The groundbreaking comic series Watchmen redefined what was possible with the comic medium. Written by Alan Moore and drawn by David Gibbons, Watchmen is set in an alternate history where masked vigilantes have been outlawed. The story takes place in 1986. Richard Nixon is still in office and riding high off of the victory in Vietnam thanks to two “heroes” employed by the U.S. government, mad mercenary The Comedian and molecular master Dr. Manhattan. The narrative of Watchmen is a murder mystery. When The Comedian is killed, fellow vigilante Rorschach makes it his business to find the culprit. Based on Steve Ditko’s character, Question, Rorschach is so obsessive about justice that he makes Batman look wishy-washy on crime. The story follows Rorschach on his quest, introducing the reader to Watchmen who hung up their tights when vigilantism was outlawed. Described by many (including Moore) as “unfilmable,” it was only a matter of time before the underground comic made its way to the multiplex. Hollywood loves the quixotic notion of making movies out of impossible properties that have the potential for a massive box office.
Sam Hamm (1989)
The transformation from printed page to silver screen hasn’t been easy. For years, the project languished in the hands of 20th Century Fox. The studio gave Batman screenwriter Sam Hamm the thankless task of adapting Moore’s epic in the late ‘80s. The basic structure of Watchmen remains in place in Hamm’s draft insofar that the characters are the same, though far fewer in number and with less complicated relationships. Hamm’s bizarre decisions on which complex areas to eliminate and which to keep molds the story into an odd shape. This pushes the setting from one that was rooted fairly close to reality into a clunky science fiction realm, evidenced most at the film’s finale.
Subsequent drafts of Watchmen screenplay by David Hayter (X-Men) and Alex Tse (Sucker Free City) also splintered at their conclusion, but none so spectacularly as Hamm’s. In Moore’s graphic novel, Silk Spectre struggles to convince Dr. Manhattan to come out of a self-imposed exile on Mars to save the Earth from imminent destruction. It’s ultimately the miracle of humanity and its struggle against insurmountable odds that convinces the deific Manhattan to return for a literal deus ex machina finale. Hamm changed this scene’s conclusion, removing the redemption of humanity.
It gets worse. Seeing Manhattan’s existence as the cause of more problems than the solution, mastermind Ozymandias opens a hole in time to assassinate Manhattan before the accident that made him omnipotent. This essentially takes the former Outer Limits “Architects of Fear” ending into something closer to the Twilight Zone episode “No Time like the Past”. By shooting Manhattan, Ozymandias unravels a timeline and deposits Rorschach, Silk Spectre and Nite Owl in a world where they never existed but where Watchmen is just a comic book. This ridiculous twist leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth. Hamm’s draft was rewritten by Charles McKeown when Terry Gilliam agreed to direct the project. Ironically, McKeown did an uncredited rewrite of Hamm’s work on Batman.
David Hayter (2003)
David Hayter took over the reins of writing a Watchmen adaptation in 2001. He stuck closer to the original source material, making his additional flourishes stick out like sore thumbs. The strangest augmentation includes a “Memory Mirror” that Dr. Manhattan creates for “Slingshot,” the renamed and powered-up Silk Spectre. This mirror shows Slingshot scenes from her past, introducing flashbacks that never fit into the plot. Hayter also gives Slingshot the ability to shoot balls of energy from between her fingers, eliminating the pesky use of a handgun during the film’s climax.
Hayter’s attempt to tone down the finale has Ozymandias shooting a beam of concentrated solar energy into Manhattan Island, killing the population but somehow leaving everything else intact. This attack results in a city bereft of population but decorated with the kind of silhouettes of bodies that Rorschach sees on one of his patrols. Ozymandias’s plan also includes the dispersal of black boxes to every world leader (a clever nod to the comic) which Nite Owl later uses to send a worldwide message of peace and love via a quote from The Beatles. This gesture comes off as syrupy and regrettable.
Alex Tse (2006)
Eventually, Alex Tse was brought in to rewrite Hayter’s script. Tse’s draft sticks fairly close to Moore’s original story. He strays occasionally in scenes where the U.S. government uses Silk Spectre as a human tracking device to discover Dr. Manhattan on Mars. While Hayter moved the world of Watchmen out of its alternate history to something closer to our own timeline, Tse addresses 9/11 via dialogue about Dr. Manhattan saving the World Trade Center and by pitting him against a gang of terrorists whose stolen uranium he turns to sand. During the climax, Tse has Ozymandias beaming concentrated energy from Dr. Manhattan into “the hearts of nine key regions around the globe, crossing all traditional politics and ideologies,” leaving the same black silhouettes and thus eliminating the carnage and horror of such an event.
In all three drafts, the most startling departure from the Watchmen graphic novel is the death of Ozymandias. Apparently, the writers found it simply abhorrent that Ozymandias, after murdering millions, would be allowed to live. In Hamm’s draft, Dr. Manhattan vaporizes him. In the Hayter and Tse scripts, he’s eliminated by a razor sharp boomerang owl, allowing Nite Owl further redemption and virility. Like Rorschach, the writers knew that evil must be punished. The death of Ozymandias simplifies Moore’s original work from a multifaceted examination of fascism, storytelling, and hope into a derivative “good guy versus bad guy” shadow play. The subtleties of Watchmen are lost in all of the drafts, making the label “unfilmable” all the more appropriate.
What You Saw (Theatrical Release)
While there’s still a 204-minute (at least) director’s cut of Watchmen yet to make its appearance (perhaps with the death of the original Nite Owl), the theatrical version did well to correct a lot of the errors still found in the scripts. Ozymandias managed to survive, though he still seems more like a corporate raider than an egocentric superbeing. While the Twin Towers still stand, looming in the background of Ozymandias’s office and the cemetery, it’s not called out that Dr. Manhattan saved them. Having Nite Owl, Dr. Manhattan, and Ozymandias recall three different aspects of The Comedian while attending his funeral were a great way of giving backstory in a satisfying way. Also, the opening credits do a good job of providing the history of the main characters along with placing the world of the movie in the right alternate history (especially when Silhouette is at the center of the famous VE day photograph).
Some will go to their graves bemoaning the loss of the “squid” from the graphic novel but would that have really played in Podunk? As it was, the least of three evils was chosen as Ozymandias’s masterstroke and most of the other changes in the adaption were laudable. In all, the Watchmen film triumphed over the evil plans laid out by its screenwriters.