HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Watching The WATCHMEN

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. Today, we continue our profile of Alan Moore and bring you part two of a look at the film adaptation of one of his most political works.

We almost got a Watchmen movie back in the late 1980’s. It would have been a bombastic Joel Silver production that would have starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dr. Manhattan, open with the Statue of Liberty being destroyed, and ended with the surviving heroes transported to our reality when their history was forever altered. Thankfully, that was avoided.

We also almost had a more faithful version from Terry Gilliam, complete with a narration from Rorschach but most likely still with Schwarzenegger in the cast. Unfortunately, that never came to pass.

What did come to pass was if not more interesting, then definitely more controversial and convoluted. What came next was a more than twenty-year trek to the big screen for the property, with no less than five studios, six directors, eight writers, and one lawsuit standing in the way of the production.

Lawrence Gordon
Lawrence Gordon

The rights to Watchmen were bought by Lawrence Gordon in August of 1986, before the fourth issue of the miniseries was even published, and partnered with Silver to work on the film with 20th Century Fox. Alan Moore was asked to write the script, but he refused. Instead, the studio pegged Batman scribe Sam Hamm to adapt the miniseries. In addition to the tacked on opening where the Statue of Liberty is destroyed, the book’s “alien invasion of New York City” ending is changed to one where Veidt plans on going back in time to stop Jon from becoming Dr. Manhattan. Veidt fails but Dr. Manhattan doesn’t, as he goes back in time to save himself from the accident that gave him his powers. That is what shifts Rorschach, Nite Owl, and Silk Spectre to our reality, where Watchmen is just a comic book and being dressed as characters from it causes the police to descend on the trio (obviously, cosplay wasn’t very big in the late 80s). Fox put the project in turnaround before a director could be attached, but stated their interest in bringing the project to the screen.

gilliamquixoteThe project moved next to Warner Brothers, parent company of Watchmen’s publisher DC Comics. It’s here where Terry Gilliam became attached to the script. I consider Gilliam one of the most underrated directors and a true visionary. I would have loved to see his take on the project. It looks like what we would have gotten was a far more faithful version of the story—he hired writers such as Charles McKeown and Warren Skaaren to add more of the graphic novel to the film’s script. However, since Gilliam’s most recent film at the time, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, went anywhere from $12 million to $23 million dollars over budget, and Silver’s most recent film at the time, Die Hard 2, also went over budget, Warner put a restrictive $25 million budget on the project. This caused Gilliam to walk away from the project.

David Hayter
David Hayter

The film languished in development limbo until 2001. By then, the Blade and X-Men films proved there was a market for superhero movies, so Gordon resuscitated the film at Universal Studios and pegged X-Men writer David Hayter to write and direct the film.  Development lasted two years at Universal before disagreements between the studio and the creative team caused a split.

After a brief dalliance at Revolution Studios, the project was brought to Paramount in 2004. Hayter was out as director, replaced by Darren Aronofsky. But Watchmen became one of many superhero themed projects Aronofsky walked away from. It’s a trend for him. Aronofsky left to focus on The Fountain, and was replaced by Paul Greengrass. However, a shake up in command at Paramount ended up putting Watchmen in turnaround once again.

secondwatchmenteaserIn 2005, the film was finally on its way to the big screen. The project had returned to Warner Brothers for a second time and Zack Snyder was chosen to direct and Alex Tse wrote a new screenplay culled from Hayter’s drafts for the film. That’s when the legal wrangling came.

First up was Paramount, the most recent studio to try to get a Watchmen film up and running. Warner settled with Paramount, giving them 25% of the film and the distribution rights outside of the U.S.

Next came 20th Century Fox. In February 2008, they filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Warner, claiming they never sacrificed the rights to the film (forget the decades that other studios tried to get a film up and running and Fox did nothing about it). Warner said Fox had passed on a number of opportunities to make a film based on the Hayter screenplay, which their film was adapted from, therefore Fox passed on the rights. A judge ruled in favor of Fox, and Fox threatened to legally stop the film from being released. This was averted as the two studios came to a settlement. Fox got a percentage of the gross and some of their development costs back. And Watchmen was finally going to hit movie screens.

Film-Title-Watchmen-001I find Snyder’s film to be a noble disappointment. It was a film that wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t as great as the expectations, unfair though they may be, built up for the film indicated. When I first saw the film, my main criticism was that I thought that Snyder and Tse were too faithful to the graphic novel. In retrospect, the problem I most come back to are the changes Snyder made to the text to make it a more “dynamic” film. Moore and Gibbons’ story was the prototypical illustration of what would happen if superheroes existed in the real world. They made a point of having Dr. Manhattan be the only superpowered being. In Snyder’s film, Ozymandias’ and the Comedian’s punches can break through brick walls and Silk Spectre’s kicks can send bad guys flying feet in the air.

And I think the less that is said about the sex scene, the better. Moore and Gibbons enter the scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre after the deed was done, because the point of the scene wasn’t to titillate the audience, but to illustrate how the characters feel impotent without their costumed identities.   The same scene, drawn out in slow motion (or at least what seemed like slo-mo) with a Leonard Cohen score, has all the earmarkings of a note from a Warner’s executive asking for more skin in the film. I am far from a prude, but the scene wasn’t sexy, it wasn’t erotic, and the original reason for it was entirely lost.

One change that did work was the ending. You can say that the ending was the weakest part of the graphic novel, and the fact that it was stolen, inadvertently or otherwise, from another work meant it was ripe for a reworking. Having Veidt create, not an alien that could destroy a city, but bombs using Dr. Manhattan’s energy signature was a more realistic choice from a narrative perspective, and far more believable from a story stand point.

Join us next time for a look at a pair of very well received films that you might not have realized was adapted from graphic novels.

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About William Gatevackes 1934 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.

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