Adaptation Paper-Watchmen

1. Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ graphic novel Watchmen follows a group of former “superheroes” in an alternate 1985 as they uncover a plot to end the Cold War before the conflict heightens any further. That alternate 1985 is one where the superheroes helped the U.S. easily win the Vietnam War, leading Richard Nixon staying in office for over four terms. However, aside from Dr. Manhattan–a god-like energy being created when his human body was torn into atoms by a project he was working on in 1959–none of the superheroes actually have superpowers. Although the graphic novel begins in 1985, featuring a group of washed-up superheroes, it has an extensive backstory that goes back to the late 1930s, when the Minutemen group was formed to fight criminals. That group eventually fought in World War II and reconvened after the war, but the majority of the team was killed and the group disbanded. Sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s a new team was made called the Crimebusters, although this group also fell apart after the Keene Act (a reference to the registration acts in Marvel Comics) forced superheroes to either register their identities with the government or retire from crimefighting. This results in the breakup of the group, who almost all go their separate ways.

The graphic novel actually begins in 1985 after the death of Edward Blake, a superhero known as the Comedian who operated covertly for the government, mostly on the orders of Nixon. While Rorschach, an old teammate of Blake’s from the Crimebusters operating as a vigilante tries to investigate Blake’s murder, the doomsday clock that measures the proximity of nuclear war between the U.S. and Soviets inches closer to happening. Rorschach eventually fills in an old teammate of his, Nite Owl, on his concerns over Blake’s murder, and they go to Dr. Manhattan, who is busy working on new energy sources in New York City. Manhattan’s presence has led to an icy truce between the U.S. and the Soviets, who are unable to attack the U.S. thanks to his presence. When he is cornered by accusations that he gave his former coworkers cancer he departs the planet, heading to Mars, which gives the Soviets confidence to ramp up the pressure on the U.S., moving the countries on the brink of nuclear war. Eventually Rorschach and Nite Owl figure out Veidt had framed Manhattan and confront him about it, while the new Silk Spectre attempts to reason with Manhattan. He acquiesces and returns when they find out Blake is her father, despite him having tried to rape her mother while both were in the Minutemen in the 1940s. Veidt reveals his plan to them as they return; he had set up Manhattan to get him to leave the planet so he could set up an attack on New York involving a giant alien squid, which kills millions but unites the U.S. and Soviets against an alien invasion that never comes. Veidt also reveals he killed Blake, who had found out about his plan, to keep it from spreading. Manhattan and Veidt agree that his plan must remain a secret, but when Rorschach tells them Manhattan must kill him for him to keep quiet on the matter, Manhattan vaporizes him. The film ends as New York is in the rebuilding phase, with the graphic novel left open-ended as a newspaper potentially selects Rorschach’s journal–which implicates Veidt and his plan–to put in their “crank file.”

2. The film version follows the same plot as the graphic novel, but is considerably cut down to save time. The film’s opening sequence reflects the graphic novel’s backstory, with the deaths of the early Minutemen marking many of the scenes depicted in the sequence; the song used in the sequence, Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are a Changin’,” was pulled directly from the source text, as the song is referenced in the source text. The majority of the licensed songs on the soundtrack are referenced in the graphic novel, like Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” or more pivotally, Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable,” which plays as the Comedian is murdered to begin the movie. The film starts with Blake’s death in the same way the comic does, and the film unravels Veidt’s plot in the same manner as the graphic novel, although longer, unnecessary parts like the Tales of the Black Freighter comic and the death of Hollis Mason are cut from the film. The film has a few changes to the material presented in the film, notably the scene where Veidt’s plan is shown in action; instead of a giant alien squid being the cause of the destruction in New York City, energy signatures meant to resemble Doctor Manhattan are the cause of destruction in New York and several other cities, done in Veidt’s words to “kill millions so that we may save billions.” Snyder’s film also has lots of pop culture references fit into the film as well. Manhattan is interviewed by a Ted Koppel lookalike, while famous Ford and Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca is killed by the assassin targeting Veidt. In another scene where Veidt is seen entering Studio 54, two people next to him are meant to be copies of David Bowie and Mick Jagger. Although the credits sequence is meant to wrap up the backstory of the film quickly, it actually functions as an enticing pop culture reference as well, with the Watchmen characters inserted into or mimicking famous events, likely as an easy way to show their impact in this alternate world. The very first scene is meant to be Nite Owl seemingly beating up the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents as they exit the theater’s back door, complete with the Batman and Gotham posters behind him to connect the dots. The Miss Jupiter bomber flying back from dropping a nuclear bomb is an exact copy of the Enola Gay bomber; the Silhouette recreates the famous V-J Day kiss in Times Square; Miss Jupiter’s retirement party is meant to be a copy of The Last Supper; the Comedian is shown to be the shooter on the ‘grassy knoll’ in the Kennedy assassination (although that was retconned in the new prequels); and includes the film’s own interpretation of the ‘flower in the gun barrel’ student protest photographs, among others.

