Adaptations for film and TV are a tricky lot. Is the source material filmable?
Is what worked on the page or stage a guarantee it will translate properly to
the screen? Even the length determined for an adaptation can affect the success
of it. The decision to adapt
as a 2.5-hour theatrical release in 2009, rather than a longer miniseries for
television, slightly marred the ability to translate the sprawling and complex
graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons into a truly cogent narrative. Zack
Snyder made a noble effort given his shorter time frame.
Smartly, HBO remade Watchmen and gave the material the length of time it
deserved – well over nine hours – and because of that, it coalesced as a series,
both understandable and wholly involving. The premium cable network also chose
to advance the Watchmen story rather than retell what had previously been done.
It was a continuation of what Moore and Gibbons had started, but decidedly, not
a reboot. (Gibbons is a consulting producer on the show.) By honoring the past,
but moving the property forward, the new Watchmen, created by Damon Lindelof,
became one of the year’s best television series.
In his triumph, Lindelof was able to avoid many of the problems that befall too
many adaptations. He honored the source material without being slavishly loyal
to it. He updated the period piece in ways that would make it connect better
with today’s audience. In fact, Lindelof made three major changes in his version
of Watchmen that made the enterprise feel incredibly fresh and immediate,
surprising even the loyal fans who feared the worst when HBO announced its new
adaptation. (SPOILER WARNING: Further reading will reveal major spoilers,
so proceed with caution.)
In the original comics and the movie version of it, the main theme dealt with
superheroes and how they would exist in the real world. The Watchmen were a
group of vigilantes who fancied themselves protectors of the planet a la
Superman, but only one of them had similar, demi-god powers. He was Dr.
Manhattan, a scientist rendered omnipotent by a freak accident involving nuclear
and quantum physics. The other five Watchmen were superhero wannabe’s dressed up
in costumes, causing as much damage with their derring-do as any saving of the
populace they accomplished.
Ultimately, they all failed at what they set out to do, becoming bitter and
despondent over their roles. Dr. Manhattan was so turned off being employed by a
power-mad President Nixon to end the Viet Nam War, he left Earth and created his
own “Fortress of Solitude” on Mars. As for the masked wannabe’s, two of them
ended up dead, and the others became disillusioned with the idea of “truth,
justice, and the American way.”
Lindelof still expressed interest in masks within his adaptation, particularly
in how people use them to hide their true selves and motivations, but his show
took a different tack. He concentrated on the theme of racism, which was only on
the periphery in the original comics and turned it into the thrust of his
narrative. Indeed, it is systemic racism that’s at the heart of the conflict
between the Seventh Kalvary, a white supremacist group in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and
the Tulsa police force. It drove the story from the first moments to the last.
The Kalvary members wore masks, inspired by the authority-hating vigilante
Rorschach from the original Watchmen, and they also played as more than a little
reminiscent of Ku Klux Klan garb this go-round. It turned out that the leader of
the Kalvary, Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), was indeed a former Klan member who
just happened to also be the head of the Tulsa police. His scheme involved
getting the police to follow suit and don their own masks for protection, thus
ensuring that all identities were protected from the public with no one being
truly sure just who was who.
Lindelof also suggested that masks were being used in other ways too,
particularly online where all kinds of folks hide behind fake Twitter accounts
and avatars, be it Russian bots, alt. right groups or your average troll who has
got an ax to grind. Anonymity has become a watchword of our modern times.
The original Watchmen concentrated evenly on six lead characters – Rorschach,
Dr. Manhattan, The Comedian, Ozymandias, Nite Owl II, and Silk Spectre II. Here,
Lindelof coyly brought them back in various ways, but the center of his
narrative concentrated on a new character altogether. She was detective Angela
Abar (Regina King), AKA Sister Night, her masked alter ego.
Abar investigated the murder of her friend and superior Crawford and discovered
his racism plot. She also realized how it dovetailed into many parts of her life
as a black woman and a cop, even connecting back to her past in Viet Nam as a
child. (A lot of interesting things happened in ‘Nam, deemed America’s 51st
state after the war in this narrative).
As played by King, the Oscar-winning actress, Angela is smart, funny, and most
of all, likable. She has heart and honesty too, and all such characteristics
were in short supply in the cynical world of the original Watchmen. And, unlike
those previous counterparts, her moral clarity and purpose never wavers. She is
the center of the story and its moral center too.
Granted, this new series brought back a couple of the older Watchmen, albeit
with amusing new takes on the famous characters. The egotistical Adrian Veidt
(Jeremy Irons) is a shell of his former greatness, still trying to play God,
grant you, cloning mammals, and dying to get credit for all of his brilliance
from years past. Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), AKA Silk Spectre II, returns too,
though this time she was a tough-as-nails FBI investigator. And Manhattan’s
return is definitely the strangest one of all. He is revealed to be Angela’s
husband Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), hidden in such a guise until necessary to
become Manhattan again to thwart the Kalvary’s plot.
HBO has been one of the trendsetters when it comes to narratives that are
deliberately blind throughout the course of their runs. Such shows as Westworld
and The Leftovers (interestingly, another Lindelof creation) teased audiences
endlessly with their complex, twisting storylines that were designed to demand
avid attention from its audiences while refusing to spoon-feed all salient plot
points. Similarly, you can't look away for one second of the new
Watchmen for fear of missing a key plot point, an “Easter Egg”, or a little bit
of business that would tie into a gi-normous “A-ha” moment later in the run.
Consequently, this Watchmen plays coy, succeeding at being even more knowing and
meta than the original comic was with its “Black Freighter” pirate story within
the main story while commenting on the big picture. Thus, storylines like
Veidt’s obsession with cloning his servants seem almost like a farce at first
until it was revealed to be something far uglier and more demeaning. It also
connected to a plot point about Dr. Manhattan that wasn’t revealed in total
until the eighth episode.
The series continually teases the true identity of Amanda’s husband, bathing him
in glowing blue light similar to the complexion of Dr. Manhattan. Even Amanda is
lit similarly in the promotional advertising. There are dozens of in-jokes,
everything from making hay of the source material and other pop culture
references to the way the font of the episode names were laid out within the
context of an opening scene.
The show tweaked celebrities too from Robert Redford (the POTUS after Nixon!) to
Ronald Reagan and nodded to famous directors as well like Stanley Kubrick. “The
Blue Danube,” famously used in his classic sci-fi film “2001: A Space Odyssey”,
shows up in the episode revealing Manhattan’s true identity and rebirth as a nod
to Kubrick’s reincarnating ‘star baby.’
Most shrewdly, Lindelof turns all of the pieces of Amanda’s life into the
squares on a Rubik’s Cube, finally clicking into place. Her past fed her future
and vice versa. No wonder she was married to Dr. Manhattan as her life events
echoed his existential template by becoming an endless loop between yesterday,
today, and tomorrow. Indeed, in Manhattan’s world, let alone the alternate
history created by the Watchmen franchise, time is but a concept, and all
occurrences are merely some sort of molecular rearranging.
This telling of the Watchmen proves to be a rearranging of the source material
too, albeit a narrative that may not need to be furthered after such a
satisfying and fitting ending. Granted, the show’s success may lead to multiple
season renewals, but suffice it to say, this nine-episode arc ends as shrewdly
as one could hope for. The Kalvary lost, for the time being, the plan to become
a god by Veidt’s narcissistic daughter Lady Trieu (Hong Chau) was thwarted by
frozen squid babies (!), and Angela may or may not have digested her husband’s
incredible powers. The last shot left us watching her about to find out if she
could walk on water, but this adaptation proved that its creation was next to
godliness long before that wondrous final image.