Watchmen’s long journey from page to screen

Alan Moore always said his graphic novel was unfilmable, and for a while, that almost looked true. Mark looks at attempts to adapt Watchmen

It’s now been just over five years since Zack Snyder brought Watchmen, the acclaimed comic series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, to the big screen. Whatever you think of the final film, you could hardly say that the source material was easy to adapt.

Moore’s thought-provoking script and Gibbons’ detailed artwork came together to make one of the most acclaimed comic series ever created- frequently referred to as comics’ answer to The Godfather. Some argue that the comic book movie genre got its Godfather with The Dark Knight in 2008, but studios were trying to adapt Watchmen long before that.

In fact, Hollywood’s flirtations with the material date all the way back to the period when Tim Burton’s Batman became a huge hit, and continued through the 1990s, and on through the superhero movie renaissance that started with Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man at the start of the 2000s.

But the likes of Dr. Manhattan, Nite Owl and Rorschach are not so easily transferrable as those banner superheroes. Although the story’s influence was clear in other revisionist superhero tales, (such as The Incredibles and TV’s Heroes) Watchmen was truly a one-off, in narrative terms as well as acclaim and literary density. It has morally reprehensible characters, with rich back-stories that prove integral to the main plot, and a legendarily difficult ending.

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You’ll have heard a bit about aborted Watchmen adaptations in recent months, because some of the main movers in the production’s long history have all been talking about it while promoting their new movies. Joel Silver sparked things off while promoting Non-Stop, putting down the finished film in an interview with, and saying that his version would have been more successful than the eventual 2009 film.

Silver said: “It was a much, much better movie… I mean, Zack came at it the right way but was too much of a slave to the material. I was trying to get it back from the studio at that point.” He then went on to explain how Gilliam’s ending had differed from the comics, and was generally “less silly”.

Snyder then retaliated, while promoting 300: Rise Of An Empire, by saying that he made his 2009 version “to save it from the Terry Gilliams of the world”, and called Watchmen his favourite film that he has made.

The difficulty of adapting the densely layered tale flummoxed filmmakers and producers alike for years and years, before Snyder finally made the leap. As Dr. Manhattan says, “all we see of stars are their old photographs”, and in this article, we’ll explore Watchmen’s long journey from page to screen, as well as looking at some of the films that might have been.

“Christ almighty, it’s the goddamn Watchmen!”

It all started when Silver and 20th Century Fox president Lawrence Gordon optioned the comic back in 1986. After the success of Batman in 1989, development began in earnest, and accordingly, it was screenwriter Sam Hamm who took the first run at paring down the epic 12-issue story into a reasonably paced movie.

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Hamm told Entertainment Weekly that while he admired the comic’s story-led architecture, “trying to replicate it was impossible”, and in an era when Batman’s parents were gunned down by the Joker, you can probably guess how faithful his Watchmen was to Moore’s work. He pared down the story and trimmed central motifs like the eminently cuttable Tales Of The Black Freighter companion comic, the more crucial device of Rorschach’s journal, and several aspects of the characters’ development and backstories. More infamously, he changed the ending.

The moral conundrum at the end of Watchmen finds the characters stymied by the ruthless logic of fellow costumed-hero Ozymandias’ master plan to unite the opposing sides of the Cold War against an extra-terrestrial enemy, in a take-off of the Outer Limits episode, The Architects Of Fear.

Hamm’s ending had Ozymandias, aka Adrian Veidt, persuading Dr. Manhattan that his existence had escalated the Cold War to the point where nuclear apocalypse was all but certain, and that the only way to put things right was to go back in time and negate his own existence. In the process, this somehow shunted all of the other characters except Veidt (who is dispatched in an obligatory villain death, in vast contrast to the source) into a universe where they were all fictional.

Like many of the various iterations of the script, his take on the material eventually became available online, and is perhaps most notorious for corny lines like the one quoted above, which is hollered as the team try to foil a terrorist attack on the Statue of Liberty in the film’s revised opening.

Just as Hamm’s Batman was only the darkest screen version of the character up to that point, looking decidedly grimmer than the 1960s TV series, but retrospectively sillier in comparison to the Dark Knight trilogy, Hamm’s Watchmen is a more studio-friendly, less complicated affair than later versions of the project, or the version that we eventually saw in cinemas. Even so, 20th Century Fox didn’t fancy sinking $120 million on the film, and put the project into turnaround.

The Gordian knot

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Production problems are almost a running joke throughout Terry Gilliam’s filmography, but Watchmen would have completely stumped less hardy filmmakers than he.

