Lip-Reading in a Mirror

Gene Doucette

Gene Doucette
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
May 18
Gene is a novelist, screenwriter and humorist. His novel IMMORTAL was published October 2010, and is available NOW. Find out more at


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AUGUST 14, 2008 1:46PM

Bracing for the possibility Watchmen will suck

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The first time I heard anything about a Watchmen movie was 1989.  At that time the name attached to the film was Terry Gilliam, a name that I found personally exciting.  (I may have been the only one.  Like many people, I loved Brazil.  Like very few, I also thought The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was brilliant.  Ah youth.)  And then nothing happened.  The film never moved past the "finding a good script" phase and disappeared from conversation.

In 1990, I had the opportunity to read a draft of the script Gilliam was working with, and I was happy.  Happy because the film-- this particular film-- wasn't going to get made.  Because the script was bad.  How bad?  "Heroes travel through a rift in space and arrive in our world to warn us of the dangers of nuclear detente" bad.  Yes, the meditation-on-the-nature-of-heroism / deconstruction-of-the-superhero-story-and-comic-as-art-form genius of the source material had been turned into a bad B-movie cautionary tale.

This was where I was coming from when I first saw the new Watchmen trailer.  I caught it before The Dark Knight and was so happy with it I actually turned to my wife and said, "well, I'm happy; shall we go?"  My Watchmen geek-out extended to my daily blog, and to several more watchings of the trailer.

And then I calmed down and considered the source.  Zach Snyder makes pretty visual films, as anyone who managed to sit through the violent homoerotic super slo-mo agony that is 300 which, if you couldn't already tell, I didn't much care for.  I should expect him to be capable of making a pretty-looking film, as the Watchmen trailer appears to show. 

The issue is the dialogue, and the story.  Snyder also had a hand in the dialogue in 300 which was eye-gougingly awful.  (Sidebar: the Greeks didn't have a conception of "hell" as we understand it;  Hades was a place where all the dead went, evil or no.  So having one shout "tonight we dine in hell!" makes zero sense.  Neither does having everyone speak with an English accent.)  But the only line of dialogue on display in the trailer is a line from the book itself, so I don't know what to think there.

But there are clues we might be in trouble.  Silk Spectre appears to be about twenty-five, but she was a fit forty in the book.  And where is Nite Owl's paunch?  Both are supposed to have been a decade into retirement for the bulk of the story, and not in the best shape of their lives.  Adrian Veidt looks only a little bit older than my fifteen year old son; he's supposed to be in his fifties.

 Maybe it's nitpicking, but aren't aging heroes supposed to be... aging?

The larger question is whether this is a story that should even be made into a feature film.  Alan Moore doesn't think so, and I think enough of his work has been adapted badly for the screen for him to know.  Terry Gilliam didn't think so either.

A fellow screenwriter friend of mine-- whose reaction to the trailer was considerably more tepid-- has argued that the only conceivable way to film Watchmen properly is to turn it into a miniseries.  Anything less will drop too much plot, and this is one of those times when something should be considered irreduceable.  I'm inclined to agree.

Plus: a twelve episode Watchmen miniseries?  How awesome would that be?

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From the standpoint of production values, Watchmen should be pretty good (based on the trailer). But Alan Moore's stories are anthithetical to Hollywood values. That's why I've never understood why comic book fans are so eager to see his novels made into film.

The theme of the movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is the exact opposite to Moore's story. Moore shows how corrupt the empire of Victorian England was. The movie has Alan Quartermain handing over the English Empire to America in the form of Tom Sawyer, secret agent. That's what the fanboys want to watch on Saturday afternoon.

Not to mention turning the protagonist from Mina Murray, self-emancipated woman, into Mina Harker, vampire eye-candy.

Once someone reads Alan Moore and understands what he's saying, I don't understand why he (and it's almost always a he) keeps reading comics.
Watchmen is practically a film storyboard. A cinematic version, one would think (or I thought, in my youth) would be easy. But the story arc is non-traditional, very complex, and has an ending that is on a level of the "wait, they all DIED?" ending of The Perfect Storm. So yeah. I'm with you there.
I have high hopes and low expectations for this one. Alan Moore has refused to even have his name attached to any of the film adaptations of his books. While the death of Heath Ledger means there will probably never be a Batman: The Killing Joke film, I wonder if anybody would be crazy enough to think of attempting to adapt Promethia.
Jason... or how about Miracleman? I think a climax where a superhero murders everyone in London with his bare hands would be rather exciting.
I'll have to read that one. Ooooh, how about The Lost Girls?!

Have you ever seen the documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore? It's really cool.
The film will suffer for two reasons:

1) The material itself is glorious and dense. And because it is dense, as you say, it cannot be adapted into a 2 hour film without cutting out most of the "meat" of the plot.

2) The material was groundbreaking due to when it was released. The nuclear paranoid, fear of Russia, etc - will moviegoers (particularly the young ones) understand that underlying tension?