Pity Alan Moore.
Not only does the man have to worry about split ends more than just about anyone on the planet, but he seems condemned to watch every one of his acclaimed comic works get translated to the movie screen without any of the subtlety intact. "From Hell" became a mediocre murder mystery, "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" became the standard action movie "LXG," "V for Vendetta" had its messages of anarchy and desperation neutered as it became an obvious screed against neoconservatism, and now there's "Watchmen."
Okay, so let's start with the good: the movie looks gorgeous. Dave Gibbons' art has been painstakingly translated to film in many places, most obviously the world itself. The details hold up quite well, even down to some of the casting choices. Dan, Laurie, Eddie, and Jon look pretty much perfect. Rorschach is well-chosen, and even minor characters like Moloch and Hollis Mason look great.
They managed to get a lot of the story and the iconic imagery into the film as well. I was surprised how much of the flashbacks and peripheral story material they were able to keep. Sure, they jettisoned some plotlines, but considering how much there was to adapt, and how much of that they kept, I'm surprised that it held together so well. The movie almost never felt like one of the more recent Harry Potter films, which have been less "movies" and more "random loosely-connected scenes from the books acted out on film."
As others have said, the movie stayed pretty close to the source material for the first act or so, enough that it was easy to pick out where the first issue was, when it started adapting the second issue, and so forth. Naturally, changes to the ending required changes to the rest of the story, and the closer we got to the end, the more changes of this sort there were. I understand, and somewhat accept, all this.
What I found problematic were some of the more arbitrary changes, several of which stuck out to me (and frequently left me agape at the screen or groaning). As these changes and the plot-necessitated changes mounted, it made the parts of the book they decided to keep seem equally arbitrary.
I thought that the vast majority of the arbitrary changes centered around the fight scenes. "Watchmen" is not a particularly action-oriented story. It's not a typical superhero beat-em-up with lots of great, heroic action scenes. In fact, I'd say there's only really one standard superhero action scene in the book, and that's where Adrian stops his would-be would-be assassin (which, as you all should know, ends up not being very standard at all, once we know the whole story). So the action scenes in the movie are ramped up...and then ramped up again, and then halfpiped up, and then there's some parallel bars in a generally upward sloping direction, and then there's another ramp up, and then some stairs. The violence in the "Watchmen" book was designed to be moderately realistic, in contrast with most comics. The violence in the movie was all wire-fu and the sudden slow-mo shots that I worried about and unnecessary gore. Every single fight scene was padded out to take up more time and to show off more action, and to a degree, I understand that. It's a superhero movie, and the moviegoing public expects to see some action in a superhero movie. The fight scenes are going to be the thing that teenagers and casual people latch onto as being really well-done and the reason to see the film a second time (or at least, the reason to sit through three hours of it). But the net effect is that nearly every one of these fight scenes, with their enhanced violence, look ridiculously unrealistic, which undermines the whole "real-life superheroes" vibe of the book and the rest of the movie.
Moreover, these amped-up fight scenes seemed to me to undermine the individual points of each of them. Perhaps it's just a matter of interpretation, but I got the vibe in the book that the fight between shadowy Adrian and Eddie in the very beginning was meant to be pretty much effortless on Adrian's part. For one thing, Eddie's supposed to be emotionally broken at this point; for another, the cops initially suspect it was a robbery of some sort, which would make little sense if there were the obvious signs of an epic battle (e.g., thrown knives) that Adrian and Eddie would have left behind. More than that, part of the point of Adrian's character--as I see it--is that none of the fights he gets into seem to require any real effort on his part.
Meanwhile, we have Dan and Laurie's battle with the thugs in the alley, in which they're flinging people around, breaking bones into compound fractures, and apparently killing several people, and they barely end up winded. The effect of this is to make Dan and Laurie look like they have super strength, and to (again) undermine the point of the scene, which was getting the two of them hot, sweaty, and out of breath as an analogue for sex. In the book (and strangely not in the movie), Laurie lights up a cigarette and talks about how awkward it feels afterward. Symbolism much?
