We looked back at the long history of failed 'Watchmen' adaptations, as HBO sets an October release date for its own star-studded TV series

HBO‘Watchmen’ premieres October 20 on HBO.
  • HBO’s “Watchmen” TV show from “Lost” and “The Leftovers” cocreator Damon Lindelof premieres October 20.
  • A film adaptation directed by Zack Snyder was released in 2009 to lacklustre results.
  • Prior to that, several attempts were made to adapt “Watchmen.” Directors such as Darren Aronofsky, Terry Gilliam, and Paul Greengrass were all attached at one point.
  • Moore himself has always been against adaptations of his work, and told The Los Angeles Times in 2008 that film “spoon-feeds us, which has the effect of watering down our collective cultural imagination.”
  • Lindelof has said the HBO version will be an original, contemporary story with new characters, but the events of the novel will be canon.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Damon Lindelof, the cocreator of “Lost” and “The Leftovers,” is taking a chance on adapting the most acclaimed graphic novel of all time, and he’ll have his work cut out for him.

Hollywood has taken plenty of cracks at bringing to life writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’ 1986, 12-issue comic-book series, about a group of vigilantes who discover a vast conspiracy after one of their own is murdered in an alternate-history US.

The latest attempt, from Lindelof and HBO, will premiere on October 20.

Directors such as Terry Gilliam (“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”), Darren Aronofsky (“mother!”), and Paul Greengrass (“Jason Bourne”) were once associated with film adaptations. Zack Snyder (“Justice League”) finally got the job done in 2009 to lacklustre results. It has a 64% Rotten Tomatoes critic score and a 71% audience score. It grossed $US185 million worldwide off of a $US130 million production budget.

READ MORE: HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ TV series will tell a completely different story than Zack Snyder’s film adaptation

Lindelof said in a revealing letter to fans on his Instagram last May that he turned down offers to adapt “Watchmen” for TV on two separate occasions before finally accepting when asked a third time. If the letter is any indication, he knows what lies ahead.

“I am compelled despite the inevitable pushback and hatred I will understandably receive for taking on this particular project,” he said. “This ire will be maximally painful because of its source. That source being you. The true fans.”

But he went on to say: “I’m a true fan, too. And I’m not the only one. What I love about television is that the finished product is not the result of a singular vision, but the collective experience of many brilliant minds.”

WatchmenDC ComicsA panel from ‘Watchmen’ by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

A history of failure

Moore has a famously negative opinion of film. In a 2008 interview with The Los Angeles Times, Moore said that he finds “film in its modern form to be quite bullying.”

“It spoon-feeds us, which has the effect of watering down our collective cultural imagination,” he said.

That hasn’t stopped Hollywood. The “Watchmen” rights have bounced from studio to studio, director to director, for over two decades.

In the 1990s, Terry Gilliam was attached to direct a “Watchmen” adaptation from a script by Sam Hamm, who wrote Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” film. That project was dropped, but Gilliam and Hamm had ambitious ideas for their adaptation.

READ MORE: How ‘The Boys’ comic book survived cancellation and inspired Amazon’s new hit superhero TV series

In the novel, a character named Dr. Manhattan has God-like powers and his existence has a direct impact on historical events. In Hamm’s script, according to producer Joe Silver, the character Ozymandias (the “smartest man in the world”) convinced Dr. Manhattan to go back in time and stop himself from ever existing. He does so, which prevents the other characters from becoming vigilantes and their costumed alter-egos only become comic-book characters.

“So the three characters, I think it was Rorschach and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, they’re all of the sudden in Times Square and there’s a kid reading a comic book,” Silver said in 2014. “They become like the people in Times Square dressing up like characters as opposed to really being those characters. There’s a kid reading the comic book and he’s like, ‘Hey, you’re just like in my comic book.’ It was very smart, it was very articulate, and it really gave a very satisfying resolution to the story, but it just didn’t happen. Lost to time.”

In 2004, Darren Aronofsky was announced to be the director of a “Watchmen” film. This came three years after 9/11, when the project was scrapped (again) by Universal because the novel involves a disastrous event in Manhattan. In those three years, the rights landed at Paramount, but Aronofsky eventually ditched the movie.

Watchmen movie going to hboWarner Bros.‘Watchmen,’ directed by Zack Snyder, was released in 2009.

Before Snyder, Paul Greengrass came the closest to getting his vision of “Watchmen” off the ground. His version would have been a modern take on the story. In a 2010 interview with Comic Book Resources, Dominic Watkins – who was a production designer on Greengrass’ “Bourne” movies and would have been on his “Watchmen” adaptation – said the post-9/11 Bush-era resembled the rising tension of the Cold War in the 1980s that the novel captured.

“I thought that the political climate from Bush was escalated to a similar point, with us on the brink of something quite catastrophic, so I thought making a version of ‘Watchmen’ that was more contemporary and applying it to the decade of the ’00s was a good idea and was a lot more relevant than it turned out to be,” Watkins said.

He continued: “I think the difference between Zack Snyder’s ‘Watchmen’ and ours would have been night and day. He pretty much made the movie page-to-page from the graphic novel. Ours was definitely going to be based on the graphic novel and all the characters would have been drawn on that, but we’d have updated it somewhat.”

Watkins even had a production book of concept art ready, but the rest is history.

What we know about HBO’s adaptation

The series has been largely shrouded in secrecy, but HBO’s description is below:

“Set in an alternate history where masked vigilantes are treated as outlaws,’Watchmen,’ from executive producer Damon Lindelof (Emmy winner for ‘Lost’; HBO’s ‘The Leftovers’) embraces the nostalgia of the original groundbreaking graphic novel of the same name, while attempting to break new ground of its own. Nicole Kassell directs the pilot from a script written by Lindelof.”

The all-star cast for the show includes Jeremy Irons, Regina King, Don Johnson, and Tim Blake Nelson. HBO has released two official trailers for the series: a teaser trailer and a trailer from San Diego Comic-Con.

In his letter last year, Lindelof said he has no intention of adapting the source material, but “remixing” it.

It will be an original, contemporary story with new, “unknown” characters, but the events of the novel will be a part of the pilot’s history.

“Some of the characters will be unknown,” he said. “New faces. New masks to cover them.”

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