Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Best Watchman Adaptation Ever (spoilers for "Heroes")

Surprisingly enough, it's not the movie "Watchmen". That actually ranks a distant fourth, behind "Watchmen: The Motion Comic" in third and "not doing an adaptation of 'Watchmen' in the first place" in second. (Hint: I was not impressed with the movie "Watchmen".)

No, the best adaptation of 'Watchmen' was the first season of "Heroes". I don't think it was deliberate plagarism, but I do think that Jeph Loeb, who was a major player in the first season of NBC's super-hero drama, was heavily influenced by the classic comic book series (he's gushed openly about the book in interviews.) And what he came up with turned out to be a remarkably good treatment of Alan Moore's mini-series.

He ditched a lot of the things that wouldn't work for an audience unfamiliar with the tropes of comic books (the capes, the retired heroes, the code-names...things that worked great on the printed page, but much less well on screen.) Instead, he used a lot of tropes familiar to TV fans--shadowy conspiracies, secret agencies, and rich families with great power and greater ambition. The fundamental concept, though, remains the same--an altruistic, powerful individual who's seemingly withdrawn from the public eye (metaphorically in the case of Ozymandias, literally in the case of Linderman) asks the question: What percentage of the populace is it acceptable to kill in order to bring about a Golden Age? And, having answered the concept to his satisfaction, he proceeds to carry it out.

Of course, as a continuing series, "Heroes" can't actually pull off 'Watchmen's ending of destroying New York. (Although, from what I've heard about subsequent seasons, maybe they should have just ended it like that...) Instead, it cleverly uses prophecy in a variety of forms (Charles Deveaux' prophetic dreams, Isaac's drawings of the future, Hiro's time travel) to create a concrete sense of the consequences in the audience's mind if the heroes don't succeed in stopping Linderman's plans. It also creates a clever ambiguity in the prophecies that it can exploit for dramatic tension--since Sylar and Peter have essentially the same powers, is it going to be Sylar's deliberate act that destroys New York, or Peter's out-of-control abilities?

Ultimately, as with 'Watchmen', all the various interweaving threads come together in a tense showdown, with plenty of dramatic payoffs as the various characters have to make their own moral choices. It ends differently than the comic, of course, but so did the movie. And at least this one didn't have giant blue penises.


Fred said...

I just don't see it. There was some influence, maybe, but it seems pretty far removed.

The first season of Heroes always struck me as the product of people very smart about television -- who'd heard these comic book things were popular and decided to make a show to cash in on that popularity -- more than the product of real comic book fans invested in the genre and its traditions. That's probably more Tim Kring than Jeph Loeb, but watching the first season of Heroes (which I enjoyed), I never felt like I was watching a faithful adaptation or even particularly intelligent riff on anything Alan Moore had written.

(Subsequent seasons have struck me as the product of people increasingly less smart about just about everything, television and comics both, but that's another story.)

Then again, I by and large liked the big-screen Watchmen adaptation. It's pretty flawed and over-fetishizes Dave Gibbons' artwork, but I'd personally rank it a whole lot higher and closer to the original than anything Heroes managed to do.

Grazzt said...

Out of curiousity, would you count "The Incredibles" as a Watchmen adaptation as well? If so, would you revise your list?

John Seavey said...

No, I wouldn't count 'The Incredibles', because it doesn't use the central concept. The fundamental idea of 'Watchmen' is that being a "hero" can mean different things, and that one man's hero is another man's vigilante...or tyrant.

I think you see that same theme running through "Heroes". Whereas Sanction is just a selfish little prig who wants to punish the world for not acknowledging his specialness.

Kyle White said...

Syndrome. And a good post which I tend to agree with; I find considerations of fate to be the best part of early Heroes.

Carlos Futino said...

I think the movie wasn't actually bad, it actually followed the plot almost to the letter.
The problem is, the comic was different because it didn't really judge Veidt, Rorschach, Manhattan or Daniel. Heck, it almost didn't even judge The Comedian. It simply presented different forms of heroism and pretty much let the reader decide who was a "good guy" and a "bad guy".
The movie was pretty much on Rorschach side.

John Seavey said...

That was one of my problems, yes. The movie portrayed Ozymandias as more overtly evil...and because it's Snyder, it also portrayed him as being a gay environmentalist working on clean energy sources and trying to create a "nanny-state" where fear of the omnipotent Powers That Be will keep everyone in line. Oh noes! The liberals will crush us all!

But my other problems involved...

1) the hyperkinetic violence of the action sequences. To me, the world of "Watchmen" is one of realism, where people get hurt and get out of breath and don't necessarily punch their way through twenty guys with balletic enthusiasm. I'd have done the action sequences more like "Fight Club" did, as un-glamorous and grubby as possible. (Also, I wouldn't have had Silk Spectre and Nite Owl killing people in an alley. The whole point of Rorshach in the film is that he goes too far. He's pointlessly sadistic and murderous. This has less impact when everyone is pointlessly sadistic and murderous.)

2) the acting. Everyone is stiff and formal with each other. They don't have conversations, they quote their favorite lines from "Watchmen" to each other. I don't think it was just the actors--this is one case where Snyder's fetishization of the source material really hurt the film--but there were some pretty bad actors in there, too.

3) Rorshach's voice. "Creepy monotone" is not hard to understand, is it? Rorshach gets shouty and angry way too often for a guy who's that repressed.

4) that it just didn't really need to be done. If your only intent in making a 'Watchmen' film is to recreate the comic book experience as closely as possible, why are you making a movie to begin with? You're never going to succeed at recreating the comic book as well as the comic book does, so why try if that's your only goal?

5) Tie between actually calling the super-team 'The Watchmen' (because trusting the audience's intelligence is for chumps!) and Nixon's comedy nose. :)

magidin said...

I just watched the movie again a couple of days ago, and I have to agree with you on point (1); way over the top for almost all of them (the only one I could forgive is Ozymandias with the assassin in his office, and of course Roscharch in the flashback). And your point (0) is really part of the first part of point (5): not trusting the audience. In the comic book there is no energy crisis because Dr Manhattan has made electric cars and electric energy cheap. The real issue is that the US leans on the threat of Dr Manhattan to try to dictate to everyone else, and this is what the world resents. But we can't trust the audience to figure this out, so we make it about oil because that is something they will get.

(The ending makes a bit more sense than in the book, in my opinion, but it is still a let-down)