Bit of the old ultra-violencePosted: April 2, 2009
In both the book and the film versions of Watchmen, brutal vigilante Rorschach relates a formative experience to a prison psychiatrist: his first kill. In essence, both versions are mostly in sync with each other. After a fairly typical investigation into hunting down a missing girl, Rorschach breaks into the kidnapper’s house. Snooping around, he finds evidence that the kidnapper has killed the girl and disposed of the evidence using his two German Shepherds. Rorschach waits until the killer returns, kills his two dogs, then chains the killer up. In the book, Rorschach lights the house on fire and leaves the killer to burn. That works just fine for the story, but the gesture is exceedingly cold and impersonal. Not exactly an act of passion. In the film, while chained up, the man confesses to the crime. He says he’s sick and that he needs help. Jackie Earle Haley, as Rorschach, does an excellent job even behind a mask conveying the all rage and hate growing at the idea of this murderer being institutionalized. As the man begs for his life, the camera focuses on Rorschach’s mask, breathing heavily, shoulders heaving, as his anger reaches a boiling point. He grabs an oversized meat cleaver and hoists it over his head…
…then the camera cuts to the cleaver digging into the killer’s skull. The audience collectively says “ewww…” and the emotionality of the moment dissipates.
This moment perfectly sums up my experience watching Watchmen. It’s a mostly loyal adaptation that understands nearly all the overarching ideas of the work, even with its changes, but it frequently botches the delivery. The biggest offender is in the movie’s violence.
That previous sentence feels weird for me to write. I’ve never been one to complain about violence in movies, even at it’s bone-crunching-est, but watching Nite Owl break a mugger’s arm badly enough that the bone juts through his skin is just distracting. That scene should show Nite Owl and Silk Spectre’s first brush with the exhilaration of fighting again. Instead, it left me wondering how these two suddenly got this incredible strength, especially in a universe where, as we are to understand it, Dr. Manhattan is the only one with true “powers.” When Rorschach ties the hands of one of Big Figure’s goons around the lock to his cell, he forces the diminutive crime boss to kill his own man to get the door open. In the book, the criminals have to decency to kill the tied-up goon before they cut through to get to the lock. All we see is a splatter of blood on Rorschach’s shirt. In the movie the camera remains stationary as the goon’s arms are sawed off, while he stays alive screaming and bleeding.
But this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Zack Snyder directed 300 and the Dawn of the Dead remake. While he’s certainly nailed the visual aspects of film, he is far from learning the finer points of subtlety. Look at how often the film beats into our head the fact that the Comedian is the younger Silk Spectre’s father. Look at how the film needed to clarify for us that Ozymandias poisoned his assassin when he claimed he was preventing him from swallowing a suicide pill. In both cases the book assumes we can fill in the gaps.
Luckily though, this also means that Snyder doesn’t change much aside from making it more visceral for the screen. And, for the most part, I enjoyed seeing the book come to life. It wasn’t a great movie, but it was fun to watch. Putting aside the ending (which I think worked fine as a compromise between the bizarre book ending and something more excessible for a theater-going audience), there were two major changes from the novel I want to mention, a very bad one and very good one. Let’s start with the bad:
Snyder made a serious error in changing Dr. Manhattan’s last scene from a conversation with Veidt to a conversation with Laurie. No doubt he wanted to sweeten the former couple’s relationship a little bit (though I’m not sure why, when it’s always clear she and Dan are more on the same wavelength). In doing so, however, he seriously damaged Veidt’s character. Without this conversation, we never get any sense that Veidt has any self-doubt, that while he acted as if the only choices were genocide or the end of the world, there is a part of him that still asks the God-figure of Dr. Manhattan for approval. There is a real sense that Veidt will have the deaths of these millions on his conscience, even if he projects confidence to everyone else. In the movie, he’s nothing more than a villain who wins in the end.
Now the good change:
This isn’t so much a change, as it is something that is conveyed more successfully on film. Snyder goes to extra lengths to ensure that the audience understands the world in which this all takes place. It’s firmly set at the end of the Cold War, where one little difference (the presence of superheroes) has changed everything, but not so much that we can’t recognize it as the Twentieth Century. Moore does this too, but in the multimedia setting of a film, Snyder can achieve more with less. Best example: the opening credits sequence tells the audience all it needs to know about this fictional universe in a few minutes. True, most of that material is hinted at in the “Under the Hood” excerpts between chapters, but bringing it to life in a montage set to “Times They Are A’Changin'” is inspired. On that note, the musical choices throughout the film also emphasized this theme. “The Sounds of Silence,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Hallelujah”… yes, they were all fairly obvious choices, but they work well because they are obvious. They are all such recognizable parts of Twentieth Century culture that they drive home the idea of how close this world is to ours.
Of course, the less said about My Chemical Romance’s cover of “Desolation Row” over the end credits, the better.