I’m going to say this right at the start, so as to avoid confusion later on: I am enjoying the Watchmen HBO show. It is excellent sci-fi. It is well-written, well-acted, and well-produced. It deals with important issues and provides a needed critique of contemporary society in the tradition of other great Science Fiction alternate histories, including, but not limited to the Watchmen graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. If it was an original program without any ties to the greatest graphic novel, I would love it. It is, however, branded as a Watchmen story, and, for me, therein lies the trouble.
I am reluctant to post any critique of the show given the backlash against the way the show raises contemporary issues about race in America. Any critique I have with the show have nothing to do with these issues. I believe that the show does an excellent job as a vehicle for social criticism and that the future it describes is at least as likely in our timeline as it is in the fictional one of The Watchmen. I applaud a mainstream show for seriously discussing and critiquing important things going on in our society.
That said, I’ve been conflicted about Watchmen ever since I first saw it at the New York Comic Con panel. I watched the show, I listened to the show runner, the actors, and even Dave Gibbons, the artist and co-creator of the graphic novel, explain their fidelity to the source material. I understood what they were trying to do, but when I watched the pilot, it did not feel like a Watchmen story to me.
At first I didn’t understand why I felt this way. Here was a show of obviously high quality with creators who spoke about the source material with knowledge and respect. It dealt with important contemporary issues (much like the original graphic novel) which, in my opinion are not discussed enough in modern science fiction, in a thought-provoking way. But still, something about the presentation bothered me; something wasn’t jibing with the source material for me, and I needed to figure out what it was.
After watching the premiere, I decided to reread the graphic novel. And, after my reread and after watching the first two episodes on HBO, I figured it out. The characterization techniques of the book and the show are very different, and, as a writer, I think that’s what bothers me.
The Watchmen graphic novel is dominated by interior monologue. From Rorschach’s diary entries which open the story, to Doctor Manhattan’s monologue explaining the way he sees time in chapter/issue 4 (which in my opinion is the greatest single issue of a comic ever written), to Veidt’s monologue explaining his plan to Nite Owl and Rorschach at the end, we are inside the characters’ head for much of the story. The monologues function in much the same way as Shakespeare’s soliloquies work in his plays: They give us a window into the characters’ thoughts and feelings, and we, as readers, are forced to respond both emotionally and intellectually to characters who seem as real as we are. The roundness of Moore’s characters derives from this technique, and his ability to create realistic, true-to-life, complex characters who just happen to be masked superheroes is a large part of what made the original graphic novel so great. This storytelling style, is reminiscent of great literature throughout history, and is a large part of the reason that Watchmen is so well regarded in the literary world, beyond just the comic book industry. The book won a Hugo award (one of the two major science fiction awards), and was included in Time’s top 100 books. For all the (deserved) praise that Watchmen receives in the comic world for various inside-baseball comics techniques which advanced that industry by leaps and bounds, it is the characterization, which connects it to the literary tradition, which has allowed it to cross-over to success and acclaim in a world beyond comics.
Damon Lindelof’s show exists in a very different reality. Modern-screen (as opposed to on paper) story telling is dominated by external, inderect characterization. The audience is supposed to infer characterization indirectly, through the characters’ actions and through their interaction with each other. Back-story is considered taboo and soliloquy is seen as dated. This attitude can best be seen in David Mamet’s writing. In this letter to the writers of Unit, Mamet decries various expository techniques as “not dramatic” going as far as to say, “ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT” (Caps his). There are large chunks of the graphic novel—most of the scenes with Laurie and Daniel for example—where the characters discuss a third. Does this make Watchmen, the graphic novel “shit”? I think most people would agree that it’s not. But, according to Mamet’s definition, it is, or at least it would be as a screen drama. In his book, The Three Uses of the Knife (which every writer should read if only because of the influence of Mamet’s ideas) Mamet levels similar criticism against the soliloquy.
Lindelof came up in a world dominated by Mamet’s ideas. Watching his first two episodes, it is clear that he subscribes to Mamet’s ideas about drama and storytelling. There is very little exposition. The viewer is dropped right into an unfamiliar world, with little-to-no insight into the characters’ heads. There are no monologues. No journal entries. Few examples of two characters talking about a third. Just action, action, action—drama in the style for which Mamet advocates, almost to the extreme. That may be why the show works as a TV program, but it also why it feels so different from Watchmen to me, despite the visual call-backs to the original. To me, no shot of blood dripping on a small round object or shot of “The New Frontiersmen” at a newsstand can cover up that difference. The two styles are so antithetical that to me, especially as a writer, they feel like they should not exist in the same story-telling universe.
Upon reflection and analysis, I have determined that my discomfort with the show stems from this issue. This is why the story doesn’t feel like Watchmen to me.
There is an argument to be made that the difference described above should be ascribed to the difference in medium. Alan Moore himself has made this argument. He does not like when his work is adapted to film in large part because, and he’s stated this in numerous places, that comics and film are different mediums. He believes that different types of stories are successfully in each venue, and that a great comic will not necessarily make a great movie for this reason. Perhaps he is right. Perhaps adapting Watchmen, which trends closer to Dickens than to Mamet in style, is an impossible task, but I don’t believe that is the case. There have been enough successful adaptations of comic books and graphic novels that I believe it can be done well.
While there is no doubt that Mamet is a successful and influential screenwriter, I do not believe his way is the only way. The truth is seldom absolute. There is usually a middle ground. I am not advocating for a straight adaptation in the style of Frank Miller’s largely successful Sin City movie (which kept all of the internal monologue that drove the comic), but some insight into the character’s minds, some insight into Angela Abar’s head would go a long way toward making the show feel more like the book. Some variance in perspective would be nice as well. The plethora of points a view in the graphic novel is absent from the show as well. The different, morally gray perspectives of Rorschach, Manhattan, Dreiberg, Laurie, and Veidt, is a large part of what made the graphic novel so deep. The show has largely followed Aybar’s perspective, to the exclusion of many other points of view. The Veidt scenes are interesting in that the perspective shift reminds me more of the source material, but I want to see even more points of view.
Again, though it may not seem like it from the above analysis, I do like the show. I am watching every episode. I think the it presents are important and are dealt with in a thought provoking way. I wish more science fiction would engage with them as intelligently. I am enjoying the acting and the mystery. If it did not have the Watchmen name attached to it, the show would be among my favorite current or recent television programs. I also know that name—and my love of the source material—will continue to mean that the show will bother because of the differences from the original in terms of storytelling and characterization techniques.