AICN EXCLUSIVE! MORIARTY Reviews David Hayter's Adaptation Of WATCHMEN!
Published at: Oct. 10, 2008, 5:51 p.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
Comic books are not literature.
At least, that was the argument before writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller showed up in the industry. But then a series of seminal works changed the comics industry, changed the perception of it, and changed a generation of fans who grew up spoiled by a higher standard of writing in a field that had long been more devoted to the work of artists than writers.
WATCHMEN has long been held as one of the finest moments in comics history, and for good reason. Not only does it serve as a sort of summation on all the ideas of costumed heroes up until that time, but it’s also a remarkable bit of revisionism, suddenly snapping a new paradigm into place that’s been widely imitated ever since. Alan Moore has become a cult figure since then, one of the most revered authors working in the field. FROM HELL, V FOR VENDETTA, THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, TOP TEN, THE KILLING JOKE... his resume is dense with masterworks, and once you read one of these casual bits of brilliance, they have a way of worming into you. They’re time bombs that keep going off long after you’ve read them, and they seem to inspire a rabid devotion in fans.
FROM HELL was a handsomely mounted film, but it’s a thin transposition of a few moments from the book, a copy of something special, and it never once feels like it’s alive. Moore’s book had a sense of palpable menace, and it was dark and filthy and venereal thanks to the remarkable work by Eddie Campbell, and no matter how hard they tried, the Hughes Brothers just didn’t have the visual vocabluary of the screenplay to match that.
I’ll give Don Murphy credit for this: he must have taste if he keeps tackling these Alan Moore projects. Even though FROM HELL didn’t connect, he’s at it again now with LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, as can’t-miss a property as I’ve ever read.
Except... they missed.
At least, they did in the draft I read. If you’ve never read Moore’s original run of LOEG, or if you’ve never read the source material that he drew upon, you might find the upcoming film a pleasant action diversion. But if you’re looking for any sort of faithful or respectful adaptation, you’re out of luck. I’m literally so heartsick over the script that I haven’t had the ambition to write about it in depth. I don’t see the point. With SUPERMAN, there’s still a year until they shoot. I wrote what I wrote (including both what I liked and what I didn’t) because I wanted to simply add in the voice of one fan at this point in the progress towards the screen. Anything I’d write about LEAGUE would be seen as a hatchet job, since they’re already shooting. There’s nothing I can do or say at this point. They’re making the film they’re going to make, and at this point, I can hope that Steven Norrington has some ace up his sleeve I don’t know about. I can pray for the best even if I fear for the worst. And I can just let go of it. My criticisms all boil down to one thing: it didn’t need to be changed. I don’t want to hear about “demographics” and “marketing” or justifications for changing the villains or adding Tom Sawyer. Hooey and hogwash to it all. Fu-Manchu was a power-mad meglomaniac, whether they called him Fu-Manchu in the comic or not. I don't like anything about the invention of "The Fantom." Dorian Grey did not have superpowers. And, above all, if you had the slightest regard for H. Rider Haggard, you’d know what Alan Quatermain's ultimate fate is. Read SHE again. By changing Moore’s work, you’ve also thrown out all the meticulous research that was built into his book, and what you’re left with is an action film with a gimmick. For some audiences, that might be enough.
Me? I’m betting everything on Universal’s WATCHMEN instead.
It’s funny. Before I read SUPERMAN, I told Harry how excited I was. I told him that I thought JJ Abrams was the guy for the job. I was obviously disappointed by what I read, which surprised me, but that was nothing compared to how I read the WATCHMEN draft. It was sent to me in the days following the SUPERMAN review by a close friend (thanks, by the way) who said, “You’re in a comic mood. Maybe this will interest you.” When I picked it up, I was downright nervous. I decided that I would read it and not judge it until the end. I held my breath and took the plunge. I figured I was in trouble...
... and instead, I was moved deeply. And surprised. I mean, David Hayter takes a lot of shit in this town. People say terrible things about him. I’ve heard them. I’ve heard people say he’s not a real writer. I’ve heard people piss all over his HULK draft or his work on X-MEN. I’ve never read anything that was just a David Hayter script before, though, so I haven’t had an opinion on him one way or another. I know the original WATCHMEN quite well, and I’m familiar with the Sam Hamm version that was commissioned in the early ‘90s. Still, I’d heard that Hayter had gone back to zero and started fresh, so when I picked up the draft dated 08/02/2002, I figured this was a chance, at last, to read something that was written entirely by him.
And I’ll admit... my hesitancy had to do with more than just Hayter. I mean, Terry Gilliam himself backed away from this material, saying he didn’t believe it could work as a feature film. He said that it might work if someone would give you ten hours for a cable mini-series, but that there was no way to condense it into something smaller. Gilliam is one of my very favorite filmmakers, period, so how could someone like Hayter, someone so unproven, ever hope to pull it off?
I had my answer within the first ten pages of the script. Hayter has done the unthinkable. He’s written the first comic book screenplay to treat its source material as literature, and he’s crafted this with all the care and complexity of end-of-the-year Oscar bait. This is an epic story about responsibility and mankind’s worst nature and hope, and in the shadow of September 11th, it feels more important than it ever has before. There are very few scripts that I read each year that I feel must be made, but this is a case where the genre is literally incomplete unless this film is brought to the screen as soon as possible. This isn’t just great film writing; it’s the very model for how to adapt something and preserve it intact while still making the hard choices that anyone faces when translating something from one media to another.
And on top of that, it happens to be the single most intense, bone-crunching, bad-ass superhero story I’ve read so far in screenplay format, and if filmed, it’s going to redefine what we’re allowed to do.
Normally, I’d do a comparison of what’s been preserved, what’s been changed, what’s been invented, and try to compare this to the comic, but there’s no point in doing an inventory. Want to know what you’re in store for? Pick up the graphic novel. The one thing you will not see in the film is the material that appeared at the end of each chapter of the original publication. No excerpts from UNDER THE HOOD or TALES OF THE BLACK FREIGHTER. And, to be quite honest, you’ll never miss them. Yes, they added a remarkable texture to the world that Moore and Dave Gibbons created, but they were the type of thing that really would only work in print. When you’re holding a book in your hands, and all of a sudden you’re looking at perfectly art designed pages from different types of books or you’re looking at Rorshach’s psych file or the front page of the NEW FRONTIERSMAN, it works. But that’s not the narrative itself. Moore’s story is remarkably elegant, and Hayter has been very careful not to upset the way Moore constructed it in the first place. Dialogue, descriptions, even camera angles seem to be carefully transcribed. There is essentially no invention here. I can count the number of things that Hayter has created for this script on one hand. There’s a scene towards the end of the film, after the events of the graphic novel, that not only adds a fairly high-stakes action beat, but it also provides the audience with a moral closure that Moore refused to offer in the original. Moore is a cynical man, and his work is fascinated with the darker aspects of our nature, but Hayter seems to need to let some light in, and the result actually strengthens the overall piece. Hayter has also taken a cue from THE ABYSS (but just the director’s cut) that pays off when he quotes a song... just one line at just the right time... in a moment that devastated me. It’s emotional and it’s daring, and it works. It just lays bare the human heart of this story in a very direct way that forces you to react. You will not be able to sit impassively through this film. It is determined to make you feel something, and to make you think, and it pulls out every trick in the book. By streamlining the material down from 324 pages to a mere 127, he’s forced everything to the surface. He’s going to have to get a stupendous cast to come in to bring this thing to life, because he’s thrown down a challenge here. A talented ensemble is going to make you believe in this world completely because Hayter’s written very real, very honest characters, all of them capable of good and bad in equal measure.
So many of the things I was afraid would be gone are still here, and somehow, Hayter makes this thing actually feel leisurely. My favorite chapter from the original is Chapter IV, which deals with Dr. Manhattan’s self-imposed exile to Mars, where he finds himself adrift in time, buffeted by memory like a storm, and I was sure that this would be short-changed in the film. Instead, it’s preserved intact, and it’s just as haunting and poetic and sad. Even when Hayter cuts something, he tries to work bits and pieces in all over the script. If there’s a line he loves in a scene that gets cut, the line might show up later and suddenly illuminate a scene in a whole new way. Hayter is obviously drunk in love with the original WATCHMEN, and he’s built something that even the most rabid barking fanboy purist is going to have to acknowledge with some degree of respect. The one big question that has to be on the minds of anyone who’s read the original is Do they really do it? Do they still do what they did in the book? Do they still do that to New York?
Yes and no.
The version in the book is wet and horrible and nearly impossible to imagine as a live-action image. The implicit horror would be too much to take, I think. What’s been done instead accomplishes the exact same goal, but it’s less bloody, less directly shocking. It’ll still hurt, and it’s going to shake those who don’t know it’s coming, but it won’t make people sick to their stomachs, and a direct translation risked causing that exact reaction.
He didn’t tone down the idea... just the stink and the stacks of bodies. He doesn’t rub our nose in something that would be unbearable. Instead, he’s found an elegant way to handle it. And it’s not because he’s afraid of getting a little mussed, either. Rorshach is still a violent psychopathic killer, and when he escapes from prison, there’s a memorable moment involving Big Figure, a crime boss from his past, that has been reproduced exactly. It’s pitch black stuff, and it took real courage to include it. He never shies away from showing you how much of the history of these characters is written in spilled blood, both theirs and that of other people. It’s appropriate that the film starts with a murder and doesn’t stop moving until there is a reconciliation, a moment of healing.
I could write another 3000 words about this script without flinching, but I’m going to save up this enthusiasm. I’m going to keep my eye on this project as it moves forward. Right now, Hayter is set to make his directorial debut with the film, but I can’t imagine the studio trusting the budget required to a first time filmmaker, even if he has written a script as good as this. If he does indeed end up helming it, then I wish him the best of luck and the best of casts. He’ll need both. I am sure that every casting announcement is going to be intensely scrutinized, and I’ll be as guilty of it as anyone. The costumes will be interesting to see, and I’m dying to know how they plan to handle Dr. Manhattan onscreen.
But no matter what... I’m confident that they’re on the right path. For the first time, I believe that WATCHMEN can work. I want to see this film. I need to see this film. And if you read the first sentence of this review and you got hot under the color right away, before you even read the next word of the piece, then you need to see this film, too. With the right support and the full weight of the studio on his side, David Hayter is poised to make the GODFATHER of superhero films, that rare thing which transcends the genre it represents and becomes something unforgettable.