Rorschach's fights suffered from this to some degree as well. While the prison battle was well done (albeit a little redundant with the saw-wielder's apparent double-death, and lacking the fun final pun), both the lunch line attack and his childhood flashback were drawn out and restaged with these problems. Part of the effectiveness of the lunch line fight in the comic is that it's all one smooth motion (inasmuch as anything can be one motion in comics). The movie pads this out by having Rorschach disarm and dispatch the inmate with his tray first, then break the sneeze guard to get at the grease while his would-be attacker is on his knees. The flashback scene has a similar effect, as he pauses while on top of the second kid before he bites him. The act loses the sort of desperation it had in the book, where little Walter really just looks like he's attacking with everything he can. The effect of both is to make Rorschach seem vindictive, which despite all his character flaws is, I think, unfair. Rorschach may be very violent, but his violence never seemed excessive in the same way it does in the film.
The worst part of all these padded fight scenes is that if they'd removed the padding, they'd have had time to put in more fight scenes. Rorschach's inept interrogation could have come in, Hollis Mason's death-by-thugs could have come in, if you wanted to stretch, they could have touched on some of the flashback material (Hooded Justice's debut? Dollar Bill's death?). I think the Hollis Mason beat-down, while it would have required a few minutes more set-up, would have been the most cinematically satisfying, especially if they managed to effectively juxtapose his memories of youthful battle with his inability to even defend himself now. Plus, it would have justified Hollis's presence in the film. As it is, he shows up in one scene and flashbacks, gets mentioned once or twice more, and is never followed up on again. He's kind of a hanging character, introduced as a moderately significant figure but left to fade into the background.
That same problem plagues a few characters, actually. Bubastis is the most significant of these; her reasons for existing in the book are to demonstrate Veidt's opulent wealth, and to provide some explanation for the genetic engineering advances that ultimately produce the giant space squid at the end. Without the space squid, Bubastis is a useless element, who serves only to confuse (my fianceé asked me what was up with the tiger when she first showed up) and to lure Dr. Manhattan into the Intrinsic Field thingamajig. I have a difficult time imagining that it was easier to leave all that computer animation in than to re-shoot one or two bits of scenes to avoid unnecessary confusion. The New Frontiersman staff similarly pops in at the end, with only one detail (that I caught, anyway) even suggesting their existence prior to that, no hint as to their politics or significance that we had in the book.
Another strange and significant change was Rorschach's encounter with the child-killer. In the book, he handcuffs the creep to a radiator and leaves him with a hacksaw (to cut through his arm, since the chain would take too long) while he sets the house on fire. He then leaves the building and watches the place burn as the murderer tries painfully and unsuccessfully to get himself free before it's too late. The movie follows through up to the handcuffing, whereupon the murderer confesses, and Rorschach drives a meat cleaver through his head, repeatedly, saying "dogs get put down." Now, I get the change and the line (Rorschach putting down the killer the same way he put down his dogs), but I'm not sure why they made the change, except as an excuse for more graphic violence. The new version works, but (like so many of the changes to Rorschach) it seems to add more brutality to Rorschach than I think is warranted. Standing outside and watching the smoke of burning flesh rise into the night sky might not make for the most action-packed sequence, but I think it underscores the sense of detachment that characterizes Rorschach from that point in his career onward. He kills the murderer, but he doesn't overkill him, and I think the film generally erred on the side of "overkill" whenever possible.
The other possibility is that they didn't want to have Rorschach look like Jigsaw from the first "Saw" movie, since the handcuffs-and-hacksaws bit is the conceit of that film. I can understand not wanting to be derivative, but I can't really see the meat cleaver as much more original.
The Dr. Manhattan interview was another point of significant change; many of his conversations with various people were condensed into the first few questions and answers, which ultimately sounded kind of forced--"Allow me to answer your question with some highly compressed exposition." I think the way he slipped the "there's no real difference between a living body and a dead one" answer in there made him sound more contemptuous than distanced, which I suppose would help the new ending, but changed Jon's character for me a bit. Bringing Janey Slater in was, I think, a good way to compress that whole sequence into a single scene, but I'm not sure the end result was quite effective. The scene was too full, trying to accomplish too many things, and it felt rushed as a result.
Then there's Ozymandias, who is at the center of quite a lot of changes. First, as Matt mentioned a year ago, his costume screams "I'm the villain." This isn't helped at all by the casting choice, because Matthew Goode has all the slicked-back weaselly look of the ubiquitous '80s yuppie villain. He's slim, he's a little chinless, he's got those sunken eyes--he was just a very poor casting choice for the character, which stands out when the other characters are cast so well. I don't mean to rag on Goode, he was a decent actor, and he was doing fine with the character he was presented, but I don't think that character bore much resemblance to Adrian Veidt. Goode was an almost archetypal Corrupt Corprorate Executive; that's not the character archetype I read Veidt as. Veidt seemed to me to be a blond Superman, both in terms of physique (chiseled jaw, muscular, etc.) and attitude (affable, warm, intelligent, etc.). To me, Veidt's defining characteristic (at least for the first half of the story) was likeable. I have to imagine that's intentional; it gives his face heel turn a greater impact. Goode's Veidt never came across as affable or likeable; any attempts toward that direction came across as smarmy and condescending. So his "I'm the villain!" costume is reflected in his portrayal and casting as much as in his rubber chest.
Next, there's the matter of his sexuality. This was hinted at in the book, but it was Rorschach doing the hinting, which makes the insinuation more than a bit unreliable. Rorschach has such a wide streak of paranoia and misogyny--not to mention his own large collection of neuroses--that any assessment he makes of sexuality has to be taken with a huge grain of salt. None of this is really to say that Adrian couldn't be gay, or bisexual, or asexual, or any number of other things. I don't think there's enough material in the text to make any claim one way or another. The movie decided to settle this matter, and I don't have a real problem with that. The folder on Adrian's computer labeled "Boys" was a fairly subtle hint, one that I only caught because I'd been looking for it. Had it been left at that, it might have been a little crass, but it was subtle enough to be unproblematic. The nipples on his Joel Schumacher-esque costume were a little less subtle, a little more crass, and if nothing else, unnecessary and distracting.
The shot in the opening credits where Ozymandias stood outside a club with drag queens on one side and the Village People on the other? Zack Snyder, subtle you ain't.
As long as I've mentioned casting choices, it seems fitting to bring up Malin Akerman's Laurie. She certainly looks the part, and most of the time she plays it well, but there are at least a few places where her acting seemed...off. Like, way off. Like, "I only act when it's my turn to speak" off. Sometimes it didn't seem like she was really reacting to things, other times it seemed like her reaction was the wrong one. The scene where this is most apparent is when she's in bed with Jon, and she realizes he's split into multiple people. In the book, Laurie was clearly horrified by this, and it came across as though this were the first time he'd done it. The moment underscores Jon's growing disconnection from humanity, that he's no longer even bound to one body, that he can be in multiple places at one time; this is emphasized by his growing inability to understand what Laurie wants from their relationship. In the movie, however, it seems like this is more a routine thing, which Laurie just doesn't want to do anymore. Instead of "What are you doing?!" it's "Oh, you." I'm not sure why they (whether it's actress, screenwriter, or director) chose to change this scene in such a bizarre way. The way it plays on-screen, I'm no longer clear what purpose it serves. She has some similarly weird reactions around Dan, and in her argument with Jon, so I'm not sure if it's just bad acting, or a conscious characterization decision.
Speaking of that argument, removing some of the scenes and details that they did (the bits from "Under the Hood," the flashback to the dinner party) robs her parental epiphany from nearly all of its impact. Without the clear indicators of her feelings about Blake, her tearful realization seems to come out of nowhere. It's one of the few moments where I felt like the only reason I really understood it was because I'd read the book--which is why I said it was almost never like one of the more recent Harry Potter movies.
Carla Gugino as Sally Jupiter, I feel, was another case of miscasting--or at least mis-costuming. I'm not sure how to describe the changes to her character, though I understand them a bit more than I understand some of the other character changes. Movie-Sally strikes me as more a faded debutante, a Joan Rivers kind of character, never able to accept that she's faded from the limelight, and clinging to her past with surgery and makeup and fashion. Sally in the book, however, never had that kind of bitter desperation that I see in her movie counterpart (or at least, never in the present of the story--perhaps in that dinner party flashback). Book-Sally surrounded herself with comforting nostalgia to escape from the realities of her past. Her life was always something of a fantasy; she never did much more than play superhero. Part of her pushing Laurie is clearly that she wants to live vicariously through her, but I think there's a part of the training and pressure she puts Laurie through that is meant to keep her from being the victimized joke that she was. Then again, maybe Sally isn't that self-aware. Either way, her characterization in the movie is wildly different, and I think it makes her a less tragic, less relatable, less human character. Sally-of-the-book is a caricature, to be sure, but that caricature status is what allows her to grow and become humanized as the story goes on. Sally-of-the-movie is also a caricature, but a less likable, more caustic one. The flaws that become apparent in (and thus, humanize) Sally in the book are already part of the familiar caricature that movie-Sally is. I don't think either story makes Sally a positive character, but I think the movie makes her a much less sympathetic one.
