03 January 2008

Attending the tale of Sweeney Todd, rather than watching the Watchmen

One of the topics that came up after the Murder Mystery dinner the other evening was the coming Watchmen film, with the prospect of it being met with much muttering and shaking of heads. Pretty much everyone agreed that there's no way this is going to work, even if Dave Gibbons seems to be having a blast on the set, marvelling at how his creations are being brought to life. Leaving aside the fact that purely in terms of structure and storytelling, Zak Snyder's surely not the man to attempt this, I'm with the jaundiced Terry Gilliams on this one in a broader sense:
This nightmare began back in 1988 or 89 when Joel Silver, the producer of Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, The Matrix suggested that we make a film of the Watchmen. "The what?" I said. He thrust a fat hardback comic book in my hand and said read. I read. I loved.

But how to make a film of a masterpiece? Always a problem. So far no one has made a good version of War and Peace, and to me Watchmen is the W and P of comics ... sorry, graphic novels.

I sat down with Charles McKeown, my writing partner on Baron Munchausen and Brazil, to squeeze out a script. Time passed. Frustration increased. How do you condense this monster book into a 2 - 2½ hour film? What goes? What stays? Therein lies the problem. I talked to Alan Moore. He didn't know how to do it. He seemed relieved that i had taken on the responsibility of fucking up his work rather than leaving it to him. I suggested perhaps a 5 part mini series would be better. I still believe that.

With every bit of narrative tightening, we were losing character detail... and without their neuroses and complex relationships the characters were becoming more like normal run-of-the-mill-quirky-super-heroes. There wasn't time to tell all their stories. The Comedian was reduced to someone who dies at the beginning. That's all, just a convenient corpse to kick off the action. None of this was satisfying to me. I was wasn't happy with our results.

By now, actors were fluttering around Watchmen like crazed moths beating at a dirty street lamp. Robin Williams was keen to play Rorschach. Was that Richard Gere knocking on the door? The pressure on me was building. Thank god, Joel solved the problem. he failed to convince the studios to hand over enough money to make the film. Brilliant! I was saved! And, perhaps, Watchmen as well!

Certain works should be left alone... in their original form. Everything does not have to become a movie. Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was alwats best in its original manifestation... a radio show.

So forget about the movie. Ley your imagination animate the characters. Do your own sound effects. Your own camera moves. Dave Gibbons' artwork is perfect. From my first reading of Watchmen, it felt like a movie. Why does it have to be a movie?

Think of what will have to be lost. Is it worth it?
That's from Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman, in case you're curious. If you read William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade, or better yet in this context, the chapter on Absolute Power in Which Lie Did I Tell?, you'll get a terrifyingly vivid picture of just the kind of butchery that will need to be done to Watchmen in order to turn it into a credible film. I just can't see anyone managing that.

That's not to say that butchery is always a bad thing when it comes to making films, I must admit. After all, it seems that the Sweeney Todd that shall be hitting British and Irish screens in a month or so has had more than the odd note shaved off it; Sondheim wasn't remotely precious about his masterpiece, fully recognising that it would need serious surgery to become truly cinematic, and as a result from what I can gather barely ten songs are performed in anything even close to their stage versions.

Having seen the show four times on stage at this point, and with a DVD and a couple of CDs of it floating around, I obviously have an absurd amount invested in the film working, so Neil Gaiman's verdict was more than a little encouraging, especially with his own weakness for the show:
I took the family to see Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd last night, which I absolutely loved (even down to a couple of grace notes, the St Dunstan's market and the Bell Court street sign -- in the earliest versions of the Penny Dreadful, Sweeney's shop was part of St Dunstan's Church and Mrs Lovett's was around the corner, in Bell Yard). I even loved Johnny Depp's early-Bowie-when-he-was-still-doing-Anthony-Newley singing style. (At least until, on the way out, I found myself trying to imagine a blood-spattered Sweeney Todd singing "The Laughing Gnome" as he waited for customers, and was unable to explain to anyone else why this was funny.) I think it just edged out Ed Wood as my favourite Tim Burton movie.
Ed Wood is a masterpiece in its own right, of course, a hilarious, poignant, heartbreaking masterpiece, so for Neil to regard this as eclipsing that is high praise. I've been looking at some clips over at the New York Times site, and they just fill me with delight. You should check them out. Really. This looks as though it's very very very good indeed.

No comments: