It was recently revealed that HBO, long-in-development Watchmen TV series is back on the front burner, with The Leftovers and Lost mastermind Damon Lindelof at the helm. No further details have been given regarding the project, but it's mere announcement was enough to unsettle fans of the classic 1986 Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons comic. After all, this isn't the first time a live-action Watchmen adaptation has been produced, and the last time didn't please too many fans of the original comic.
Long thought to be "unfilmable," the acclaimed 12-issue DC Comics series eventually made its way to the big screen in 2009 in a production directed by Zack Snyder. The film failed in a lot of ways, both critically and financially. While some scenes were reproduced in slavish detail, the overall plot was tossed out in favor of a more Hollywood-palatable take. To many of those who were familiar with the comics, this proved that the source material was too dense to translate into a two to three hour film (depending on the cut), furthering the notion that Watchmen belongs in one medium, and one medium only: Comics.
However, I'm not so sure about this. Though the film was unable to recapture the magic of Moore and Gibbons' seminal work, there's plenty of reason to suspect that modern television might be the perfect place to, once and for all, properly adapt it in live-action.
Before discussing the mechanics of Watchmen and its unique-to-comics form of storytelling, it's important to go over Damon Lindelof's history as a veteran television writer. Heavily inspired by the cult '90s TV series Twin Peaks, Lindelof is a big fan of complicated, non-linear narratives. He showcased his ability to juggle numerous plots and timelines with Lost. He was able to create a serialized, Twin Peaks-inspired mystery, that was digestible enough to appeal to the mainstream, while attracting the most hardcore of sci-fi viewers, and while Lost did lose sight of its endgame for stretches of time, Lindelof and Co. managed to bring it all back on track for the final chapters.
Lost's balance of mainstream appeal and complicated storytelling, indicates Lindelof has the chops to bring Watchmen to life in a suitably cerebral manner, while still making it accessible to those unfamiliar with the source material.
Much like Lost, Watchmen's central mystery unravels through non-linear storytelling. Jumping from one time period to another, ranging from the '40s to the '80s, the comic requires re-reading specific issues and pages to fully grasp the decades-spanning plot. Part of what made Watchmen so difficult to adapt was the very nature of movies -- despite the advent of home viewing, they aren't necessarily created for repeat viewings. Thus, their method of relaying information tends to rely less on revisiting earlier moments of the plot in forms other than flashbacks, at least to the extent that Watchmen's complex story would require.
Television, on the other hand, lends itself more to the kind of repeat consumption that comic books allow for. Viewers are already used to re-watching old episodes in order to dig for subtle clues and connections that might unravel a television mystery in their favorite serialized dramas. This kind of entertainment consumption -- especially in the age of binge TV -- mirrors that of a comic book, and the flipping back to a previous page. Additionally, the ability to spend an entire hour-long episode on a single flashback story gives Lindelof the ability to properly address specific Watchmen beats to their fullest. For example, where Snyder's film was only able to delegate several minutes to Dr. Manhattan's complex and emotional origin story, as an HBO series, Lindelof can take an entire episode (or more) to focus on the issue-long chapter from the comic.
The Watchmen comic book is filled with nuanced paratext. Narratives adjacent to the main story provide readers with crucial information on characters and plots, elements that while ancillary to the core narrative are still essential. It does this with "excerpts" from the autobiography of Hollis Mason, offering biographical information on the original Nite-Owl and his Minutemen teammates, or "Tales from the Black Freighter," a comic strip that appears throughout the series and provides a more meta textual commentary on Watchmen and its themes.
A Watchmen TV series could devote entire episodes to these side narratives, giving viewers a full-bodied vision of the comic, where the film version perhaps failed. Dedicating episodes to these side stories could allow for a different stylistic approach to the series, giving the opportunity for guest directors to come in and lend their unique vision to the show, separate from the series' overarching aesthetic.
Another reason Watchmen is so difficult to adapt is its reliance on "tabular reading": Interpreting the scope of an entire page to derive meaning, rather than focusing on an individual panel. While re-creating this storytelling approach would be near-impossible to do effectively in media like film, by being on television, Lindelof's series would be able to develop its own unique techniques to properly accentuate the story's beats.
For example, in the chapter "Fearful Symmetry," Adrian Veidt's capacity for power and violence is revealed in two pages that are visually exactly symmetrical. The symmetry suggests order, power and deliberateness -- attributes that are completely opposite to the portrayal of Daniel Dreidberg, AKA the Nite Owl, at the beginning of the story. Juxtaposing symmetrical scenes of power and weakness, with Adrian and Dan respectively, there could be powerful messaging that gets across the same concept as the comic, albeit by employing a different visual technique.
In 2012, DC experimented with reviving the universe of Watchmen with several Before Watchmen miniseries. Each title chronicled the backstories of several main characters, in addition to the '40s super-team that started it all, The Minutemen. Though fan and critical reception to these stories was lukewarm at best, there's a ton of great material to be mined from these comics for television. In particular, The Minutemen series by late comics legend Darwyn Cooke, and the Silk Spectre series written by Cooke and artist Amanda Conner are chock-full of enough story ideas to fuel a season's worth of Watchmen. Injecting these backstories into episodes of a Watchmen show would make for rich character development, contributing to the main narrative by fleshing out its characters with context that helps the audience better understand characters' motives.
By combining elements of the different Watchmen-related narratives in the original work and that have been published since, there's plenty of great original material to adapt to the small screen. There's also a lot of opportunity for Lindelof and the directors behind Watchmen to employ unique storytelling techniques that rival the original comic's groundbreaking narrative. Telling Watchmen's central mystery over the course of several episodes, or even seasons, could make for a unique, interesting and layered television series that unravels the depth of Watchmen's characters more than the film version ever could.