Watchmen is one of the most influential comic books of all time. The story by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons was immediately successful and quickly drew attention from the film industry. There were numerous attempts to bring the story to the big screen, all but one of which failed.
One of the most bizarre and interesting potential versions of Watchmen that audiences never got to see would have been the one helmed by Monty Python veteran, Terry Gilliam. Take a look back at the history of this 1990s film version of Watchmen and why it fell apart.
What Was Developed
20th Century Fox first bought the film rights to Watchmen in 1986, around the same time as the original release of the comic. Producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver (Die Hard) quickly joined the production. Originally, Alan Moore was asked to write the screenplay himself. The writer refused, leading to screenwriter Sam Hamm (Tim Burton's Batman) joining the project. His first draft was a self-admittedly unwieldy script, and Hamm would eventually leave the movie.
The project halted development briefly and was put into turnaround (when a film is pulled from production and the rights are sold to another studio.) Eventually, Silver and Gordon brought the film to Warner Bros. Terry Gilliam (Brazil) signed on to direct, and rewrote much of the script alongside his frequent collaborator Charles McKeown and then Hamm's writing partner, Warren Skaaren. Production was set to take place at Pinewood Studios, the famous English studios where huge movies from franchises such as Star Wars, Harry Potter and much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been filmed. But production never happened.
What It Would Have Been
This version of Watchmen would have been a decidedly unique film. For one thing, the film could have had a genuinely bizarre cast. The previous two films by both the director and the producers had been letdowns at the box office, so Silver wanted to attach major talent to their latest project. Namely, he saw Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doctor Manhattan.
During a recent interview, Moore revealed that another potential cast member could have been singer David Bowie, who actively campaigned for the part of Rorschach. “I did hear that when Terry Gilliam was supposed to be doing Watchmen back in the 1980s,” Moore told the BBC, "I remember he told me that he’d had a number of phone calls from David Bowie asking to play the Rorschach character... There’s an alternate world we can only imagine."
Gilliam and McKeown also radically changed the ending of the story, as revealed by Silver to Coming Soon. Instead of millions being killed in New York by Ozymandias' bioengineered weapon as in the original story, in Gilliam's version, Doctor Manhattan uses his powers to travel back to the moment of his origin and prevent his own creation. The ensuing change to reality returned superheroes to the land of fiction, transforming the handful of remaining heroes left standing (Night Owl, Silk Spectre and Rorschach) into performers playing the characters instead of actually being them.
It was all very meta. The ending explored the idea of how superheroes would affect the entirety of our reality if they existed, and suggested that it might be better that they're just fiction. It's a wild interpretation of the source material, but an interesting one at least.
Why It Didn't Happen
Ultimately, two things proved to be the downfall of Gilliam's take on Watchmen: money and scope. Gilliam and the producers wanted a budget of $100 million. The sum would allow them the freedom to bring the story's more outlandish visuals to the big screen. However, they were only able to raise $25 million for the film, a quarter of their intended amount. The project hit a stand-still as a result of the financing concerns.
Then, Gilliam left the project and went on to direct the critically acclaimed Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas about writer Hunter S. Thompson. The director was later re-approached about tackling Watchmen. But even with the potential for a bigger budget, Gilliam turned down the job. He revealed in interviews that he'd come to the conclusion that Watchmen was too ambitious a story to tell in just a single movie, and that trying to force the narrative into one film would "take away the essence of what Watchmen is about."
That didn't stop other directors such as Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) and Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum) from approaching the project, or Zack Snyder (300) from finally bringing a version of the story to movie theaters in 2009. Gilliam has suggested that he believes the only proper adaptation of Watchmen would be as a television miniseries. Now, thanks to Damon Lindelof and HBO, we'll see how Gilliam's prediction holds up.
Developed by Damon Lindelof, HBO's Watchmen stars Jeremy Irons, Regina King, Don Johnson, Tim Blake Nelson, Louis Gossett Jr., Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Tom Mison, James Wolk, Adelaide Clemens, Andrew Howard, Frances Fisher, Jacob Ming-Trent, Sara Vickers, Dylan Schombing, Lily Rose Smith and Adelynn Spoon. The series premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
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