I’m not even going to try to justify considering Watchmen a cult film. Not on that kind of budget and mainstream-saturation advertising. But the comic book (let’s avoid the artificial marketing term “graphic novel,” shall we) is another story, a work whose brilliance is equaled only by the fanatical reverence in which it is held by its fans. Now that’s cult. I won’t be seeing the film for another couple of days, so whether it does a good job or not I will leave as an open question (what is beyond question, however, is that, whatever flaws it may have, it has to be better than the what the original stab at adaptation, back around 1987 would have been – I read a summary of the screenplay, and “desecration” is too weak a word). What I want to consider today is the rather strange set of conflicting emotions anticipated adaptations such as this provoke.
The basic conflict is quite simple: fans have been regarding a film version of Watchmen with both rabid impatience and all-consuming dread. The latter is easy to understand. Watchmen, with its intricate narrative structure and stately pace, defies easy transfer to film, and audiences not ready to view a deconstruction of the super-hero might well put up a (misguided) resistance. But it’s the former emotion that I find puzzling, even as it is one to which I am not immune.
How often have you read a book or a comic, or seen a play, or played a game, and thought, “That would make a great movie!” More times than you can count, I’d wager. But how often have you seen a movie and thought, “That would make a great book!” Not as frequently, I feel safe in guessing. Certainly, there are plenty of novelizations out there, though not as many as there once were. This is because novelizations are, ultimately, a way of reliving the movie, and they advent of home video and the ease of watching one’s latest favorite film whenever desired has rendered that particular literary form pretty obsolete. In other words, the novelization is a stand-in for the cinematic experience.
Now, the thought “That would make a great game!” is a bit more common, and hence the enormous number of gaming tie-ins to blockbusters. Most of them are dismal, but their commercial success means, to me, that there is a need being answered here that is greater than simply re-experiencing the film, though that is still a bit part of the experience.
What all of this points to is that, for better or worse (and, let’s be honest, very often it’s for the worse), film has become the king of artistic endeavors. There is a sense that no other work, no matter what the medium, has truly reached its full potential until it has been turned into a movie. This sense is, of course, ridiculous, but that has no bearing on how broadly it is felt all the same.
Why does this happen? Much of the reason is linked to the original argument for declaring cinema the Seventh Art – it can be seen as combining all the strengths of the others. Theatre, music, opera, literature – they all come together in the movies, which immerse audiences, in an immediately visceral way, that is hard for other media to equal.
Movies do have a rival, however, especially as TV screens get larger and larger, and computer processing power skyrockets. The rival is the video game, which, at its best, can have the same immersive, visceral quality of the movie, combined now with interactivity. So the audience is now plunged into another world more fully than ever before.
But (and this is a big one), the various media are still not equivalent. There are things that comics can do that movies cannot. There are limitations each form has, constraints imposed by the way each is constructed to tell stories. So the Watchmen game, cool as it undoubtedly is to play as Rorschach, finally betrays the spirit of the book. Here’s hoping the film does better.