Yesterday we went up to the city to see Watchmen on the IMAX screen at the Metreon. This was actually the first film I’ve seen on an IMAX screen, although other than being really quite big, it didn’t feel very different from watching a movie on a regular screen.

I read the comic book by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons when it came out back in 1986-87. It was a big deal then, as Moore was probably the hottest – and arguably the best – pure writer in comics at the time, and Gibbons was a highly-regarded artist. Moore has said that the series was intended to be experimental and rule-breaking in many ways, and as far as how to use the form of sequential art to tell a story, it was. Few comics before or since have taken such a, well, cinematic approach to storytelling, while also mixing in the things which make the form unique. Gibbons eschewed the traditional approach of using visual effects to convey movement or emotion and instead the series depicted the progress of time in a simple panel-by-panel approach. At the same time scenes blended into one another, linked by dialogue from different scenes. While individual elements of Watchmen was been mimicked or used elsewhere, I don’t think anyone else has managed to quite capture the unique feel and nature of the book.

(The story, by the way, concerns a world in which superheroes emerged, changed the world – especially the big one who had actual powers – and were then forced into retirement. A decade later, one of them is killed, setting into motion a chain of events to learn why he was killed, which brings many of the surviving heroes back to solve the mystery and come to terms with their pasts and present.)

That said, the book is certainly not without its flaws. Steven Grant wrote an interesting critical account of the book which I recommend reading. I agree that the story by-and-large isn’t terribly novel, it’s how it’s told that’s fascinating. The story is also rather let down by a very hard-to-swallow ending, which Moore tries his level best (which is extremely good) to sell, trying to cajole and trick the reader into buying it, but it doesn’t quite work. (He manages to paper over most of the unbelievability with a compelling final page, but it’s just a papering-over, as if he doesn’t quite buy it himself.) But in sum its complexity, nuance, and believable characters make it one of the better graphic novels out there.

Making a movie of it: Hoo-boy.

The comic is strictly episodic in nature – using the periodical nature of the original comics for its own purposes as a chapter structure – with each issue featuring its own encapsulated segment of the story, its own tone and characters, and often its own resolution of a sort. It’s also a very low-key story, with only the occasional moment of action. Much of this is at odds with how superhero movies – or heck, any blockbuster movie – is constructed today.

Director Zack Snyder and screenplay writers David Hayter and Alex Tse give it a good try. With a running time of 163 minutes, that gives them about 13 minutes per issue (plus 7 minutes for credits), but of course it doesn’t work out that way. Naturally they cut the stuff that absolutely had to be cut (the “Black Freighter” sequences, which are not without their interesting elements but are ultimately the least essential part of the book), and pare down the issues that can be pared down. That still left them with some difficult decisions, and I think they cut some important material, but I went in knowing that Watchmen is probably impossible to film faithfully in a mere movie-length film.

The expected problems with the adaptation aside, the film starts going wrong in its focus on the violence of the story. Where the comic doesn’t exactly flinch from showing the horrible things that happen, it also rarely does so directly unless necessary, leaving some of the worst moments to the reader’s imagination – usually a good choice. The film emphasizes every punch with an extra-loud sound of impact. The heroes – most of whom have no true powers – get the living daylights beaten out of them and come back for more, quite different from how they’re portrayed in the book. There are some extremely gory scenes, some in which the camera lingers lovingly on the blood. The violence is mostly gratuitous, and only truly provides value in one scene, when two of the heroes are fighting their way through a gauntlet in a prison.

The film’s other big problem is the climax, in which everything is revealed, though it’s somewhat different from the book, but not really any more effective or believable. The book is full of moral ambiguity and goes to great lengths to try to portray every character as having both admirable and ignoble motivations and actions. The film mostly casts the characters as either “more good guys” or “more bad guys”, which sucks a lot of power out of the ending.

To the extent that the film works, it relies on the portrayal of the psychopathic Rorschach and his portrayal by Jackie Earle Haley. The acting is unexceptional throughout the film (none of the major actors are familiar to me), but Haley carries the day with an intense and spot-on performance, growling his way through the film in a full face-mask (whose constantly-shifting pattern is the film’s greatest visual triumph). With a lesser performance in this pivotal role, the film would have been limp indeed, violence or not.

The picture also looks impressive, although perhaps a little too art-deco and artificial in its appearance no matter the era being shown (it takes place in 1985 and has scenes dating back to the 1940s). This works well in the opening sequence, a series of nearly-still images (a neat effect in itself) about the history leading up to the main story, but gets a little wearing towards the end. But the characters and many of the settings and scenes look like they were lifted directly from the book; smartly, many of the iconic images are closely replicated in the film, sometimes to an uncanny degree. Considering how often films deviate across the board from their source material, this in itself is quite impressive.

Overall, I’d say Watchmen is a “pretty good” film – certainly not in the same league as the book. I do think it could have been a better film, by toning down the violence and sticking closer to the book in some key areas, but I appreciate that it’s a very challenging book to adapt. Perhaps I’m being too demanding, but I think the film’s greatest flaws were entirely correctable, yet they seemed to be conscious deviations to make the film more “exciting”.

Watchmen the movie is worth seeing once (if you’re not too squeamish about gore in movies), especially if you’ve already read the book. And if you’ve seen the film, though, then you definitely owe it to yourself to read the original. But I don’t think it’s going to hold up under repeated viewings.