It’s something of a testament to Watchmen’s resiliency and resonance that it continues to polarize the comics community over 30 years after its original publication. When it first dropped on the comics world like a nuclear bomb in 1986, it was deemed an instant classic by fans and critics alike. Universally praised for infusing the genre of superhero comics with a level of storytelling sophistication and complexity never before seen in the form, Watchmen creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons attained near-godhood in the eyes of a jaded fandom desperate for something more layered and mature. And yet, over three decades later, the series’ stock has fallen noticeably in the esteem of even its most rabid boosters.
Along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen has been deemed responsible for an undeniable trend of dark, gritty imitators that neglected to delve beneath the murky surface of either series. With talk of a new R-rated TV series in development at HBO under the guidance of Damon Lindelof recently lighting up the online community, we had to wonder if such a project is even viable. There are ample reasons for and against bringing Watchmen to the small screen, so we thought we’d list them for you and let you be the judge.
SPOILER ALERT! Spoilers ahead for numerous stories published by DC Comics.
15. SHOULD: IT’S ALREADY R-RATED
When it arrived on shelves in 1986, it was immediately evident that Watchmen wasn’t a comic book meant for kids. Boasting vivid scenes of gory violence and sexual content, the comic blatantly targeted a previously untapped pool of mature readers desperate for a story that would awaken palates deadened by decades of simplistic storytelling and kiddy content. Moore and Gibbons fashioned an emotionally complex world where violent action had actual consequences.
They exposed the all-too human flaws of their masked vigilantes, breaking down the archetype of the superhero into a form that truly mirrored the world outside of our windows. There’s no way a Watchmen TV show couldn’t be R-rated and no better home than HBO for a series featuring so many scenes of violent depravity. To do otherwise would be to dilute the source material beyond recognition or forgiveness.
14. SHOULDN’T: HOW GOOD IS THE COMIC REALLY?
As we noted in our intro, Watchmen has fallen dramatically in the esteem of many fans and critics. Although heralded for its innovative storytelling and exceptional world-building, the series can no longer rest on the laurels of its “Time Magazine Best 100 Novels” status. In recent years, the series has been identified as a flashpoint for a seemingly endless parade of unnecessarily violent heroes and books more intent on gritty spectacle than structural integrity. In this, many comics missed the whole point of Watchmen.
The series wasn’t simply about creating a superhero comic for adults. Rather, it was intended to showcase the limitless storytelling opportunities of a marginalized artistic medium by using its unique mechanics and vocabulary. There is a very real danger that a mainstream TV series would fall into the same trap, propagating a watered-down adaptation that eschews sophistication for gratuitous spectacle.
13. SHOULD: PLOTS WITHIN PLOTS
The original Watchmen comic was a deeply layered mystery with several subplots that stretched back decades in its in-story continuity. The motivations of characters like Rorschach, the Comedian and Doctor Manhattan were explored through rich backstories that had lasting repercussions in the present day. Moore and Gibbons manipulated time and space to create a multi-layered plot full of red herrings and unforeseen revelations, each of which pushed the story to its inevitable climax.
In his 2009 film adaptation, Zack Snyder tried but failed to untangle the comic’s many intertwined subplots, fighting an unwinnable fight against the clock (which is kind of ironic when you think about it). What he needed was more time and space to let his story breathe, a challenge easily surmountable on the small screen, due to television’s episodic nature.
12. SHOULDN’T: MONEY FOR NOTHING
Despite its focus on character development and world-building, there is also a fair amount of good ol’ fashioned comic book spectacle in Watchmen. This is a story that takes place during at least two different time periods and on two different planets. Doctor Manhattan’s Martian clockwork fortress alone would bankrupt most TV shows in record time. The budget necessary to bring Watchmen to the small screen would likely eclipse that of Game of Thrones.
The special effects alone would cost an astronomical amount, to say nothing of the period set pieces — and while CGI has come a long way in recent years, fueling dozens of engrossing superhero TV shows, the cartoony effects of The Flash just wouldn’t cut it for Watchmen’s more mature sensibilities. HBO (or any other cable network) would be taking a huge financial risk producing a show of Watchmen’s potential size and scope.
11. SHOULD: THE TUNES, MAN…
One of the ways in which Zach Snyder’s Watchmen movie excelled was in his use of music to enhance the viewing experience and add layers to his fictional world. In this way he actually added to Moore and Gibbon’s original work by a infusing it with an auditory soundscape that evoked the story’s anti-establishment revolutionary underpinnings.
Recent genre TV shows such as Luke Cage and The Handmaid’s Tale have shown how a well-appointed soundtrack can amplify and deepen the audience’s connection to the story and characters. Who among hasn’t imagined what it would be like if our favorite book or comic included a musical component? With its diverse settings tied to the nostalgia of several different time periods, a topical Watchmen soundtrack could be truly epic.
10. SHOULDN’T: SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIAL
One of the ways in which Moore and Gibbons set Watchmen apart from contemporary works was including several additional pages of supplemental prose material at the end of each issue. These telling postscripts helped broaden readers’ understanding of the series’ complex fictional world by using book excerpts, psych files and magazine articles to add depth to major characters’ backstories and provide details of the history of Watchmen’s mystery men.
Additionally, the comic-within-a-comic “Tales of the Black Freighter” thematically echoed major storylines of the main plot; at different times mirroring the journeys of Rorschach, Doctor Manhattan and Ozymandias. Even with the added room a television series would afford writers (unavailable to Snyder for his film adaptation), it’s doubtful that a Watchmen TV show could approach the level of detailed verisimilitude of its print counterpart.
9. SHOULD: CASTING POTENTIAL
One of the major criticisms of Zack Snyder’s film was the uneven casting. While actors like Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley and Jeffrey Dean Morgan tore up the screen in their respective roles (Silk Spectre I, Rorschach and the Comedian), other characters fell incredibly flat. Granted, the superhero movie hadn’t quite come into its own in 2009 but that doesn’t absolve the film adaptation from a certain lack of consistent performances.
The success of movies like The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and Wonder Woman has proven more resilient than studios could have hoped, allowing them to attract top Hollywood talent. The casting possibilities are endless for a property of Watchmen’s notoriety. Actors like Jon Bernthal, Danai Guira and Krysten Ritter have built successful careers upon a foundation of stellar turns in genre roles. A show like Watchmen could attract similar talent to easily put it over the top with fans.
8. SHOULDN’T: WHY SO SERIOUS?
One of the main drawbacks of Watchmen that could potentially prevent it from resonating with a wider TV audience is its lack of characters with redeeming qualities. We can all agree that in most cases flawed characters are more interesting than flawless characters. That’s what makes Batman or Spider-Man more relatable to most readers than Superman.
But in Watchmen, virtually the entire cast is so unlikeable (save perhaps Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II), it might be impossible for a mainstream TV audience to connect with them. If you think we’re splitting hairs here, then consider a show like AMC’s Feed the Beast, which featured characters so lacking in redeeming qualities it was killed after a single season. If people can’t find a way to like your characters, they won’t tune in. It’s that simple.
7. SHOULD: CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
In 2009, director Zack Snyder valiantly attempted to adapt Watchmen to the big screen. A herculean task that required substantial re-imagining of the source material, it became clear upon its release that something was missing from the film version. With its extensive cast of characters that spans several historical eras, much of the foundational work laid out in the years leading up to the book’s in-story present was lost in Snyder’s movie.
Each character in the comic possesses a robust, deeply-layered backstory that was nearly impossible to explore in one installment. While Snyder and writers David Hayter and Alex Tse did their best by the source material, many of the characters lacked the emotional context so prevalent in the comics. A multi-season series would address this major issue easily, allowing writers to plumb the depths of each character without undue compression due to time constraints.
6. SHOULDN’T: ALAN MOORE
By now, everybody knows how much Alan Moore despises film adaptations of his comics work. The miserly old sorcerer maintains his comics work is specifically created for the medium in which it was originally published. He considers the form in all of its aspects and creates stories specifically for the medium. If he wanted to create a film, he would have.
And let’s not forget the ownership controversy surrounding Watchmen. Moore has always felt he and co-creator Dave Gibbons were ripped off by DC Comics. In either case, Moore always preferred his comics to remain comics and yet another adaptation would just be a slap in the face to a respected creator who’s already endured enough insult. Should Moore’s feelings even matter in the case of a new adaptation? Maybe not, legally speaking, but let’s not forget, without him, there wouldn’t be a property to adapt in the first place.
