Book/Movie Review: Watchmen

(I don’t mean to turn this into just a bunch of reviews of everything I see and read, but I’ve done a lot of seeing and reading over Spring Break so far and so that’s what’s on my mind. Bear with me.)

So, I knew very little about Watchmen before last Saturday. I’d picked up the graphic novel about a year ago and read the first chapter, but gotten no further (I have a bad habit of starting books that I don’t own and can’t borrow). Thus I saw the movie before I read the book. I really liked the movie, though, and so decided to read the book. I started it yesterday around 2PM and finished it yesterday around… well, more like today, around 2AM.

Strangely, I actually preferred the movie in a lot of ways. I think part of this is related to the effect I described in my Earthsea book review about order-of-reading/order-of-viewing: if you read the derivative before the original, the original will seem derivative when you do read it. But there are actually several things I think the movie did better:

(SPOILER WARNING – SKIP TO THE END OF THE BLOCK QUOTE TO AVOID)

Firstly, the change of Ozymandias’ scheme from exploding a giant squid-creature to just blowing up NY with a Dr. Manhattan-imitation bomb was a good move, aesthetically. It simplified things where previously they were unnecessarily complicated. Also, I somehow doubt Ozy’s original plot would work – if it’s just a single alien accidentally teleporting into NY and dying on arrival, would that really unite mankind and stop the Cold War? But if it’s Dr. Manhattan doing it and he clearly did it on purpose, it would, because it poses an ongoing threat.

Secondly, a lot of the most memorable lines from the movie don’t actually appear in the graphic novel. Dr. Manhattan’s response to the question about the doomsday clock, for example – “It’s as nourishing to the intellect as a picture of oxygen is to a drowning man”.

Finally and in a sense least importantly, I wasn’t a huge fan of the art of the graphic novel. I got used to it after a while, but I didn’t like how everything was so ugly… all the women, especially, were really unattractive. Maybe that was part of the point (though I can’t see what “point” that could have – if the Silk Spectre is supposedly a model by day and a superhero by night, shouldn’t she be attractive rather than weird-looking?), but I didn’t really like it. And it wasn’t just them, it was a lot of the stuff – the blood and tears, for example. They looked stupid. I think I just don’t like a lot of the conventions of the comic book art style.

This isn’t to say the book was in all ways worse than the movie… firstly, I agree that a lot of the greatness of the graphic novel couldn’t be re-enacted on-screen, and I can recognize that greatness. There’s a lot you can do with the graphic novel form you just can’t do with a movie. There were also many things better about the book:

Firstly, things like the chapter “Fearful Symmetry” you just can’t do in a movie. That was really cool. Or the way you can have the dialogue or narration about one event but have the panel itself be a picture of something else, drawing a contrast between the two; it’s hard to do that in a movie. Or all the different storylines, and having more detailed backstories for the characters… there’s just more you can do in a graphic novel, in a lot of ways.

Secondly, though I prefer the movie ending in a lot of ways, I think the final scene between Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan in the book was interesting and should have been kept. It makes you realize that Ozy’s plot to “save humanity” was, well… idealistic, and didn’t work, in the end. It might have good results in the short term, or even the long term, but it was not mankind’s salvation. And it did not justify what Ozymandias did.

Finally, the sex scenes were much more bearable in the book. They were just pointless, gratuitous sex in the movie, and way too long. This is something the director could have avoided easily but didn’t.

(END SPOILERS)

Now, all these complaints about book and movie aside – both were fascinating, and well worth reading/watching. The most interesting part, I think, is the fascinating dichotomy they present between Rorschach’s moral absolutism and the “bad guy”‘s (name withheld because we’re out of the spoiler zone) pragmatism. And they don’t really side with either one.

Personally, I have to side with Rorschach. What does Rorschach’s view entail? Well, it means a certain way of interpreting the message of the movie and graphic novel, and so I’ll just present that interpretation.

