Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Why Watchmen Fails: Print vs. Video

The best thing Alan Moore can do is stay out of the theater. Moore, author of the graphic novel Watchmen (1986-87), has wisely disavowed all spin-offs of his acclaimed masterpiece.

My review of the film adaptation of Watchmen will appear in an upcoming issue of Christian Research Journal. The focus in that review will be on the philosophies and ideas underlying the story and characters. See my earlier short review of the graphic novel for some hints at what my film review will cover.

Here, however, I'd like to offer a different perspective. Rather than approach the film Watchmen from the angle of a traditional reviewer, I'd like to approach it from the perspective of philosophy of technology -- specifically, how the differences between print and video resulted in the failure of Watchmen on screen. My critique of it here relates to the nature of the mediums themselves.

Print is mostly conceptual, dealing with ideas. In this respect, the graphic novel version of Watchmen, which spans 12 parts, succeeds. It raises ideas that can spark rational discourse on serious matters such as the existence of God, the human condition, ethical choices, the meaning of life, and more. But it does so in a manner that is often gradual, paced over the course of many pages, episodes, and rich text-heavy interludes.

Video, on the other hand, is largely visual and auditory. By its very nature the emphasis is on sights and sounds. Thus on screen we are overwhelmed by the superb Jimi Hendrix rendition of "All Along the Watchtower" and a few minutes later are treated to a brief excerpt from Mozart's glorious but unfinished requiem. (The odd juxtaposition of such musical styles is best left to a separate article if I ever get around to it.)

But in reading Watchmen we have no need to turn up or turn down the volume. "All Along the Watchtower" is quoted and masterfully alluded to in the story -- "two riders were approaching" -- in reference to not only the president and vice president dealing with a world on the brink of nuclear devastation, but also in reference to the arrival of two "heroes" intent on saving the world.

In print, Watchmen is a quiet endeavor, giving the reader as much time as necessary to ponder the ideas and movement of the story. One does not need to sit for several hours at a time in order to finish the book in one sitting. On screen Watchmen is a loud venture, giving the viewer little time to contemplate what few key ideas from the print edition actually made it on screen.

Print generally requires an active audience, while video is mostly passive. When we read we make efforts to process ideas thoughtfully -- or at least, we should -- but when we watch we are mostly passive. Events happen larger than life while we sit and try to make sense of a 12-part story that has been crammed into a relatively short 3 hours (long by movie standards).

Certainly both print and video can tell a story, evoke emotions, provoke thought, and entertain. But there are inherent differences in the mediums that make print better suited to rational discourse.

Watchmen the film fails because the content of the print medium is something that video does not know what to do with when it is seeking to entertain. Hence, although there are some masterful moments in the film, events happen too quickly or are introduced hastily.

Deep threads of thought that run the length of the graphic novel are given scant attention. Rather than handling some of these moments with the finesse of a chess master, they all too often come across as being handled with the clumsiness of a juggler in training.

Does thinking look good on screen? No. Real people thinking and discussing real thoughts does not generally "play" well on video (certainly not in a superhero film). Consequently, some of the graphic novels best moments are ignored, skimmed over, or thrown out in fortune cookie moments at times bordering on the absurd.

A related reason Watchmen fails on film has to do with alterations. This often happens when print-based material is adapted for screen, but in the case of Watchmen too much is left out or drastically altered.

In general print does not change unless the author changes it. But when moving from one medium to another there are inherent limitations. As a result, many characters and important subplots are completely missing from the film adaptation. A greater alteration consists of the drastic reimagining of the ending.

Should you see Watchmen? Be warned that the R rating is well-deserved. My recommendation is that you join Alan Moore and stay out of the theater. Read the thought-provoking graphic novel instead.


Jeff LaSala said...

Out of curiosity, what did you think of The Dark Knight?

Robert Velarde said...

I enjoyed Dark Knight. A key difference between it and Watchmen is that Batman was not adapted from a multi-volume comic, but instead created from the get go as a movie.