5. SHOULD: SPIN-OFF POTENTIAL
As we’ve seen in recent months and years, there is an immense amount of spin off potential embedded in Watchmen. As DC pushes ever closer to welding the Watchmen universe to the main DCU, it becomes abundantly clear, whatever Alan Moore might think, that there are tons of potential stories bleeding out of the core series. Publishing events such as Before Watchmen delved deeper into the Moore and Gibbons gritty mythology, providing new insight into the events leading up to the original series with all-new stories by a stable of all-star creators.
Similarly, a television series wouldn’t have to be limited to the original twelve-issue series but could branch out into new territory, exploring the origins of the modern team or traveling back in time to chronicle the beginnings of the Minutemen. Individual characters could also be spun off into their own series or specials. If Fraser could do it, why not Rorschach?
4. SHOULDN’T: THE ORIGINAL ENDING
In the original series, Ozymandias succeeds in averting nuclear catastrophe by forcing the world’s superpowers to unite after a fake alien invasion destroys half of New York City. Knowing such comic-booky ending wouldn’t play well to a movie-going audience, Zack Snyder neatly sidestepped the issue by pinning the destruction on Doctor Manhattan. It was a justifiable compromise that preserved the thematic tone of the source material without alienating viewers who might never have read a comic book in their lives, never mind the original Watchmen series.
However, this still leaves the writers of a Watchmen TV series in a nasty creative bind. A fake alien invasion might still marginalize a mainstream audience, no matter how far comics literacy has progressed in recent years, while recycling Snyder’s solution just seems like a cheap copout. The truth is Watchmen’s ending could only ever occur in a comic book, while anything less would likely seem inadequate.
3. SHOULD: THE NOSTALGIA BANDWAGON
Recent hit TV shows like Stranger Things have capitalized heavily on the public’s insatiable passion for nostalgia. A property such as Watchmen is well-positioned to leverage this trend to its benefit thanks to its 1980s setting. Everything from music to costume design plays into our collective desire to connect with the pop culture touchstones of our youth. Unlike Stranger Things, Watchmen hits several different important historical periods, allowing it to connect with a wider demographic.
Snyder’s film attempted to jump on the nostalgia bandwagon but the innate constraints of its running time created a stilted pace that felt more jarring than inviting. A television series would allow writers to indulge in entire flashback episodes that came to life as something considerably more than a montage of static tableaux. Audiences could follow the history of Watchmen from its birth in the ‘40s, through the turbulent ‘70s to the mid-‘80s without feeling rushed.
2. SHOULDN’T: JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN…
At the end of the day, a Watchmen television series might simply be a case of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Isn’t that what we’ve been building up to in this polarized list? Do the financial gains of producing a television series based on Watchmen really outweigh the considerable risks? Only time will tell—and that’s if the series even gets produced.
In this era of incessant remakes and adaptations, we can’t help but wonder if the millions of dollars and countless man hours it would take to bring a live action Watchmen TV series to the small screen wouldn’t be better invested in creating something new. In the comics world, Watchmen still represents the high water mark of ingenuity and innovation. It will always be considered a classic of the form. Can the same be said of a TV series? It seems highly unlikely. And yet…
1. SHOULD: THE TIME IS RIGHT
…the time might just be right for a property as subversive and revolutionary as Watchmen to hit the mainstream. In an increasingly unpredictable and tumultuous global political climate as the one we’re mired in now, a television series that forces us to challenge our preconceived notions of right and wrong might resonate far more deeply than anyone realizes. Is Ozymandias’ willingness to pull the greatest practical joke of all time any more despicably farcical than the current events clogging our news feeds today?
The goal of any great work of fiction is to illuminate some aspect of the human condition in a way we’ve never seen or considered before. If there was ever a time that such an important message needed to be brought to a wider audience, it’s now. And if the time is now, what better way to do so than by bringing television’s millions of viewers to bear?
Is adapting Watchmen an exercise in futility or do you think now’s the time for an HBO series? Let us know in the comments!
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