In Gilliam’s view, Hamm’s script reduced everything special about Watchmen into a film about “a bunch of superheroes”, so he enlisted his Brazil and Adventures Of Baron Munchausen co-writer, Charles McKeown, to help him rewrite the script. Their draft has never leaked online, but it reportedly kept Hamm’s alternate ending, and re-integrated Rorschach’s journal as a narrative device.

Meanwhile, Silver reportedly had some ideas about his dream cast for the film. He wanted to cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dr. Manhattan, a choice that would’ve preceded that other big, blue comic book character that Arnie wound up playing. Silver also had his eye on Kevin Costner for Nite Owl, a post-Fisher King Robin Williams for Rorschach, and Jamie Lee Curtis for Laurie/Silk Spectre II.

During development, Gilliam met with Alan Moore, (who has since become more openly pernickety about film adaptations of his work, and not without reason) to ask for advice about how to film the book. Moore told him that he felt it was neither cinematic, nor filmable. His line has always been that the comic was “designed to show off the things that comics could do that films and literature couldn’t.”

Gilliam’s final conclusion was that the book would be better as a five-hour miniseries, than as a two-and-a-half hour film, and he left the project after the second attempt to get it rolling, in 1996, to make Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas instead.

When he was asked about Snyder “saving” the story from him during his recent Reddit AMA to promote The Zero Theorem, Gilliam gave a much more classy and magnanimous rebuttal to the recent muck-flinging. He said: “I thought Zack’s film worked well, but it suffered from the very problem that I was happy to avoid by not making the film.”

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“A clock without a craftsman.”

After Gilliam disembarked, the project languished in turnaround for some time, producer Lawrence Gordon teamed up with Lloyd Levin at Universal Pictures in a bid to get the film made. Off the back of 2000’s X-Men, the producers roped in screenwriter David Hayter to write Watchmen from scratch, and potentially direct it too.

Hayter wrote a 324 page first draft, and then wrestled it down to the 129 page draft that has since made it online. While thematically true to the source material, he moved the action from the 1980s to the early 21st century, with a post-9/11 Middle East standing in for Russia in the nuclear stand-off, and supplemented Veidt’s alien squid with a number of targeted nuclear attacks all over the world.

Although the script was well received, Hayter was still an untested director, which is said to be part of the creative differences cited when he, Gordon and Levin took the project into turnaround once again. Levin was interested in setting up the project at Revolution Studios, the company that co-produced Hellboy, but nothing came of it.

The project landed at Paramount in 2004, where Darren Aronofsky was enlisted to direct Hayter’s script after The Fountain, which at that point starred Brad Pitt, fell through. When Hugh Jackman climbed aboard that film, Aronofsky jumped back onto his passion project. The Noah director would have further near-misses with comic book projects such as Batman: Year One, and his departure from The Wolverine in 2011.

After a decade and a half of development, the film had spent quite enough time in turnaround, and the next could-have-been Watchmen director to take over the project brought it closer to fruition than anyone.

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Five minutes to midnight…

In mid-2004, The Bourne Supremacy was getting some exciting hype, and docu-drama-turned-action director Paul Greengrass was tipped as one to watch. Paramount duly snapped him up to replace the departed Aronofsky, and Greengrass got to work on concept art and casting.

The casting of Jude Law as Adrian Veidt might be one of the more well-known decisions that arose from this incarnation of the project, because the Ozymandias concept art on Snyder’s film reportedly still used him as a reference, even though he eventually declined to sign on. Joaquin Phoenix, Hilary Swank and Ron Perlman were also tipped for roles, as Dan/Nite Owl, Laurie, and The Comedian respectively.

A little research links several different actors to the role of Rorschach, including Paddy Considine, Daniel Craig and Simon Pegg, and rumours of Sigourney Weaver’s involvement persisted throughout, (we’d have put our money on her playing Sally, the original Silk Spectre) but there’s far more concrete evidence of the concept art that went into the production.

Empire Magazine visited the pre-production office for a tantalising feature published in 2005- “Think of this as Ken Loach meets X-Men and you might only be halfway there,” they teased.

As the project continued in development, it was still skirting the edge of a green light from the studio. In every incarnation, it would have required an enormous budget, and the producers actually devised alternate budgets for the film, depending on whether the powers that be wanted them to shoot in London, Los Angeles or Montreal.

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But a changing of the guard at the top of Paramount left the project’s future at the studio in doubt, and sure enough, it went into turnaround once again in 2005, months before shooting was due to start, leaving Greengrass free to direct the eventually Oscar-nominated United 93.