Before I get to the biggest issues, I think I'm going to hit on some little quibbles. First, Rorschach's mask. I don't necessarily fault them for not making it look like it's described in the comic ("viscous fluids between two layers [of] latex"), instead making it look more like a burlap sack with moving ink stains. I do however fault them for, in changing the design, losing some of the important symbolism. It had shades of gray in it. When something like that is explicitly stated, it seems like it's moderately important. When Rorschach says "Black and white moving. Changing shape...but not mixing. No gray," my Important Symbolism Sense starts tingling. "No shades of gray" is a defining characteristic of how Rorschach sees the world: everything in diametrically-opposed extremes, with no middle ground or compromise.
I'd be curious, though, if this were an intentional change, and is mean to underscore Rorschach's skewed perception of himself. In the book, he mentions his "spotless gloves" while the art in the panel demonstrates quite clearly that they are anything but. Perhaps this would have been another such example--thinking the mask is pure black-and-white when it's actually full of grays. It would have underscored not only Rorschach's divorce from reality, but also his inability to even admit compromise, let alone commit it. Unfortunately, since the line where he explains the mask was cut, that potential effect was lost, making it look unlikely that this change was particularly intentional.
Also, I don't think Rorschach should have been using the scary Christian Bale Bat-voice in the distant flashback scenes--most notably when he's at the "Watchmen" meeting. That was, after all, before he really became Rorschach, and the book clearly showed that he had a different speaking style and personality at that time, going so far as to give him a differently-shaped speech bubble and font.
Incidentally, what was with the lack of smoking? Was that an MPAA requirement? As far as I noticed, only the Comedian's cigar remained of all the distinctive tobacco in the book. I can understand not wanting to use the weird cigarette things from the book, since their construction looks a bit like various illegal paraphernalia. But removing cigarettes entirely muffles the impact of Dan and Laurie's fight with the knot-tops, removes the more brutal (but fitting) aspect of Rorschach's childhood attack on the bullies, and makes Laurie look like either an idiot or a pyromaniac when she presses Archie's flamethrower button.
I'm glad to see that Doctor Manhattan's Long Island stayed in the picture, but (like the Hydrogen atom symbol) it wasn't really explained. The audience wasn't really given enough information to understand why he walked around like Nudey Smurf the whole time. Jon's increasing nudity is used in the book as a sign of his increasing disconnectedness from the rules, feelings, and cares of humanity. They stripped (pun intended) a lot of the context out of the movie, which (I think) left a lot of people wondering what the point was of showing off his...um, point.
And then there's the logic of the ending. I mean, we've already had it stated about Jon that "God exists and he's American," so why wouldn't an attack from Jon result in at least some retaliation against America? Yes, American cities were destroyed too, but in that atmosphere, wouldn't there be some ire from foreign nations for America's creation, employment, and subsequent inability to control Doctor Manhattan? If the nuclear arsenal of the United States all suddenly launched by accident, I don't think people would be so forgiving even if Washington, New York, and LA were targeted as well.
Which brings us to the larger complaint about the end, I suppose. I would have liked a little more lead-up, a little more explanation of how this plan was supposed to result in the unification of the planet--as I recall, they had a throwaway bit about people worrying that Jon would be watching over the world, which would somehow incite everyone to play nice, but that wasn't given too much attention. That ties into (I think) some of the trepidation the film seemed to show about endorsing the book's (or at least Rorschach's) atheism. The absence of God was itself noticeably absent from his discussion with Dr. Long, and I thought it was curious that the word "human" was removed from the back-and-forth with Jon about valuing and creating life. I wonder if that has to do with the installation of a god at the end and the tacit assumption that a proven deity would cause people to behave. There's a lot to unpack in all that, and I don't feel equipped to do that over a week after my only viewing of the movie.
