It’s funny for a movie that is supposed to be so faithful to the book (that I have read through many, many times) that I did my best to avoid spoilers. I wanted to dive in and make the comparisons myself, without hearing what critics (who, as we discovered, may be coming from an entirely different perspective than I am) have to say. I also try very hard to avoid being the nitpicky fan who dislikes any deviation from the source material: after all, different media have different challenges.
Watchmen does a very good job of conveying the story (and most of the important plot beats) of the original work, and for that, I really enjoyed seeing it onscreen. Yes, there are a few details that are changed, both large and small, to accomodate the film’s running time (which is already very long). An opening montage is added to provide some of the backstory into the divergent 1985 where the story takes place. Talking to some of the people I had come with, it seemed that this worked to add confusion instead of give a foundation.
Then by the time you get to Rorschach’s meeting with Dr. Manhattan and Miss Jupiter, you start to see the groundwork of where the story would diverge more, and also a bit of new dialogue clashing with Moore’s original. Still, the scenes are there, and by the time you get to the Comedian’s funeral, you REALLY feel the faithfulness of the work shine through. As the movie goes on, you’ll see the odd line that the film walks between staying true to the original and making a plot that fits within the confines of the movie. Sometimes it succeeds, and sometimes it doesn’t. I will say that the ending event, which as you’ve probably heard is different than the book’s, fills the same role well enough. Unfortunately, several other parts of the ending are chopped to bits, and was where I most longed for it to have stuck closer to the original.
I was surprised how much I enjoyed the actors in it, having a vague feeling of dread going in that it would be a “young, sexy” cast instead of an appropriate one. Jackie Earle Haley wins my top award for casting, especially when he is without his face in the prison. His gravelly voice always manages to stay menacing (unlike Bale’s Batman) and he delivers all the classic lines with a subtle but hard edge. His most powerful scene in Antartica is not to be missed. Night Owl could have been a bit more of a schlub for my tastes, but manages to be enough of a dork in his giant glasses to make up for it, and a totally different person while in his suit. Miss Jupiter didn’t wow me, but didn’t ruin anything either. Billy Crudup plays Dr. Manhattan as detached at nearly all times, which has an appropriately unnerving effect, but not in the same ways you’d expect him to from the book. (And by the way, you will see plenty of Dr. Manhattan, in more ways than one). The Comedian (NOT played by Robert Downey Jr.) also has the appropriate range for the character, and you do both hate him and feel sorry for him at various times. Ozymandias plays it mostly cool as well, and while he doesn’t get much screentime, he delivers the important lines very well.
There is one important distinction to note between the cast of the book and the cast of the movie: the cast of the movie are bona fide superheroes. Every one of them is a martial arts master, able to take on large numbers of opponents at the same time and snap their bones out of their skin with a flick of the wrist. (Note to the squeamish: if you see a fight starting to happen and it’s going in slow motion, look away. Also, look away any time Rorscach is doing anything). There are even a couple fight scenes that are way padded out from the book, which seems unnecessary, and in fact reminded me a lot of the treatment of V for Vendetta.
In addition to the main cast, there are a large number of celebrity 80’s impersonators. This is one of the movie’s failings hands down: the make-up is terrible. I found myself wondering if Nixon’s putty nose was going to fall off in the middle of a scene. It was also amusing to me to have fake Lee Iacocca and fake Henry Kissinger have extended parts.
Another major distracting point of the movie, and one that also caused unintentional chuckles, was the music. Various famous songs are used, which makes them almost instantly recognizable and don’t sink into the background. They also are too “on the nose“, too loud, and often mood-breaking. This may sound like a small issue, but it’s done in the most irritating way I can imagine. At no point when reading Watchmen did I envision hearing 99 Luft Balloons.
As mentioned before, I thought the dialogue was fine, except when it specifically was clashing between old and new dialogue in two different styles, and not just because I was used to the old dialogue. I was quite thankful that most of my favorite lines made it in, and were largely delivered well. It’s only in the ending when it starts to get muddled up by moving around the lines between different characters, and leaving out a few that I felt were pretty important to the story. Additionally, almost all my favorite scenes made the jump, as well as my least favorite scene from the book (which I’m happy to discuss with those who have seen it in the comments).
So what’s the verdict? They made a good movie based on Watchmen. It’s not perfect, both in terms of adapting the source material and just in making a good movie, but it’s well worth seeing both for die-hard fans and those who can get a glimpse into what all the fuss is about.
My favorite part of the movie’s release is entirely detached from the movie itself. I’ve gotten to talk to other fans of the book, and find out that each person takes something different away as what to appreciate about it. Just last night, one friend was telling me about how he appreciated all the effort that went into the alternate world it takes place in. Another talked about the tough choices that all the characters were placed in. The more visually-minded I’ve talked to have discussed the back and forth contrasting panels, and the use of an unusual panel grid. I myself love the twists and turns of the plot. Any movie that spurs on such great conversation has to be given some credit. Alan Moore may not like it, but ultimately, I think having more entry points to his world is a good thing.