to adapt his seminal graphic novel Watchmen for the big screen, the response was simple: that he shouldn’t bother. Moore’s dyspepsia towards Hollywood is a tale in itself, fuelled by bad adaptations, arguments with studio producers and legal wrangles. He’s also prone to more than the odd vitriolic soundbite. Needless to say, Watchmen director Zack Snyder might need a thick skin; and not just to ward off attacks by Moore. Fans were quick to flood the internet with blogs over his decision to change the ending of Watchmen by removing the giant squid that attacks New York. The question has to be raised: how do you make a movie that pleases everyone?
The 42-year-old director has his own ideas. When originally approached by the studio with a script for Watchmen which turned the dark, post-Vietnam, Cold War-set graphic novel into a PG13 ‘war on terror’-themed superhero movie, à la Iron Man, his reply was as uncompromising as that of Moore. ‘When I got the script I said no to the war on terror – it’s got to be the Cold War. It’s got to be 1985, and it’s got to be R-rated.’
He rewrote the script and doubled the film’s length: ‘They were like: “Ouch! What the hell is this? This isn’t what we asked for.” Not in a bad way.’ But despite Snyder’s blasé dismissal – film studios rarely say ‘What the hell is this?’ in a good way – to his credit, the film retains its mammoth 163-minute runtime.
Indeed, the geekish Snyder is a driven character and is building a reputation for filming the unfilmable. Having spent five years hewing a workable narrative out of Frank Miller’s chaotic 300 graphic novel – on the page, a bloodbath of continuous fighting and face-gouging – he seemed the ideal director to succeed where others, most notably Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler), had failed.
On paper it seems like a no-lose situation; comic book adaptations are usually a shoo-in at the box office (if people will pay to watch Fantastic Four, they’ll see anything), and yet the Watchmen project bounced around studios for a long time. Even once filming finished, there was a chance it might not get released following a long, drawn-out legal tussle between 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros over who owned the rights to the story. It has even been suggested that Alan Moore, a practising wizard, had cursed the project, but according to Snyder, the difficulties were more everyday: ‘One, the intellectual property; two, the length; three, the time period.’
Watchmen is set in an alternative 1980s America. In it, superheroes exist (although outlawed) in everyday society and have altered the course of world events – the US has won the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon is still president, and the Cold War is at breaking point. It is an intensely dark, complex story, published over 12 volumes, and even made Time magazine’s list of the top 100 best post-1923 English language novels.
‘When it came out, Watchmen created a revolution in the comic book world because it basically had taken everything that people knew about comic book superheroes and made them into realistic characters,’ enthuses Snyder. ‘It took the situations that people would normally attribute to comic books and made those situations say something about society and politics. This was something that comic books hadn’t done before.’
It has long been one of the mysteries of cinema that no one has made a successful, or even an enjoyable, adaptation of Moore’s books. V For Vendetta, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen have all disappointed hugely. Directors have all too often taken liberties with the source material, attempting to make the stories more commercial, but if the trailers are anything to go by, Snyder has stayed true to his source.
‘My mother, for instance, knows that Superman has a Fortress of Solitude, and that Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider,’ he says. ‘These are things that are in the culture now, and I think that Alan’s able, with the graphic novel, to take those things apart and say, what is the “why” of our mythology? If these characters represent our mythology as a society, to deconstruct the myth tells us about ourselves.’
Watchmen already looks set to be the first major blockbuster of the year. Whether Snyder can please everyone – fans, author and studio included – is still a matter for debate, but three years in the making, and at nearly three hours long, you certainly can’t say he’s played it safe.
Meet the Watchmen
Murdered before the story begins, The Comedian was part of a government programme of superheroes.
The only character with genuine superhero powers, he was part of the same programme as The Comedian, but is later exiled.
Vigilante superhero operating outside of the law. Rorschach sets about investigating the death of The Comedian, believing there is someone killing superheroes.
Rorschach’s friend and ally, who in the past partnered him to take down the villainous Underboss.
Said to be the smartest man on the planet, he is now one of its richest. Was once an ally of the other heroes, but is now the movie’s villain.
Daughter of The Comedian and Sally Jupiter (the original Silk Spectre) – she fought for justice until superheroes were outlawed.
Watchmen is released in cinemas this month