Why Watchmen Can Never Have A Faithful Adaptation

by Benjamin Hall

*Warning of Potential Spoilers for the comic series Watchmen (1986-1987) and Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut: The Complete Story (2009) movie. Also there are brief mentions of the upcoming Watchmen (2019-Present) television show (including a link to details of it in this warning).

Watchmen is a comic book series from DC that is a deconstruction of superheroes set in a somewhat realistic universe. It has received adaptation in the form of a movie, and is getting a television show on HBO in 2019. However, unlike certain other literary works, Watchmen will never have a faithful adaptation into other media formats. This is due to a few problems that it has always faced: its many layers, its predictability, creative differences that arise, and an audience’s limited attention span. 

Problem one involves the constantly interweaving plot in the book, plus ‘The Black Freighter’ story and other supplemental narratives, which when adapted could resulting in continuity mistakes. These various layers would probably have to be constructed separately, then put back together, by different production teams, or the result would be an extreme amount of production time. Either option would be too costly to allow. Not to mention taking everything in as a viewer would need more viewings than readings, as is the case with Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut: The Complete Story.

The next two problems, predictability and creative differences, are somewhat interconnected. This is partly due to the fact that if one makes a fully faithful adaptation of anything, it would be rather boring for the viewer to know every bit beforehand. Plus, each person who reads Watchmen comes away with their own personal opinions and beliefs impacting their take on the series. An example of this is the way in which director Zack Snyder’s views on how fight scenes should function (i.e. with a slow motion special effect being added in) affect the pacing of Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut: The Complete Story. In other words, by changing the expected rate of movement, the story’s length and impact on the consumer changes. Therefore these two problems create a double-edged sword where an adaptation will either be faithful, but boring, or unfaithful, yet surprising.

Finally, we are left with the problem of people’s attention spans. This is an issue simply because people have limits to their attention spans (some more so than average). Thus, while the series in comic form allows the reader to pick their pace, an adaptation has a pre-chosen pace and allotted time. Due to Watchmen having so many layers, and not having to show every moment of story, an adaptation like the movie’s Ultimate Cut cannot be easily viewed without risk of losing a viewer’s interest. The upcoming television show also runs the risk of all of these problem being multiplied in various ways, such as losing a key character due to real-life career demands or death and therefore losing fans of that character.

In conclusion, I believe devoted fans of this work should consider the ways in which they are lucky that it is still a popular book, and that they have gotten any kind of adaptation rather than wishing too fervently for a faithful adaptation of the work, which faces enormous challenges.

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