He is still yet to have a bash at anything more fantastical than his Bourne sequels, which managed to set a grounded and oft-imitated house-style for their entire genre, and fans of the director are still left wondering what might have been if his Watchmen had been the one to break out of development hell.

“Everything is pre-ordained.”

Warner Bros. Pictures picked up the project in 2005, with Paramount managing to hold on to international distribution rights. “I think there’s a benefit, ultimately, to it being at Warner Bros,” Levin said, optimistically. “Studios in the past wanted to turn Watchmen into something it’s not. Not Warners. They’re embracing it for what it is.”

That certainly came through in their choice of director – Zack Snyder had used Frank Miller’s 300 as a straight-up storyboard in his 2007 adaptation of the graphic novel. Warners already knew they had a hit on their hands after the trailer became an online phenomenon, and offered the reins on Watchmen over to Snyder before the film even came out.

Outside of his more recent and somewhat unfair comments about Gilliam, Snyder has previously spoken of how he took on the project because though he thought the comic shouldn’t be a film, he didn’t want the studio to give it to someone else to make it either.

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Working from elements of the David Hayter script, Snyder drafted in Alex Tse to restore the period setting of the comics, and assembled a version of the opening credits sequence to pitch to the studio. The alt-history montage, set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times, They Are A-Changing”, is reportedly what clinched the director’s chair for him, and some would argue it’s also the most effective part of the finished film too.

Once he had the greenlight, Snyder cast a solid line-up of character actors such as Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson and Billy Crudup. He also cast Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Carla Gugino as the Comedian and Silk Spectre, reasoning that it was easier to make them up to look older for the 1980s scenes, than to de-age them for the flashbacks.

Snyder has cited Taxi Driver as a visual influence, an effect that is amplified by the use of Rorschach’s Bickle-esque narration, but repeated his process of using the comic as a storyboard, with reverence that many (including Joel Silver) have since criticised as slavish. He even got Dave Gibbons to draw a comic book version of his new ending, in which the original intention remains intact and the means is adjusted to make Dr. Manhattan a scapegoat.

The first trailer for Watchmen premièred in US theaters before The Dark Knight in July 2008 – a sequence of shots showcasing the characters, soundtracked by a Rorschach monologue and the strains of The Smashing Pumpkins’ “The Beginning Is The End Is The Beginning.” The interest in the comic that was provoked by this trailer prompted DC Comics to print 900,000 more copies of the trade paperback to satisfy demand.

The project was finally on its way to the big screen when one of the more notable and dramatic industry dick moves of recent years arose, when Fox sued to try and block the release of the film three months before release. They successfully litigated their way into a share of the box office of a film that they had not contributed to producing, and had failed to fully develop when they did have a stake.

Despite that dramatic final act twist, the story of Watchmen’s journey to the big screen was completed on March 6th 2009. The film eventually made $185m worldwide, off the back of a $130m budget- hardly a romping success, but it at least made its budget back, and put paid to the notion that the story was un-filmable.

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“Nothing ever ends.”

No matter how you feel about Snyder’s Watchmen, it’s tough to shake that instinct that it might have been better as a TV mini-series. Gilliam realised that, even if he spent a fair bit of time being told ‘no’ by Fox before he got there, and the story seems more suited to television now than ever before, with its improved production values and freedom of storytelling.

AMC is making in-roads to comic book shows, with their hugely successful adaptation of The Walking Dead and the upcoming Preacher series. By the same token, DC is increasingly interested in spinning off their comics for TV, in Arrow and The Flash. If those two movements intercede, after enough time has passed, maybe a Watchmen series could still happen.

And let’s not forget, since the movie came out, we’ve had a whole series of spin-off comics, Before Watchmen, an exercise that initially seemed to be a deplorable cash-grab, which actually did have some neat moments and character beats. While a movie sequel looks unlikely, all of that material is there for someone else to work into a new adaptation somewhere down the line.

We might see Watchmen on-screen again, in a different form, in the next ten or twenty years. On the other hand, Alan Moore definitely won’t. Although he once conceded that David Hayter’s (present day) script was as close to the book as he could imagine a film would be, he remained adamant from that point forth that he would never see the completed film.

It’s not to say that Moore’s disownment of any adaptations gives Hollywood carte blanche, but it’s clear that Watchmen has had enough different interpretations over the years to keep us interested in what the future might hold, and it remains that the journey could well start all over again.

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