Why Adapting ‘Watchmen’ Is Practically Impossible

By Noah Berlatsky

Watchmen is one of the most beloved comic books of the last 50 years. Hopes are high for a much-hyped television series. But the very things that made the comic great are likely to undermine any screen adaptation. More than almost any other superhero franchise, Watchmen’s greatness was tied to its original form. Pulling Rorschach, the Comedian, Danny and Laurie off the page doesn’t give them life. It turns them into zombies.

Watchmen adaptations have always been troubled. The 1986 comic series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is widely regarded as one of the great superhero comics, and one of the great modern science-fiction dystopias. Talk of screen adaptations started almost as soon as the series completed—but as in the series itself, watching the Watchmen has not gone smoothly. A movie was stuck in development hell for years, with Terry Gilliam attached. The story finally made it to the screen in a 2009 Zach Snyder adaptation that was widely perceived as a disappointment, now with only a 65 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Now Warner Brothers and DC are trying again. Damon Lindelof, co-creator of Lost, is reportedly in talks to adapt the original as a television series for HBO. “There’s reason to hope that Alan Moore’s seminal, classic comic-book series Watchmen may finally get the adaptation it has always deserved,” Salon enthused.

But there isn’t much reason to hope. The power of Watchmen remains in its original comic book form, which makes it unusually difficult to adapt to other media.

Much of what was special about Watchmen was tied to Moore and Gibbons’ innovative use of comics. One leitmotif of the series is the juxtaposition of text from one scene or source with the action in another scene. In one amusing sequence, Dan (Night Owl) and Laurie (the Silk Spectre) have awkward, first-time sex while the television shows an acrobatics demonstration by Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias). The announcer commenting on Adrian’s amazing feats becomes a running commentary on the action on the couch. “The grace of his movement is extraordinary—this is a man in his 40s,” the announcer gushes, as Dan fidgets and struggles towards an impotent conclusion.

You could certainly stage the scene on screen, cutting back and forth between Veidt on the television and the less successful action on the couch (though Zach Snyder didn’t even try). But what’s special about these juxtapositions in Watchmen is how quiet and static they are. Comics let you read at your own pace and browse around the page; Moore and Gibbons use that throughout Watchmen to slow down their pulp story. In the sex scene with Dan and Laurie, the fumbling of the lovers is similar to the fumbling of the reader tracking back and forth between two sets of text. Moore and Gibbons even use the text bubbles to their advantage; they float in front of the scene, preventing the reader from seeing what is going on. Thinking and words literally get in the way of the sex.

The importance of the comic form is even more visible in the handling of Dr. Manhattan (Jon Osterman). Jon is the one character with superpowers; due to a scientific experiment, he has been granted the godlike ability to manipulate atomic structures. (He’s also blue.) Jon experiences all time simultaneously. “I can’t prevent the future,” he explains. “To me it’s already happening.”

Jon sees himself on Mars and on earth at the same time—and a reader can see him in both places at the same time, too, in adjacent panels. Jon reads the world like a comic book. Time is spread out in front of him like a page.

That frozen sense of inevitability is not just Jon’s perception; it’s part of how Watchmenthe comic is structured. The series famously uses a nine-panel grid for every page, which is sometimes varied (some images stretch across multiple panels) but is never altered. Moore and Gibbons also structure the series around repeating, silent images—the most famous being the smiley face spattered with blood, which is the first panel of the comic and the last. The tight formal strictures and the repetition give Watchmen an air of claustrophobic inevitability. The characters almost seem to be performing choreographed dances; fight scenes turn into silent tableau. Rather than showing hyper-kinetic awesomeness and agency, the superheroes are trapped in their tropes, battling because they have to battle rather than because they’re whooshing the narrative along.

Moore and Gibbons leech away the power from their superheroes deliberately. Watchmen is a story about how the worship of power and megalomaniacal dreams of saving all humanity lead inadvertently to bleak outcomes and, in Watchmen, to piles of dead bodies. Watchmen is about how superhero narratives trap us: The reader is imprisoned in the superhero tropes just as the characters are locked in that nine-panel grid.

In contrast, Zach Snyder’s Watchmen used John Woo-esque Hong Kong cinema-style special effects and jump cuts to create speedy fight scenes filled with whoosh and bang and zip. His superheroes look like every other superhero. Watchmen removed from comics is Watchmen sped up, which is Watchmen made into just another superhero story.

Alan Moore has been virulently opposed to adaptations of the comic. “It is as if we are freshly hatched birds looking up with our mouths open waiting for Hollywood to feed us more regurgitated worms,” he commented bitterly. “’The ‘Watchmen’ film sounds like more regurgitated worms. I for one am sick of worms.”

He’s got a point. The genius of Watchmen is that it was a limited series, with a definite end. Watchmen used comics in unusual ways to do something new and unsettling with the superhero form. HBO’s television version is unlikely to capture the comic’s formal power, which is also its heart.