I got a bit sidetracked there. The larger complaint about the end has very little to do with the lack of a giant psychic space squid. My problem with the end of the film is that it seemed to take the "I'm the villain" changes to Ozymandias (costume, accent, sleaze) and run with them all the way past the finish line to the White Castle down the street. To me, it seemed like the filmmakers got to the end and couldn't follow through with the story's moral ambiguity and ethical discomfort. They get down to Adrian's big reveal, and suddenly they scramble to find someone to cast as the hero opposite Ozymandias, the comic book villain he claims not to be. Cue Dan, refusing to go through with Adrian's plot, giving the Big No to Rorschach's death, and then having the one-sided fistfight with Adrian, working out his frustration (and his impotence) through violence.
This, to me, was where the adaptation really fell apart. The story of Watchmen, from my perspective, is meant to make any reader uncomfortable. The point is that regardless of your politics, regardless of which characters you identify with, the ending should make you reevaluate right and wrong, black and white, hero and villain. If you take the traditional superhero-story position, then you should be identifying with Rorschach, whose inability to compromise ends up with his death, and possibly his unravelling of global peace. If you identify with Adrian's position, then you see that even for all his mental abilities, he ends up being short-sighted and simplistic (as Jon's conversation with him, and Rorschach's journal, reveal). If you're trying to fit these characters into standard hero/villain/antihero molds, you're going to fail miserably. The end of the film feels like that to me: the filmmakers tried to cram these characters into standard molds by making them act out standard tropes. It gives a half-hearted attempt at subversion by having Ozymandias just stand there instead of fighting back, but the damage had been done already. The movie ran full-speed away from the moral implications of the book's ending; inching back toward it at the last moment doesn't change much.
So then we move to Dan and Laurie's happy ending, which implies that at least Dan is still active as a superhero (or something along those lines), and thus is ready for the sequel. Cue My Chemical Romance. One interesting omission is Jon and Adrian's conversation after the big event. That bugs me at least a little; I really quite like that scene, if only because it knocks Adrian down a peg or two (which is the closest he comes in the story to defeat--except perhaps Rorschach's diary). Throughout the book, Adrian is so far above everyone else that he is able to create this master plan, solve the world's problems, and even defeat all of his colleagues without much effort. Jon briefly shows him that, in the grand scheme of things, even Adrian is insignificant and Jon is much farther above him than he is above other people ("world's smartest termite," and all that). Adrian is genuinely surprised by Jon's statement that "nothing ever ends," and he is visibly disturbed by the insinuation. I think that, again, adds more layers and more discomfort to the already rich and ambiguous ending; removing it further weakens the resolution.
Perhaps I'm exaggerating; I've talked to other people, and several of them didn't get the impression that there was a hero/villain dichotomy going on in that last scene. But I don't think there was anything even approaching the level of uncomfortable ambiguity that the book ended on. While I understand some of that from a marketing perspective--don't want to end a well-hyped movie on a note that will make people less willing to rewatch it and buy the merchandise--I don't think it was a very wise choice to make from a story perspective. "Watchmen" isn't a market-driven story; it isn't a conventional story; it isn't a happy story; and it shouldn't be a comfortable story. If the filmmakers didn't have the cojones to follow the premises to their end, then they shouldn't have started.
Point being, throughout the end, I had this running through my head, and I don't think it was too far off the mark.
The biggest impression that the film left in my mind was one of vindication. Having carefully re-read the series and paid attention to the plot, and having seen the filmmakers' efforts on the screen, I think I was right in saying (for years) that Watchmen, if filmable at all, would only really work as a miniseries. Going through the series again, noticing the episodic nature, how the tone, motif, and focus changes from issue to issue, I think a 12-or-more part miniseries with a moderately high budget on something like HBO or Showtime would really be the only way to do justice to the story. In fact, I think a one-episode-per-issue format would actually work really well for Watchmen; better anyway than the proposed HBO Preacher series. In particular, I think that format would allow us to get a better look at the common people's stories, particularly stories like Dr. Long's. That alone would be reason enough, I think, to justify a longer (if somewhat lower-budget) treatment.
Overall, the movie made a good effort, did fairly well, and was (at least superficially) a decent adaptation. Some of the changes to the story, in particular the loss of the moral ambiguity, really killed it for me. I am interested, however, in seeing the Director's Cut; until then, I don't really plan on watching the Watchmen again.