Greetings, Maniacs, and welcome to another edition of The No-Fly Zone, where we explore the farthest reaches of comicdom, away from the confines of capes and tights. Sure, we talk about superheroes on occasion, but only the ones outside of those “classic” continuities established by DC, Marvel, Image, Top Cow, and the like. Whether it’s a gritty crime comic like, well, Criminal from one of Marvel’s Icon line or a small-press black and white sleeper, we cover the best of the rest. In this week’s installment, we’re going to delve into a little bit of fanboy heresy in the run up to the Watchmen movie, which hits theaters on March 6th.
Let’s be clear and state that, like everyone else, we of The No-Fly Zone will see Watchmen. As much as we love Alan Moore around here, we’re not taking the high road on this one out of reverence for the classic graphic novel. But, the difficult road the film has faced in its 23-year development history raises an important issue—some things simply don’t need to be made into movies. Don’t misunderstand that, Maniacs. Watchmen may turn out to be an amazing film. But, the drive to create it—and the parallel fan obsession with seeing it—speaks of a larger problem in Hollywood, comics, and pop culture.
The comics medium stands as the latest victim of Hollywood and pop culture’s shared notion that a film adaptation represents the zenith of a creative work from any medium. Be it comic book, novel, video game, television show, or toy, it isn’t “finished” until someone’s made a movie out of it—even if that work doesn’t even lend itself to a narrative. Let’s consider a few examples from the dustbin of box office infamy.
In the late 1990s, The Jerry Springer Show fueled a sort of guilty-pleasure freak-show revolution in the ratings, as viewers flocked to watch rednecks strangle each other over trailer park love triangles. Since you can’t really turn a talk show into a feature length film, Artisan Entertainment gave us Ringmaster in 1998—a movie about a talk show host very much like Jerry Springer, played by the man himself. When the reality television craze began in the early 1990s, Hollywood forced The Real Cancun on us. When American Idol became a hit, the execrable From Justin to Kelly followed. When wrestling became wildly popular in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, we suffered through Ready to Rumble—a movie about wrestling, since it would be impractical to just show a three-hour pay-per-view in the theater. A couple of years ago, someone decided that the world needed a Bratz movie—a tween flick based on a bunch of fashion dolls.
Virtually none of the inspirations for that rogue’s gallery of bad cinema lend themselves to a feature-length film, but Hollywood tried anyway. If the plebes like watching wrestling, maybe they’ll like a movie about wrestling.
Those movies are extreme examples of the tendency to shoehorn subjects into film. The drive to make a cinematic Watchmen is not quite so egregious. No doubt, director Zack Snyder has great respect for the graphic novel and its creators, and only wants to do right by all of them. And, at least there’s a story to adapt in the first place, instead of a certain style of hat or a line of trading cards but, while the oft-heard cry that “Watchmen is un-filmable” clearly hasn’t held water in this case, there’s a reason so many people said that before the project really got moving.
The graphic novel is done almost entirely in nine-panel grids for a little over 400 pages. It is a comic book meditation on the nature of comics and superheroes. Its medium reflects and comments upon its subject matter. It was simply not designed as a blueprint for a film. Anyone making comics with the express purpose of developing films should consider a job as a screenwriter. Watchmen was not somehow incomplete or lacking without a cinematic rendering. It stands as a brilliant work worth reading and rereading.
It’s all rather typical, though. Instead of making original films that serve that medium well, Hollywood mines pop culture. Old movies are remade. Television shows, comics, and novels are adapted. Video games are rewritten to confirm to a more linear narrative befitting a film. That’s not to discount all adaptations, because there are some that even supercede their source material.
Stanley Kubrick’s (here we go) The Shining works incredibly well as a film in its own right, despite its unfaithfulness to Stephen King’s novel. In 1997, ABC ran Stephen King’s The Shining—a three-part miniseries supervised by King that adapted his story more faithfully. The world answered with a collective “eh.” It was fine, but it didn’t hold a candle to Kubrick’s version to anyone except die-hard King fans, who discounted a very fine film for its lack of faithfulness to the source material. Here’s the kicker, though—no two mediums work entirely alike. What works in a novel doesn’t always work on film. Granted, a visual medium like comics—or television, for that matter—lends itself to adaptation more easily than a novel, but that still doesn’t create some sort of divine mandate to make a movie out of everything. Only the almighty dollar makes such demands.
The creators of the cinematic Watchmen have lauded their own faithfulness to Moore and Gibbons’s vision. They’ve even gone so far as releasing Tales of the Black Freighter—the pirate comic that occurs within Watchmen and parallels it—as an animated DVD, to later be incorporated into a special edition DVD of the main film. Everyone assumed that the story-within-the-story would be the first thing on the chopping block for a Watchmen movie, and they’ve even kept that in tact. Good on them for it, to be sure. But, while that kind of reverence is preferable to the disdainful indifference towards source material revealed by something like Constantine, it doesn’t necessarily make for a good film.
The aforementioned Shining miniseries may not have failed for its faithfulness to King’s novel, but that certainly didn’t help the situation. Just because something duplicates all of the details doesn’t mean it’s any good. Sin City pulled it off, but only by filming the visual excesses of the comic and not setting the movie in “the real world.” Still, the creators of the cinematic Watchmen have something of a challenge ahead of them. Comic fans demand unwavering faithfulness to source material, whether it serves the final work or not. Failure to adhere means years of whining on message boards, fan edits, and abandoned first screenplays—ones that will tell the real story of Whatever Man. But, regardless of the subjectivity of such claims, more faith doesn’t always mean better films.
There’s already been some controversy over the reported changing of the film’s ending, which now doesn’t involve a giant squid. Granted, Snyder commissioned Gibbons and the comic’s colorist, John Higgins, to storyboard a new ending with a similar premise and conclusion, but the principle still stands. The squid means faithfulness. One can probably—though not with total assurance—assume that the squid was removed because it would look silly on-screen. Any films derived from other works should be assessed on their own merits, and not for their transcription of their source material. In that regard, Watchmen has its work cut out—too faithful, and it might suffer for it (see giant squid); not faithful enough, and it won’t matter how good it is for much of comic fandom.
This all leads to a logical and somewhat troubling question: if the film—or any film—is so utterly faithful to be as indistinguishable from its source material as possible, why create it in the first place? Why even have endless arguments over the faithfulness to source material when there are original ideas out there? There’s simply nothing wrong with enjoying a creative work in another medium for what it is. Many comics work perfectly well as such, as do many films (most comics licensed from films are dreck, anyway). One would almost think that Hollywood and popular culture collectively see all other works outside of film as somehow incomplete. This is especially troubling for the comics medium, because movies are all the rage now. It seems fans, publishers, and creators alike want movies made from comics more than they want comics themselves. Any creator or fan more concerned with cinematic adaptations should consider refocusing their interests. Hollywood clearly needs creative minds.
We’ll certainly see Watchmen. If it’s good, we’ll say as much without hesitation. This week’s No-Fly Zone doesn’t mean to suggest that the movie will be terrible because it can never be as good as the comic. It may very well be brilliant in its own right, and we hope that’s the case—who wants any movie to be bad, really? It’s just the implications that are more troubling—that any comic worth its salt needs to be made into a movie, even if there are original ideas more suitable to film worth exploring. This is especially true in the case of Watchmen, which stands as a brilliant comic about the medium itself and the superheroes that populate it.
You are now exiting The No-Fly Zone.