HBO’s “Watchmen” Advanced the Classic Comic in a Timely Fashion
Adaptations for film and TV are a tricky lot. Is the source material filmable? Is what worked on the page or stage a guarantee it will translate properly to the screen? Even the length determined for an adaptation can affect the success of it. The decision to adapt Watchmen as a 2.5-hour theatrical release in 2009, rather than a longer miniseries for television, marred the ability to translate the sprawling and complex graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons into a truly cogent narrative. Zack Snyder made a noble effort given his shorter time frame, but the middling 64% score on RottenTomatoes.com tells you all you need to know about how effective that adaptation was.
Smartly, HBO remade Watchmen and gave the material the length of time it deserved – well over nine hours for its first season – and because of that, it coalesced as a series, both understandable and wholly involving. The premium cable network also chose to advance the Watchmen story rather than retell what had previously been done. It was a continuation of what Moore and Gibbons had started, but decidedly, not a reboot. (Gibbons is a consulting producer on the show.) By honoring the past, but moving the property forward, the new Watchmen, created by Damon Lindelof, became one of the year’s best television series and earned a place on a host of year-end 10 Best Lists. (And that happened before the sublime finale Sunday night.)
In his triumph, Lindelof was able to avoid many of the problems that befall too many adaptations. He honored the source material without being slavishly loyal to it. He updated the period piece in ways that would make it connect better with today’s audience. And, most importantly, he corrected most of the issues that hindered the film adaptation. In fact, Lindelof made three major changes in his version of Watchmen that made the enterprise feel incredibly fresh and immediate, surprising even the loyal fans who feared the worst when HBO announced its new adaptation. (Further reading will reveal major spoilers, so proceed with caution.)
A New Central Theme
In the original comics and the movie version of it, the main theme dealt with superheroes and how’d they exist in the real world. The Watchmen were a group of vigilantes who fancied themselves protectors of the planet a la Superman, but only one of them had similar, demi-god powers. He was Dr. Manhattan, a scientist rendered omnipotent by a freak accident involving nuclear and quantum physics. The other five Watchmen were superhero wannabe’s dressed up in silly costumes, causing as much damage with their derring-do as any saving of the populace they accomplished.
Ultimately, they all failed at what they set out to do, becoming bitter and despondent over their roles. Dr. Manhattan was so turned off being employed by a power-mad President Nixon to end the Viet Nam War, he left Earth and created his own “Fortress of Solitude” on Mars. As for the masked wannabe’s, two of them ended up dead, and the others became disillusioned with the idea of “truth, justice, and the American way.”
Lindelof still expressed interest in masks within his adaptation, particularly in how people use them to hide their true selves and motivations, but his show took a different tack. He concentrated on the theme of racism, which was only on the periphery in the original comics and turned it into the thrust of his narrative. Indeed, it is systemic racism that’s at the heart of the conflict between the Seventh Kalvary, a white supremacist group in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the Tulsa police force. It drove the story from the first moments to the last.
The Kalvary members wore masks, inspired by the authority-hating vigilante Rorschach from the original Watchmen, and they also played as more than a little reminiscent of Ku Klux Klan garb this go-round. It turned out that the leader of the Kalvary, Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), was indeed a former Klan member who just happened to also be the head of the Tulsa police. His scheme involved getting the police to follow suit and don their own masks for protection, thus ensuring that all identities were protected from the public with no one being truly sure just who was who.
Lindelof also suggested that masks were being used in other ways too, particularly online where all kinds of folks hide behind fake Twitter accounts and avatars, be it Russian bots, alt. right groups or your average troll who has got an ax to grind. Anonymity has become a watchword of our modern times.
Adjusted Character Focus
The original Watchmen concentrated evenly on six lead characters – Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, The Comedian, Ozymandias, Nite Owl II, and Silk Spectre II. Here, Lindelof coyly brought them back in various ways, but the center of his narrative concentrated on a new character altogether. She was detective Angela Abar (Regina King), AKA Sister Night, her masked alter ego.
