O Lord, why do you tantalize us with these impossible questions, which set our minds aflame in futile attempts at reason-driven answers?
Of course, I’m talking about how to do a Watchmen movie.
Plok is only the latest blogger to declare Watchmen unfilmable, or (more particularly) to state that any adaptation of the work destroys at least one layer of its meaning. Even apart from trying to stuff everything into a 2-3 hour movie, he argues that
[t]o do Watchmen, you’d have to switch focus a lot, imply progression and regression at the same time a lot, not rely on the mere progress of subjective time created by the frame-to-frame unreeling of film, but create a mood of time in the mind of the viewer that is quite different from the one you pick up quite automatically from the flow of a regular movie.
Now, as we all know from Scott McCloud, comics are particularly good at manipulating time. When movies try to do it, though, it tends to look “arty,” not to mention obvious, because we are used to 24 frames per second and we can tell (as in those old Babe Ruth highlight films) when things are out of sync with real life. Watchmen wants to mess with our perceptions without us noticing the messing.
Remember issue #9, with Laurie and Jon on Mars, where the perfume bottle falls slowly throughout the whole issue, spilling as it goes, and finally crashing upon the horrific revelation of Laurie’s secret history? Picture that issue, filmed “straight,” unspooling over, say, 10 minutes of screen time. In my mind it plays like bad David Lynch, but any director would have to handle that stuff extremely delicately, or risk being laughed out of the theater. The whole book is like that, and to a certain extent, that’s the point: everything fits together so delicately that any upset throws it all off.
Still, I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t have some hare-brained hypothesis to test, and it comes from another “unfilmable” adaptation:
Although a PHC movie could easily have just dramatized Guy Noir or Lake Wobegon stories, that approach would have slighted the music, commercials, and other radio staples the show exploits so skillfully. Instead, the movie fictionalizes the show itself, stepping outside it to use it as a metaphor for the inevitabilities of life and death. The show is there every week until one week, suddenly, it isn’t — but the last show demands no more and no less enthusiasm than any other. The performers don’t act differently on stage, and nobody tells the radio audience the show’s about to end, leaving us moviegoers to supply our own pathos. The movie therefore doesn’t try to substitute for the original, but works to make the audience appreciate the original. All things end, the movie says, so enjoy them while they are here. I know I listened to the radio show a little more attentively this past weekend.
Anyway, maybe a similar approach would work for Watchmen. Set the movie in the world of the book, but just outside the events of the book. Maybe focus instead on a pair of filmmakers looking to make a documentary on the Comedian, and intersperse the “real” events with the documentarians’ investigations. For example, open the movie as issue #1 opens, with the camera pulling back from the bloody happy-face, and have that segue into the documentarians looking at storyboards for a possible opening sequence. Under the Hood, Rorschach’s psychological profile, the Veidt interview, and the other supplemental material could be parts of the filmmakers’ research; and one of them could be reading the pirate comic, or playing with the action figures. The filmmakers wouldn’t necessarily figure out what happened — although the movie could take place after the book ends, with one of them having found Rorschach’s diary — so there could be some disconnect with what the filmmakers know and what “really happened,” which the movie could point up.
It’s tacked on, sure, but it might still allow the audience to appreciate the original book’s complexity and self-referential nature. No film could really reproduce the cumulative effect of issue #9′s slowly tumbling perfume bottle, so a director would have to find some other way of conveying the book’s clockwork. If nothing else, those hypothetical documentarians could get just as frustrated as we fans have been. Watchmen has become so influential, twenty years later, that it no longer works just as a “realistic” take on superheroes. The trick now is in evoking the larger themes of time and fate.
(By the way, I keep saying “movie,” when I’m really thinking “miniseries.” All this stuff is definitely too much for 2-3 hours.)
Still, the more I think about this Rosencrantz & Guildenstern idea, the dumber it sounds. To adapt Watchmen it almost seems like the difficulty of a good adaptation must be acknowledged metatextually, and that sounds like the Charlie Kaufman movie Adaptation – which, as it happens, I haven’t seen. (At least this post has some recursivity to it!) However, the Prairie Home Companion movie made me realize how powerful the evocation of a work can be, as opposed to the mere translation of said work.
Or, wait — what if Watchmen were animated…?