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The Pitfalls of Adaptations: Alan Moore and Filming What Can’t Be Filmed

The Longbox Theory

watch-comicThroughout this past summer, as it became apparent that the eventual end of the immensely popular Game of Thrones would leave an enormous hole in HBO’s lineup, rumors began to circulate that the network was feverishly seeking a property to develop. The property they were seeking would have to come equipped with a similar intensely loyal fan base that could approximate the effect the adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s best-selling books had on the cable tv powerhouse in particular, and Sunday night television as a whole. Ever since the days of The Sopranos and Band of Brothers, HBO has been recognized as the leading creator of dramatic series, setting the pace and creating the trends for others to follow.
However, as so often happens, many have chosen to follow, and have found success along the way, garnering varying degrees of critical praise and devoted fan followings.

Therefore, when it emerged that HBO was considering the viability of developing an adaptation of the groundbreaking limited series Watchmen, under the guidance of Damon Lindelof, there was an immediate ripple of anticipation from the book’s many devotees. The original story had already been adapted for film by Zack Snyder and, while it remained tremendously faithful to the source material, it divided critical and fan opinion. In recent statements, it’s been made clear that the new TV series will not be a “literal translation” and will likely include new material that is not in the seminal graphic novel.

I have mixed feelings about this.

While I recognize and applaud the level of technical bravura and achievement Snyder crafted in his feature film, and understand and agree with the changes he made in order to adapt the story for the screen, I wonder what the actual point was.
In many ways, the film left me unmoved—as opposed to the comic, which changed my perception and appreciation of many things, chiefly what can be achieved in the medium of comics. Zack Snyder made a visually stunning film, but he didn’t set a benchmark in the history of cinema, or change film as a visual and storytelling language. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (along with colorist John Higgins) however, altered their industry forever. That’s not an hyperbolic overstatement.
In many ways, that’s what Moore set out to do; he and Gibbons weren’t merely deconstructing and analyzing the concept of the superhero and/or the society that surrounds him (as many have correctly pointed out), they broke down what comics themselves are in order to show what they could truly be. “[t]here are things that we did with Watchmen that could only work in a comic, and were designed to show off things that other media can’t” What worked (due to the purposeful intent and concentrated and thorough application by the writer and artists) in a comic book, cannot by its very nature be “translated” into film. Yes, comic panels look very much like storyboards for films, but they convey more than their film-oriented counterparts in most instances, and “speak” a different visual language. Comic panels are the end product, the final art, while storyboards are a step in the collaborative process of creating a moving picture. Moore and Gibbons wanted to push the creative envelope of their medium to its maximum potential—not set up a series of camera shots for a film.

Which leads me back to Damon Lindelof, HBO’s new adaptation, and my ambivalence; because while Alan Moore has created so many memorable stories that have been adapted to other media, I haven’t actually been satisfied by any save one—and that was an animated short. At least with Snyder’s film, there was a connection to some of the more thought-provoking themes as well as careful, admiring attention and reference to some of the visual language of the graphic novel. The same cannot be said for other adaptations of Moore’s work: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, or V for Vendetta.
And while I think the best adaptation of a Moore story was the episode, “For the Man Who Has Everything” for the second season of Justice League Unlimited, I was dissatisfied with the recent animated version of The Killing Joke.
Despite the obvious concerted effort and first rate artistry of so many talented creators whose work I hold in the highest regard, the film was a disappointment. Whether it was to pad the story in order to justify a longer run-time, or some other (likely logical) reason, the filmmakers included a lengthy subplot that did not feature in Moore’s original comic. I suspect that it was meant to increase the emotional impact of the central conflict of the story, as well as intensify the viewer’s reaction to the subsequent surprising choice both Batman and Commissioner Gordon make in response to the event that drives the narrative forward. However, its inclusion and execution cause the film to meander and made the climax less resonant.
What had been a streamlined, tense but cathartic gem of an encapsulated one-shot, became a bit muddled and seemed to be missing the key emotional beats. In contrast, the aforementioned episode from Justice League Unlimited, having the benefit of a much shorter run time, was able to mine its source for all it was worth.

