Why HBO’s Watchmen is a perfect comic-book adaptation

Why HBO’s Watchmen is a perfect comic-book adaptation

We live in a world filled with superhero films and TV shows. But none have been as stunningly ambitious as this new take on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel.

Does anyone fancy seeing a ballet that’s a sequel to Citizen Kane? Or how about listening to a prog-rock concept album that’s a sequel to Moby Dick? To those of us who worship Watchmen, the superhero graphic novel written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, the prospect of a television sequel to their influential masterpiece seemed just as unappealing.

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First published as a 12-issue limited series in 1986 and 1987, Moore and Gibbons’ grim and gritty saga followed a group of ageing, dysfunctional crime-fighters through an America on the brink of nuclear armageddon. It remains a high point in comics history, partly because it explores and expands the possibilities of the medium. Transfer its story to another medium, as Zack Snyder did with his reverential film adaptation in 2009, and you lose much of what made it so special: Moore himself called Watchmen “unfilmable”.

Why HBO’s Watchmen is a perfect comic-book adaptation
View image of (Credit: HBO)

Nonetheless, HBO has gone ahead with its own nine-part Watchmen sequel, conceived by Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of Lost. And, miraculously, it’s a triumph. True, it isn’t the sequel that many fans of the graphic novel will have pictured. But that could be because we couldn’t have pictured anything quite as thrilling as this.

Personally, I’m not sure what I was expecting from a Watchmen sequel, but I know I wasn’t expecting it to open with a lavish, cinematic recreation of the Tulsa race massacre of 1921; Nicole Kassell, who directs the first two episodes, does a magnificent job. I gawped at more of the series in a similar state of awe, spotting countless images, songs and conceits drawn from the graphic novel at the same time as being shocked by how far it ventured from the source material.

Keeping the Watchmen spirit

One reason why Snyder’s Watchmen film fell short was that he tried to copy the nuts and bolts of Moore and Gibbons’ work: the narration; the symmetrical lay-outs; the cross-cutting structure. Lindelof hasn’t made that mistake. He and his collaborators have concentrated on producing an addictive TV series, rather than a wannabe comic. From the adrenalised music (by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) to the dynamic editing, its virtues are very much those of the screen, rather than the page. But it is undoubtedly true to the Watchmen spirit. 

The show retains Moore and Gibbons’ intricate and far-reaching plotting, wry humour, humane characterisation, and dark political satire

Given that Lindelof is such a vocal fan of the graphic novel, it may not be too surprising that his show retains Moore and Gibbons’ intricate and far-reaching plotting, wry humour, humane characterisation, and dark political satire. It shares their concerns about extreme wealth and technology being concentrated in the hands of a few individuals, as well as their awareness of the absurdity and perversity of people in tight costumes beating up criminals whenever they feel like it. It also has a fair bit of Moore and Gibbons’ breath-taking imagination.

There may be dozens of films and TV series about superheroes around at the moment, but how many have Don Johnson as a police chief who sings Broadway hits? Or Jeremy Irons as an aristocratic recluse who grows tomatoes on trees? Or a nocturnal shoot-out in a field of cows? Or a medieval siege catapult that launches clones into space? Only one.

Like the graphic novel, the series begins with a murder investigation that leads to a wider, weirder conspiracy. After that Tulsa opening, most of it is set in rural Oklahoma in 2019 – a bold decision in itself, given that Moore and Gibbons’ story focused on New York in 1985.

Why HBO’s Watchmen is a perfect comic-book adaptation
View image of (Credit: HBO)

Lindelof keeps the idea that being a superhero is illegal, but he has the members of a white-supremacist gang wear balaclavas inspired by the graphic novel’s brutal protagonist, Rorschach, and the police hide their faces behind bright yellow bandanas. Some of the police even have their own ‘super’ aliases. The series’ main character is Sister Night (Regina King), a police detective with a Batman-like costume and skill set, but with a husband and children at home. Her sidekick is Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), who interrogates suspects while his head is shrink-wrapped in a sinister silvery coating. The graphic novel’s central characters are absent, at first – and it’s a delight when, one by one, they make an appearance.

Unkind as it may be to bring up the Snyder film again, one of its weaknesses was that it was too stylised – too much like a comic strip, basically – whereas Moore and Gibbons made a point of putting superheroes into a recognisable, naturalistic setting. Lindelof understands that. Thanks to some flawless visual effects, painstaking production design, and actors who throw away their sarcastic dialogue as if they were in a cop drama, HBO’s Watchmen always seems to revolve around real people in the real world – sort of. 

The viewer has the unsettling and exhilarating feeling of being dropped straight into an America where everything looks familiar until it suddenly doesn’t

Actually, both the TV series and the graphic novel are set in an alternate universe which has been changed in all sorts of subtle ways by the presence of numerous masked vigilantes and by one phenomenally powerful superhuman. In this universe, America won the Vietnam war, and Richard Nixon was the President for decades before Robert Redford took his place in the White House. Pagers and CDs are still popular, but battery-powered cars and high-flying hovercraft are the norm.

One electrifying thing about the series is that it never makes a big deal about any of these small divergences. There are no captions or speeches explaining how and why its world is different from ours, nor are there any flashbacks to the events of 1985. Instead, the viewer has the unsettling and exhilarating feeling of being dropped straight into an America where everything looks familiar until it suddenly doesn’t, and where there are new twists to be discovered in every scene.

If you are already a fan of the graphic novel, you’ll appreciate the ways the series updates and develops the scenarios created by Moore and Gibbons. If you’ve never read it (and if not, why not?), then don’t worry. Watchmen still works as a stunningly ambitious Orwellian science-fiction mystery, and one of the year’s most compelling TV shows.

Watchmen begins on Sunday 20 October on HBO in the US, and Monday 21 October in the UK on Sky Atlantic


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