Friday, March 06, 2009

How WATCHMEN the movie is different from the comic

I saw "Watchmen" today on opening day. I loved the 12-issue comic series (decidedly NOT a graphic novel at the time of release) back in 1986, and recently re-read the stories before seeing the movie. In retrospect, I wish I hadn't (as I didn't for "V for Vendetta") because it put me in a position to vividly know what was going to happen and also constantly compare the two.

Alan Moore is consistent about hating the movies adapted from his comics, and considering how crafted his work is, I understand why any change is a bad change from his point of view. What follows is my take on the biggest changes.

[Big spoilers to follow.]

Obviously, the most most conspicuous change was to make the big disaster at the end be energy explosions in five major cities blamed on Dr. Manhattan instead of a giant dead squid-like creature dropping on half of Manhattan, but only Manhattan. The change makes some sense in that more of the world will join together if more is affected. But I don't know that it's more believable that Dr. Manhattan's turned into a threat as opposed to a giant squid portending an alien invasion. Kind of a push. I suppose that gives Jon more of a reason to stay gone from earth (protecting the charade), as opposed to his "less complicated" reason offered. But perhaps the main reason I don't like the change is that cinematic explosions are a dime a dozen. When will we get to see a giant squid crush Manhattan?

The non-Rorschach scene whose changes I liked least was the fire rescue. I liked that the comics had Nite Owl treating the whole thing like a full-service plane flight the whole way, complete with announcements of coffee service and moving himself to atop of Archie to make room. Plus, it would have been a great visual to have him flying it while standing on top. They do show the coffee cups being thrown out, but the effect just isn't the same. Furthermore, when he and Laurie finally consummate their relationship (successfully), the comics point out that the costumes helped. It's important that their costumed identities make them feel more powerful and confident.

However, the more I think about it and review the source material, the more I think the character who got the worst end of the adaptation was Rorschach.

It starts when he's being picked on for his mother's profession when he's a kid. In the movie, he jumps them and somehow takes two older, tougher bullies apparently out of surprise and a kind of rawness. He does bite the ear in the comic, but I think it's more significant that the way he gets the upper hand in that fight is by starting it by taking one kid's cigarette and sticking it in his eye. That not only makes the victory more plausible, it shows the extent to which he was willing to resort to out-of-proportion violence at a young age if he needed it to reach his goals.

The other thing that happens to him as a kid is that his mother loses a trick and therefore money when he interrupts her with a john. In the movie, the money is not referred to at all. I think it's important that it's shown he's taking a beating from his mother because of cash, not some other emotional disappointment.

The sessions with the shrink are compressed into one session, which shorts Rorschach in several places. First, in the comic he doesn't give the bullshit answers to the blot test until they've been doing this for a while. It's not until a future session that the shrink prods him to say what he really saw in those blots, and then he gives the explanation. In one of those sessions, he has a critical line about "masked adventuring" that doesn't make the movie. "We do not do this thing because it is permitted. We do it because we have to. We do it because we are compelled." He's saying "we," but in reality, he means himself. He's the only one who doesn't quit when the government tells him to. He also explains how and why he made his mask. He made it from a dress that was never picked up at a dressmaker because of its interesting shape shifting capability. It wasn't until he found out that the dress belonged to a woman who was brutally murdered that he "made a face [he] could stand to look at."

The story of converting from Kovacs to Rorschach is changed in an important way. It's when he realizes the dogs are eating the kid that he splits them open and then completes his transition to Rorschach. It's important that it's the realization of what man is capable of completes the transition and makes him capable of killing any life, even dogs. In the movie when he doesn't realize it until he kills the man, it's possible to believe it's his first human killing that transforms him. He has to wait for the guy to come home in both media, but in the comic, he doesn't cut him up, he doses the guy in kerosene, and leaves him a hacksaw. The guy's only chance to survive is to cut through his own arm, and he can't do it, or is too cowardly to choose to. This is critical. Rorschach is now an avenger who believes that treating miserable people miserably is a part of justice.

Finally (in the shrink sequence), his conclusion about the self-damnation of humanity gets to his shrink. The guy shocks his dinner companions with these stories, and comes to believe what Rorschach does. How many patients change their doctors that way?

At the same time, his compassionate side is almost removed from the film. In the comic, when Laurie and Dan spring him from jail, he does address her respectfully ("Miss Juspeczyck", not "Miss Jupiter"). Subtle, but remembering her real hard to remember name rather than a stage one makes this doubly respectful, on top of the formality). He also says that he never liked her uniform, saying "Nothing personal," which shows that he recognizes that her sexually-charged outfit was unnecessarily inappropriate and sent the wrong message. He's the only guy in the whole story that can be called a women's libber! Then, when they go back to his apartment to get his backup gear (which was not recovered in jail), he confronts his landlady, who lied to the cops and said he sexually harassed her. He's ready to punish her too, but she begs for mercy because her kids are watching, and he leaves her alone. All this compassion is missing from the film.

The worst offense is when he's killed by Dr. Manhattan. It's critical that he's been crying when he removes his mask. It's the only time we ever see him cry, and it's because he just watched thousands of innocents die in Manhattan (and only Manhattan in the comic), and the other people who know are willing to cover it up for the sake of world peace. He's moved to tears because he is moved by the deaths and believes with all his core that the cover up is wrong.

Through all these things, we know he's not a crazy vigilante with no heart. He has a very strong code of ethics that is arguably better, more compassionate, and more consistent than anyone else's. The movie doesn't give him that.

It does, however, give the certainty that his journal is published. In the comic, it's on the pile to be possibly selected by the newspaper flunkie. In the movie, the voice-over of the first line heavily implies that it got selected. Rorschach wins.

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