Abar investigated the murder of her friend and superior Crawford and discovered his racism plot. She also realized how it dovetailed into many parts of her life as a black woman and a cop, even connecting back to her past in Viet Nam as a child. (A lot of interesting things happened in ‘Nam, deemed America’s 51st state after the war in this narrative).
As played by King, the Oscar-winning actress, Angela was smart, funny, and most of all, likable. She had heart and honesty too, and all such characteristics were in short supply in the cynical world of the original Watchmen. And, unlike those previous counterparts, her moral clarity and purpose never wavered. She was the center of the story and its moral center too.
Granted, this new series brought back a couple of the older Watchmen, albeit with amusing new takes on the famous characters. The egotistical Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) was a shell of his former greatness, still trying to play God, grant you, cloning mammals, and dying to get credit for all of his brilliance from years past. Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), AKA Silk Spectre II, returned too, though this time she was a tough-as-nails FBI investigator. And Manhattan’s return was definitely the strangest one of all. He was revealed to be Angela’s husband Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), hidden in such a guise until necessary to become Manhattan again to thwart the Kalvary’s plot.
HBO has been one of the trendsetters when it comes to narratives that are deliberately blind throughout the course of their runs. Such shows as Westworld and The Leftovers (interestingly, another Lindelof creation) teased audiences endlessly with their complex, twisting storylines that were designed to demand avid attention from its audiences while refusing to spoon-feed all salient plot points. On Showtime, David Lynch’s reboot of Twin Peaks was nothing if not a puzzle that abstained from crystal-clear clarity, even at the very end. (What year was it that Cooper and Laura now existed in?) Similarly, you couldn’t look away for one second of the new Watchmen for fear of missing a key plot point, an “Easter Egg”, or a little bit of business that would tie into a ginormous “A-ha” moment later in the run.
Thusly, this Watchmen played coy, succeeding at being even more knowing and meta than the original comic was with its “Black Freighter” pirate story within the main story while commenting on the big picture. Thus, storylines like Veidt’s obsession with cloning his servants seemed almost like a farce at first until it was revealed to be something far uglier and more demeaning. It also connected to a plot point about Dr. Manhattan that wasn’t revealed in total until the eighth episode.
The series continually teased the true identity of Amanda’s husband, bathing him in glowing blue light similar to the complexion of Dr. Manhattan. Even Amanda is lit thusly in the promotional advertising. There were dozens upon dozens of in-jokes, everything from making hay of the source material and other pop culture references to the way the font of the episode names were laid out within the context of an opening scene.
The show tweaked celebrities too from Robert Redford (the POTUS after Nixon!) to Ronald Reagan and nodded to famous directors as well like Stanley Kubrick. “The Blue Danube,” famously used in his classic sci-fi film “2001: A Space Odyssey”, showed up in the episode revealing Manhattan’s true identity and rebirth as a nod to Kubrick’s reincarnating ‘star baby.’
Most shrewdly, Lindelof turned all of the pieces of Amanda’s life into the squares on a Rubik’s Cube, finally clicking into place. Her past fed her future and vice versa. No wonder she was married to Dr. Manhattan as her life events echoed his existential template by becoming an endless loop between yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Indeed, in Manhattan’s world, let alone the alternate history created by the Watchmen franchise, time is but a concept, and all occurrences are merely some sort of molecular rearranging.
This telling of the Watchmen proved to be a rearranging of the source material too, albeit a narrative that may not need to be furthered after such a satisfying and fitting ending. Granted, the show’s success may lead to multiple season renewals, but suffice it to say, this nine-episode arc ended as shrewdly as one could hope for. The Kalvary lost, for the time being, the plan to become a god by Veidt’s narcissistic daughter Lady Trieu (Hong Chau) was thwarted by frozen squid babies (!), and Angela may or may not have digested her husband’s incredible powers. The last shot left us watching her about to find out if she could walk on water, but this adaptation proved that its creation was next to godliness long before that wondrous final image.
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