05 December 2007

Who Watches the Watchmen?

Or as NMRBoy chastised me for not asking a few weeks ago: 'Who will watch the Watchmen?'

I worry about the coming Watchmen movie. You've probably guessed. Having loved the book since I was fifteen, I've far too much invested in it to do otherwise, and when the film finally comes out I'm bound to be anything but neutral in my criticism of it. I'll try to judge it on its own merits, but there's no way I'll manage that.

I already have doubts about the cast. Looking at them on IMDB, sure, they all look fine, but they also seem rather young for the parts they'll be playing, at least during the central narrative, if not in the book's many flashbacks. That might sound like quibbling, but since Dan Dreiberg's story, for example, has more than a whiff of 'mid-life crisis' about it, it's important that the actor playing him looks his age.

Still, I reckon that the movie's success or otherwise won't depend -- in the main -- upon the cast. This one's going to stand or fall based on storytelling, on the script and how that script is realised.

It probably won't surprise you, then, that I've been more than a little intrigued by the publication on the official Watchmen blog of four shots of the film's New York set. There's no doubt that they're encouraging, especially in how they seem to follow Henry James's observation that 'a good ghost-story [...] must be connected at a hundred points with the common objects of life'. Watchmen is no ghost story, but the principle holds: if we are unable to accept the ordinary, we shall certainly prove unable to accept the extraordinary.

Alan Moore has said in interviews that Dave Gibbons's training as a building surveyor brilliantly equipped him for making the world of Watchmen seem utterly believable. If you read the book with care you can't help but be struck by the detail, the consistency, and the sheer reality of the world Gibbons depicts -- and that's without getting into the breathtaking symbolism in detail and composition that marks so much of the book's imagery.

Well, it's reassuring then that its director Zack Snyder remarks on the film's blog that one of the things he loves about the book is its 'incredible attention to detail', and to judge by the photos he's posted, he's doing a hell of a job at bringing that level to detail to the screen.

Look at the shot of Bernie's news-stand, located in the book at the junction of 40th Street and 7th Avenue, and apparently shifted here onto 42nd Street, just outside Grand Central Station. This is one of the book's pivotal locations for all sorts of reasons, none of which I'll go into here for reasons of space and not wishing to spoil the book for you.

If you're interested, this guy has done a remarkable job of squinting at the shots and scouring through the book in order to comment on them. He picks up on geographical compression that'll almost certainly make this junction even more central to the film than it is to the book, speculates a little on how the film's climax shall almost certainly differ from that in the book, and observes -- and this is significant -- that the film looks set to disregard or downplay Moore's speculations on how different our world would be if there really were superheroes.

I suppose if you have to leave stuff out, which is inevitable if Watchmen is to be filmed as a movie rather than a mini-series, then the technological advances that underpin the texture of Watchmen's 1985 are an obvious casualty -- they'd demand too much exposition for too little payback. But I can't help wondering at what point such sacrifices should stop.

Terry Gilliam, who wanted for years to film Watchmen, has pointed out just how ordinary it becomes once everything that makes it special is omitted. 'It's really dense,' he says in Dark Knights and Holy Fools, 'and when you try to reduce it down to a couple hours it's just like straight comic book heroes again, and it doesn't have a real meaning. All the characters needed time, and I just felt we weren't able to give them the time.'

I'm hoping that David Hayter and Zack Snyder can find a way.

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