And therein lies the issue with adaptations in general, but perhaps with Alan Moore’s work in particular. When a creative piece is adapted for use in another medium, it must adhere to the demands and limitations of that medium. That is where the carefully choreographed and precariously balanced dance along the tightrope of faithfulness to the source material begins. Adapters must decide how far to stray from the original piece because it makes for better art in their new creation, and subsequently risk losing what made it great in the first place—as well as perhaps alienating and/or sacrificing the fans of the original.

I love the Harry Potter novels, and I love the films, despite their many changes.
I love the Lord of the Rings films and novels in much the same way but disliked the Hobbit trilogy despite (or perhaps because of) enjoying the original book.
My approval isn’t always based on whether the new creators adhered strictly to the source material that I love: Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle is a masterpiece of filmmaking, but it bears almost no similarities to the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, which is a treasure unto itself. Despite what many state as an inviolable fact, that particular works are impossible to adapt, I think that both the original novel and film, Cloud Atlas are confoundedly under-appreciated works of art which, although unique and vastly different from one another, share a sufficient amount of story/character/thematic DNA as to be inextricably and faithfully linked.

The film version of Moore’s V for Vendetta initially seemed to have all the ingredients for success: Besides a stellar cast and vtalented filmmakers, of all of Alan Moore’s creations the series has the most straightforward (though still thematically arresting) narrative, and would, therefore, lend itself most readily to adaptation. However, there are many layers of detail in the original work’s plot and multiple characters, enough to generate a compelling miniseries (if not series), so condensing the story stole much of the nuance and complexity that made the source material so memorably powerful.
Additionally, the main characters of “V” and Evey were given a Hollywood makeover that stripped them of the flaws and imperfections which had figured so prominently in Moore’s work and made it possible to present their evolution and growth—a core theme of the story. What had been a socio-political statement and cautionary tale regarding the dangers of willingly trading freedom for security, simplistic ideologies for the hard work of thinking for oneself, became a basic action story with a vaguely creepy guy in a Guy Fawkes mask.
The protagonist “V” is meant to be disturbing—but not for the stock reasons presented in the film.

So what can we expect from HBO’s Watchmen?
I’m not the biggest Damon Lindelof fan—though he is clearly talented and incredibly creative. I have enjoyed some of his work quite a bit and can pinpoint what I have disliked in the rest. In the case of the latter, it’s been that he sometimes runs out of gas before finishing the story; ideas, themes, or even plot points are left frustratingly dangling. I don’t require a writer to tie up every loose end, or explain every element—there’s generally a more realistic portrayal of the real world when the viewer is either left with some unresolved questions or has enough room for ambiguity so he/she can interpret the work. However, sometimes what Lindelof leaves out, or discards in order to focus elsewhere, can be maddening.
That said, he is obviously able to work across many genres and for diverse audiences—much like Alan Moore, who in his career has written everything from kid-friendly adventure stories to erotica. The diversity of their output, as well as how prolific each is, would seem to bode well for this project, a similar restless creator gene Lindelof and Moore share—in addition to the fact that he has admitted that he was greatly influenced and inspired by the original Watchmen.
However, Lindelof himself initially stated that he wasn’t sure whether there was a reason or need to make a series based on the comic he held so near and dear—and expressed his concerns at creating something that “would literally be the worst feeling in the world to screw [it] up.”
Perhaps he realizes that it’s a losing proposition to make this series.
Yes, it can (and likely will) be great.

So what?
There’s nothing more that needs to be said, that the original didn’t already say.
There’s no way to do it better. If you’re true to everything Watchmen was and is, there’s no way to be faithful to the original by adapting it. It is a ground-breaking comic book, and should likely be left as such. It’s nearly flawless, in the sense that to take anything out of it, add anything else to it or alter it in any way, utterly diminishes it.
I wish they wouldn’t do it.
But if they do, despite my trepidation and objections, I’ll watch out of curiosity and love for the original work—confident that the creators’ hearts and talents are well-intentioned and placed, even if in the end it’s just a beautiful failure.
And I’ll keep hoping someone gets Alan Moore himself to collaborate on adapting V for Vendetta into the series it deserves…

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