In the epic masterwork, Watchmen, the god-like being known as Dr. Manhattan is a being who experiences his past, present, and future all at the same time. Despite his incredible power over matter, time, and space, he's nothing but a slave to an existence that has already been written. His every moment is "going through the motions" of a life that is fully predestined and known to him.
At one point in the book, Dr. Manhattan is exposed to a stream of tachyons which interrupt his all-knowing vision. Suddenly his boring walk through life is exciting again because he can't see the future. He had forgotten what it's like to not know what's going to happen.
Which pretty much explains how I felt about the film adaptation.
I had read the original graphic novel so many times that I knew every detail. I already knew the future of the story because I knew how it would all end. But the movie version of a dense story like Watchmen had to change to be film-able, so suddenly I was experiencing the excitement of not knowing. So many things were the same, but a lot of the details were different. Including the ending.
For those who haven't seen the film, I can sum it up spoiler-free like this: Watchmen is a surprisingly good film and faithful adaptation that lives up to the hype. It was a remarkable tribute to the source material on almost every level. I really enjoyed the film overall, despite two curious missteps I felt could have been easily avoided.
My spoiler-riddled review (which assumes knowledge of the original Watchmen graphic novel) follows in an extended entry.
Watchmen is a story that most everybody, including myself, felt was un-filmable. It is a monstrously complex and detailed work that simply cannot be translated to film... even one with a running time of nearly three hours. So imagine my surprise when director Zack Snyder, writers David Hayter and Alex Tse, and a genius cast and crew managed to pull it off. And I mean really pull it off. Yes, a vast portion of details were altered or dropped altogether. Yes, the ending has completely changed. Yes it's a bastardized version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' genius tale... but somehow it works. It almost works too well. I found myself dropping out of the film to smile at the many little details that Snyder put in the movie which were so perfectly taken from the comics, as to be uncanny. I anticipate many more smiles as I watch the film a few more times in the theater, and many more times on the eventual DVD release.
As far as changes go, I approve of absolutely everything... except two items, which I'll get to in a minute. Otherwise, the movie was sheer genius for adapting the impossible to create an experience that's thoroughly enjoyable. Both for fans of the comic and those experiencing the material for the first time.
Most of the changes were out of necessity. In a comic, you can flip back and forth as you read it to go back and revisit details you may have missed or forgotten. Sitting in a movie theater, this is impossible. You must experience the film as it unfolds, and no important detail can be missed or forgotten without destroying the story. Zack Snyder and his writers GET this. And they totally nail it.
An example is Dr. Manhattan's first girlfriend, Janey Slater. In the comic, they keep having her pop up so you don't forget her and the pivotal role she is destined to play. The movie doesn't have this luxury given its limited running time. So instead of several small appearances to keep her in the back of your head as the story unfolds, the movie instead gives you a few appearances where they matter, then drives them into your head with shocking appearances you won't forget. Unlike the comic, Snyder has Janey Slater appear at the television studio when Dr. Manhattan is confronted by the press over the idea that his presence gives people cancer. Her dramatic removal of her wig to reveal her thinning hair from chemotherapy provides a compelling reason for Dr. Manhattan to leave the planet in absence of all the little scenes that were lost in translation from the book. They again deviate from the comic by having Janey be the one from Adrian Veidt's "Pyramid Deliveries" who hires the guy who hires the assassin who attacks Veidt to reinforce Rorschach's "mask killer" theory. It's a shocking revelation that helps streamline the plot in a way that the movie-goer can more easily grasp in the confines of a film. It's genius decisions like this that make Watchmen somehow work in the cinema.
Another way Snyder was smart is knowing where to cut and change things. In the graphic novel, Rorschach's origin has him giving a brutal killer a choice... burn by fire, or use a hacksaw to cut off his hand and escape. This disturbing semblance of choice (which is really not much of a choice at all) is subtle layering which is used to draw the prison psychiatrist into Rorschach's world. Eventually, just as Rorschach was changed by the way the world unfolded to him and the choices he makes to deal with it, the psychiatrist is forced to change as well by making choices of his own. It's the kind of brilliant interplay that Alan Moore used to weave his tale that makes Watchmen so compelling. But Zack Snyder doesn't have the time to work through multiple sessions with the psychiatrist like they did in the comic. He only has time for one session to get his point across. And since all the interplay with the psychiatrist has to be cut, the reason for having Rorschach give the hacksaw choice to the killer is null-and-void. So instead Snyder has Rorschach take a meat cleaver to the killer's head. It's a more brute-force method of telling his origin, but it more quickly establishes Rorschach's disturbing nature. Again, it's a clever change that compresses pages of comic book into a single moment for a similar effect.
I could go on and on about how much I respect the decisions Snyder and Co. made to adapt the material properly. Using the angel in the cemetery at The Comedian's funeral as a nod to the angel statue in front of the original Silk Spectre's nursing home. Having Veidt use hyper-observation of Dr. Manhattan's facial twitches to explain how he could figure out a way of defeating him. It's all so perfect. Which makes me wonder how they could have fucked up so horribly in a couple places.
Surprisingly, neither of the two changes I hate in the movie are the revamped ending. Sure the giant squid is gone and, even though I don't think the movie method of scaring the world into peace is as believable or compelling, I do think it works well in the context of the film.
No, the two changes I thought sucked in the film are things which changed NOT because they wouldn't work in a movie or took to long or were unfilmable, but because Zack Snyder and the writers made stupid choices that were a disservice to the story.
The first is having Dan Drieberg be the one to talk to Adrian Veidt about the "mask killer" instead of Rorschach. This makes NO sense. The mystery is Rorschach's crazy theory, not Nite Owl's. As originally written, this conversation was key to illustrating the polar opposites of the characters. This was then brilliantly mirrored at the end of the story when Rorschach doesn't go along with Adrian's compromise... even in the face of armageddon. It is an important story point that defines the characters, and I simply don't understand why Snyder allowed it to be changed. It didn't save time. It didn't better move the story ahead for film. There was no reason to alter it at all.
The second is having it be Jon's wristwatch instead of Janey's wristwatch that was left in the intrinsic field removal chamber. I can't fathom why Snyder would make this change. Janey's boyfriend was turned into a big blue freak who is emotionally vacant and walks around naked. Why would she get into a relationship with him? It's not like her and Jon had been dating and in love for years. What was it... a week? In the comic I felt she did it out of obligation. Jon became Dr. Manhattan because of her broken wristwatch. By removing this element, suddenly her relationship with Dr. Manhattan makes no sense to me. It also makes her sacrifice less meaningful because it undermines her loyalty to Jon. I can only guess Snyder did this because he felt it was a quicker way to tell the origin, but I disagree. It would have added maybe two seconds of dialogue to sneak in that fucking broken watch and keep the character's truer to the graphic novel, but instead it was discarded for no good reason (at least that I can see).
Maybe I'm just nit-picking, but those two changes were so glaring and incomprehensible that they acted like speed bumps in an otherwise smooth adaptation. The fact that they could have so easily been avoided make them all that more puzzling given how incredibly well thought-out the other changes were.
Regardless, this is a film that's worth your valuable time... even if you've never read the original comic. I am in awe of everybody involved who managed to do the impossible and bring the Watchmen to life. If only all comic book movies were this lucky.