3. Of all the films that have been aired over the course of the class, none of them have had a development cycle close to what Watchmen’s was like. The film was long considered unfilmable and was mired in development hell for almost 25 years when it was finally released in 2009. It faced opposition from the graphic novel’s creator, Alan Moore, who likened the idea to adapt the graphic novel to birds being fed regurgitated worms. Moore, long a critic of Hollywood and the moviemaking process, was famously opposed to the film throughout its entire production, which began in 1986 when 20th Century Fox acquired the rights to the graphic novel. Upon their acquisition, the studio commissioned Sam Hamm to condense the graphic novel into a screenplay; Hamm also chose to change the ending of the novel, finding the giant alien squid attack of New York City too unbelievable for a film treatment. That set off a number of script changes over the years to settle on an ending for the film, which constituted one of the bigger problems in the film’s development: deciding how to end the film (Clines). Hamm’s decision was for Veidt to build a time machine and assassinate Osterman before he could become Dr. Manhattan, but Manhattan finds out his plan before he can complete it. Manhattan then chooses to erase himself from existence, setting the timeline straight again. That was changed slightly when Terry Gilliam, who directed surreal classics Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, came onboard for the film; he revised the script to include Rorschach’s narrations again, but dropped out when the producers could only get a quarter of the desired budget thanks to the producers previous films going over budget. Gilliam later called the graphic novel unfilmable as a movie, saying it would be better off as a miniseries. The amount of time the revisions and director changes took a toll as well, as alleviated fears of the Cold War meant that there was less of an interest in a film about Cold War era-impending doom, much less one in a fictional universe. That meant the film struggled to gain support until after 9/11, when some of those fears returned. Length and budget also became a big problem as well. Hamm’s treatment was 128 pages long, condensed from a 300-plus page graphic novel; David Hayter, who was approached in the early 2000s to write the film, wrote a 178-page treatment that updated the comics into a modern-day setting (Jensen). Hayter eventually left the project and was replaced by Darren Aronofsky, who was subsequently replaced by Paul Greengrass. Greengrass was eventually replaced by Zack Snyder, who was fresh off converting graphic novel 300 into a successful film; together with screenwriter Alex Tse the two used Hayter’s drafts to rebuild the Cold War setting and change the ending of the film from the alien invasion to explosions in major cities worldwide, done to better reflect the fears and paranoia over attacks in multiple cities post-9/11 (Rehak).

Just over a year before the film was due out, the movie hit another roadblock–a copyright infringement suit filed by 20th Century Fox against Warner Bros. Fox claimed they were entitled to development costs and part of the receipts for the movie because the film’s production, which began in 2005, from the agreements they set up with producers in 1991 and 1994. Just two months before the film was scheduled to release the studios settled, and Watchmen was released 23 years after its first issue published, in March 2009.

Watchmen did release in 2009, but the changes didn’t end there. Snyder released a director’s cut later in the year that featured several more minutes of footage, boosting the total runtime of the film to just over three hours. That wasn’t the final tinkering of the film, though: an ultimate cut edition came out shortly after the director’s cut. That version included almost all of Snyder’s filmed footage making it into the final cut. It included the integration of the Tales of the Black Freighter animated comic into the live action film, as well as the extension of several dialogue scenes from different parts of the film. The ultimate cut clocked in at nearly three and a half hours long, but was the preferred cut for Snyder since it included the animated comic, which had been cut out of nearly every treatment before his final cut of the film.

Works Cited

Rehak, Bob. “Adapting Watchmen after 9/11.” Cinema journal 51.1 (2011):154.

Jensen, J. (2005). Watchmen: AN ORAL HISTORY. Entertainment Weekly, (847), 44-49.

Clines, P. (2009). Watchmen. Creative Screenwriting, 16(2), 21-23.


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