Watchmen: Unfilmable Graphic Novel

Zack Snyder's eagerly anticipated “Watchmen” is set in New York in 1985, depicting a world darkened by fear and paranoia. Where regular human beings who once donned masks to fight crime now hide from their identities. Where the ultimate weapon–an all-powerful superbeing–has tilted the global balance of power, pushing the world implacably closer to nuclear midnight. Where desperate men conjure desperate measures in the stark face of Armageddon.


“Watchmen” may be the big-screen adaptation of the most celebrated graphic novel of all time, brought to life by visionary director Zack Snyder.  Spray-painted across a wall in the shadows of a dark, gritty New York alley is a question that pervades “Watchmen”: “Who watches the Watchmen” Snyder offers, “Who has the right to say what's right and what's wrong And who monitors those who decide what is right and what is wrong”


“Watchmen” first appeared as a 12-issue limited comic book series. It was originally published by DC Comics from 1986 to 1987, then republished as the now-legendary graphic novel. The blood-stained “smiley face” on the cover, the image of a clock face advancing one minute closer to midnight, and the twelve-chapter structure are all emblematic of the richly complex work that has long been credited with elevating the graphic novel to a new art form: Watchmen is the only graphic novel to win the prestigious Hugo Award or to appear on Time magazine's 2005 list of “the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.” It also earned several Kirby and Eisner Awards.


When it was released, Watchmen resonated with a generation raised with the prospect of nuclear war, not as an abstraction but a palpable reality. It has been praised for giving voice to the anxiety and unease of the times, the fear and awe of power and its abuses, and the cloud of paranoia and impotence experienced every day by average people considered insignificant to the power brokers. In the decades since its publication, it has garnered a legion of diehard fans from all walks of life that continues to grow.


1980s Paranoia


“In the 1980s, there was a lot of paranoia about the Cold War–was it going to escalate and what would happen if it did–and how fragile our society was, how very little would have to be done to completely wipe out everything that we had,” the graphic novel's co-creator and illustrator Dave Gibbons comments. “That was very real to me. And though it has receded a bit, there are new fears of mass destruction, so I think that paranoia is always going to be there.”


Subverting and deconstructing the concept of superheroes, the story introduced a handful of characters that have been called “more human than super”–real people who deal with ethical and personal issues, who struggle with neuroses and failings and who, aside from Dr. Manhattan, are without superpowers. The original team of heroes, the Minutemen, was comprised of The Silhouette, Silk Spectre, The Comedian, Hooded Justice, Captain Metropolis, Nite Owl, Mothman and Dollar Bill. The next generation of masked adventurers–those at the heart of the graphic novel's mystery–are Silk Spectre II, Nite Owl II, Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, and The Comedian, who is the only holdover from the Minutemen. Each is a symbol of a different kind of power, obsession, and psychopathology. A different kind of superhero.


Unfilmable Graphic Novel


Adding to the book's mystique, with its intricate, multi-layered storytelling and dialogue, symbolism and synchronicity, flashbacks and meta-fiction, Watchmen has long been considered in a class of its own and virtually unfilmable.


For over a decade, producers Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin held the faith that it wasn't the latter, nurturing the project and waiting for the right moment and the right filmmaker to bring the book to life in a manner worthy of the work itself. “I read Watchmen when it first came out,” Levin relates. “I was a big comic book fan, but I had never read anything like it. It was the first time that I really connected with a graphic novel, just in the sense of feeling that it was my world, the world we all live in. It's a great piece of literature. The clockwork nature of the storytelling, how profoundly it deals with the human condition, the epic nature of the story–all of that makes it a very thrilling and provocative read.”


The project fully came together when filmmaker Zack Snyder, while still in production on the blockbuster “300,” expressed to the producers his affinity for the graphic novel and desire to direct it. “With Watchmen, there has always been an element of serendipity, coincidence, and timing,” says Gibbons. “It seemed to be that this was a good time for it to happen, and Zack was absolutely the right person to do it properly. But none of this would have ever come to pass without the patience and passion of Larry and Lloyd, who wouldn't do it until they could do it right.”


Lawrence Gordon offers, “After having worked for over 15 years to get 'Watchmen' made, I couldn't be more thrilled. In every aspect of the production–from developing the screenplay to assembling our creative team, from directing the wonderful cast to realizing the film's look–Zack Snyder did an incredible job.”


Snyder's goal was to bring Watchmen to life as it was, not updated to the present, not substantially altered, but to be as true to the work as possible with a motion picture. “Zack respected the source material so much that he knew the only way to adapt it was to hew as close to the source as possible,” says the director's wife and producing partner, Deborah Snyder. “Changing the time period, or emphasizing any of the characters over the others, would never serve the story that's told in the graphic novel, which has always been more than the sum of its parts. There were aspects we knew we couldn't include entirely–like Under the Hood, which was Hollis Mason's chronicle of the Minutemen, the first masked adventurers from the 1930s, and Tales of the Black Freighter–but we knew we could do something with these ancillary bits on the DVD. For Zack, the key for doing this massive project was to always stay true to the graphic novel.”


“People always said Watchmen was the unfilmable graphic novel,” says Zack Snyder. “The story itself is a pretty straightforward mystery, but inside of that, there's this huge plot that has international intrigue and a super-villain and everything you want from a superhero story. There is a tonal quality to every bit of it, from the interaction of the characters to the design structure, whether it be a flashback or a flash forward, or a parallel story being told. It's at once very traditional and also unusual in the way that it's structured. It doesn't owe anything to any specific genre; it's just its own, true to itself and all of its characters.”


The screenplay, adapted by David Hayter and Alex Tse, maintained the graphic novel's depiction of superheroes as very human characters subject to the same social and psychological pressures as anyone else. Snyder observes, “With all these characters, you feel that they are deeply loved by their creators, regardless of their flaws or how they're viewed in a real-life context, or what they point to in other icons of superhero mythology.”


Watchmen is more complex in that it doesn't just create an archetypal character; it goes through all the variations of why you would put a costume on, why you would want to fight crime,” Gibbons states. “Are you slightly mad Are you altruistic And what would happen if you did get super powers and you couldn't care less”