Are they nihilistic? Yes, somewhat, but it is a kind of nihilism I can accept, because (when tempered with Christianity – not that they’re pro-God – interestingly, the movie is actually less atheistic than the graphic novel) it is basically what I believe. Do they conclude the world itself is meaningless? Only, I think, insofar as we have to come to the conclusion that (without God) the world is meaningless.

And do they say the world is hopeless? I think they come to the conclusion a lot of fiction comes to, and which I partially agree with – generally speaking, this world is hopeless (until God comes again and brings the New Heaven and New Earth), but that doesn’t mean we give up hope.

Nor does it mean we give up our principles, even if those principles do not bring us anywhere (in this world); as Rorschach says when told “We have to compromise” –

No. Not even in the face of Armageddon.

Never compromise.

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4 Responses to Book/Movie Review: Watchmen

  1. Nick Kerpan says:

    I agree mostly with what you say, though I disagree about movie being the better of the two (of course, I read the book first, so that may be part of the reasoning).

    The things I found wrong with the movie was the ending (not the plot change, but as you mention, the change to the perceived point of it), and the needlessly graphic violence and sex scenes (the fighting of the chinese (?) punks in the alley was a much different type of fighting than the imo better done jail scene. I guess we can thank the director (300–anyone) for that level of graphicness in both areas.

    I loved their depiction of the main chars, and agree that the dialogue was in some cases better than the graphic novel (though I swear I’ve seen the “oxygen to a drowning man” *somewhere* before. I didn’t mind the comic’s visual style though, which is probably why I found it better than the movie, however.

    • Jonathan C says:

      I thought the movie was great but I have to disagree on your perception of it. First off I would like to help out nick by telling him the “drowning man” line is almost a carbon copy of a Friedrich Nietzsche quote. He relates science in the terms of an explanation for our existence to the knowledge of the molecular composition of water to a drowning sailor. What I don’t like about your interpretation is that you say that without god our world is meaningless. Id also likes to say before my rant that I am not an atheist. Meaningless in the terms of what? Why do you assume that meaning as too come from a world after this one or some great watcher from above, why do you have to give this life reasoning? If I find profound happiness and live my life to what I consider my full potential, who’s to say my life isn’t meaningful? If there is no god then I become the pinnacle of existence and am liberated to reach greater heights, the world truly becomes my oyster. Only if you let rationality/reason rule your world dose god become the only condition of a meaningful existence. At that I’d like to say “the irrationality of something is not an argument against its existence but rather a condition of it.” I believe the movie projects this view very well. What Rorschach is saying is stop rationalizing or “compromising”. Don’t let reason rule your life so far as to cloud your judgment of morality. “Morality cannot be based on reason for if it is mine may be different than yours”. Rorschach kept is views till the end because according to his morality/his virtue, killing that many people and letting the world live in a lie was not ok. According to reason it was ok because it meant world peace but like I said reason cannot rule one’s life and especially morality. Also what I think the movie is showing is that if mankind abolishes God (Dr Manhattan) as our great protector then we would be better off. Instead of looking to him for all the answers and escapes we formulate them for ourselves. Without god world peace is possible. At least that’s what I think the end is trying to say.

      • Does the story end with them achieving world peace without god? I’m not sure it does. In the end Ozymandias’ plan “succeeds”, in that he blows up NYC and isn’t punished for it and the US and USSR temporarily cease hostilities… but are we meant to think it’s any kind of long-term solution? They haven’t achieved peace, they’ve just momentarily stopped the fighting.

  2. I guess the needless graphic violence didn’t bug me that much; I agree about the sex though. And my complaints with the style of the comic’s art are just that – complaints about style, I just don’t like that style of art, but I wouldn’t argue that there’s anything objectively wrong with. So some of the reasons I liked the movie more than the book are just personal taste; I didn’t find the violence excessive in the movie (though I can see how one would find it such, and if I saw it again I might change my mind), and I didn’t like the style of art the comic book used.

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