- Damon Lindelof is developing a “Watchmen” pilot for HBO, based on the acclaimed graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
- A film adaptation directed by Zack Snyder was released in 2009 to mixed results, and only after a dispute was settled between Warner Bros. and Fox over the novel’s film rights.
- 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.
- In a letter to fans on his Instagram, Lindelof said that the HBO version will be an original, contemporary story with new characters, but the events of the novel will be canon.
Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of “Lost” and “The Leftovers,” is taking a chance on adapting the most acclaimed graphic novel of all time, “Watchmen.” He’ll have his work cut out for him.
The 1986, 12-issue comic book limited series (turned graphic novel) from writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons is considered by many fans – and Moore himself – to be unfilmable. Moore has always considered comic books to be the appropriate (and only) medium for his ambitious story, and there are plenty of people who agree.
That hasn’t stopped Hollywood from trying its hand at bringing “Watchmen” to the big screen on several occasions.
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 mixed results.
If a revealing letter to fans on his Instagram last week is any indication, Lindelof 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.”
Lindelof said that he turned down offers to adapt “Watchmen” for TV on two separate occasions before finally accepting when asked a third time. Now, he’s well into developing the pilot for HBO (the caption on his Instagram post said “Day 140”).
What makes it so difficult to adapt
On the surface, to someone totally unfamiliar with the material, “Watchmen” may sound like the average superhero story: a group of masked antiheroes are caught in an elaborate conspiracy after one of their own is murdered. But what has elevated “Watchmen” in the decades since its debut is that it is much bigger than that.
It’s a conspiracy with consequences that shape the world. The characters’ presence affects the course of history: the US won the Vietnam War, Watergate never happened, and humanity is on the brink of World War III in 1985. It raises complex questions about morality, such as how many lives are worth the price of war – and peace. It acts as a harsh commentary of the time it was released, and of the superhero genre in general, which can often lead to misinterpretations.
While it’s feasible to replicate this story for the screen, as Snyder did, many would argue that the distinct look and mood of the novel is only something that comic books can capture, so it shouldn’t be attempted. There are certain creative choices made that are specifically designed for comic books. For instance, chapter five, called “Fearful Symmetry,” is symmetrical: the first page of the chapter is identifiable with the last, and so on.
Each chapter tells its own story, and since Snyder’s film was so reliant on the source material, jumping from one storyline to another created a pacing problem – especially when the story jumped throughout history. Lindelof’s vision, according to his letter, will dodge these obstacles by telling an original, contemporary story with new characters set in the same universe as the novel, where its events are canon.
It doesn’t help that Moore has never appreciated, or intended, any of his works to be adapted. The writer is infamous for having a lukewarm 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.
A history of failure
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.
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.”
Without giving anything away, this is completely different from the novel, and might not have sat well with purists.
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.
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 that 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. “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
Lindelof is currently developing a pilot for HBO that sounds similar to what Greengrass’ version would have been, in that it will be a modern take on the story.
But it won’t be the same story. In his letter, 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.”
Some of those new faces were revealed last week, a day after Lindelof revealed his letter. Variety reported that Regina King (who starred in Lindelof’s “The Leftovers”), Don Johnson, Tim Blake Nelson, and more have joined the cast in undisclosed roles.
Not much is known beyond that, but Lindelof’s letter is promising. He shows an understanding and deep appreciation for the source material – the letter is even written in the same time-jumping style of the Dr. Manhattan-focused chapter of the novel, “Watchmaker” (a page from it is above).
Lindelof often pokes fun at himself for his handling of endings: the “Lost” series finale left fans divided, and he made it a goal to not make the same mistake with “The Leftovers.” I hope this latest foray into the world of “Watchmen” has a happy ending for all.
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