HBO’S Watchmen - The benefits of a TV adaptation

Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Patrick Wilson and Jackie Earle Haley in Watchmen (Universal Pictures 2009)

There was much initial excitement last year when it was confirmed that HBO was developing a new TV series based on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel, Watchmen. Damon Lindelof was confirmed as the series’ showrunner over the summer, but since that announcement there hasn’t been a great deal of news forthcoming on the project. 

The silence was broken last week however when HBO President Casey Bloys referenced Lindelof’s pilot episode screenplay during his presentation at the TCA:

“I’ve read the script, It’s amazing. I’m thrilled. I imagine we’ll shoot that this year.”

High praise indeed from the HBO president, however fans of the source material will always be slightly cautious of any attempt to adapt Alan Moore’s prestigious novel.  For the uninitiated, the book offers an alternate history where superheroes walk among us and the Cold War is in danger of boiling over in to World War 3. Revered by hardcore comic book fans and casual readers alike, it’s the sort of cherished property that will inevitably be scrutinised relentlessly when developed for another medium.

Zack Snyder’s 2009 movie adaptation certainly didn’t sit too well with many fans. Snyder’s work was criticised for its casting, its altered ending and inevitably given the director, it’s excessive use of slow-motion. For what it’s worth, I thought it was a solid attempt, undeniably flawed but still thoroughly enjoyable and an admirable take on what was long considered an unfilmable book.

Malin Akerman and Patrick Wilson in Watchmen (Universal Pictures 2009)

We are a decade on from Snyder’s movie now though and the time is certainly right for a fresh take. The recent quote from Bloys is certainly an encouraging start but little else is known about the planned new series. There is however cause for cautious optimism

HBO’s involvement

Jeffrey Dean Morgan in Watchmen (Universal Pictures 2009)

While there is the odd notable exception, HBO still has a pretty remarkable hit rate in terms of producing great television. Not only ongoing series like Game of Thrones and Westworld, but anthology shows like True Detective and mini series like Band of Brothers and Generation Kill to name but a few.

It’s a network that is willing to fund ambitious and expansive shows, and certainly doesn’t balk at taking risks. Lindelof and the rest of the creative team will have all the time and financial backing they will need to bring their vision to the small screen.

Lindelof’s pedigree

LOS ANGELES, CA – APRIL 04: Showrunner/co-creator/Executive producer Damon Lindelof (L) and actor Scott Glenn talk at the after party for the premiere of HBO’s “The Leftovers” Season 3 at Avelon on April 4, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

It’s fair to say that Lindelof’s work as a writer thus far has somewhat divided opinion. His work on Lost would ultimately be criticised for becoming too dense and confounding, while several of his high-profile film scripts, Cowboys Versus Aliens and Prometheus for example,  haven’t proved especially successful.

However one shouldn’t forget just how interesting and creative Lost was in its prime. Before it spiralled slightly out of control, it was a show filled with exciting shocks and twists that kept its audience firmly on the edge of its seat.

In recent years as well, Lindelof has had something of a resurgence thanks to the success of his HBO show The Leftovers. The show received plenty of positive reviews thanks to its unpredictable nature and thought-provoking, daring plot-lines.

Twisting mysteries and inventive world-building are very much part of Lindelof’s repertoire and it’ll be interesting to see how he imprints that upon the world of Watchmen.

Greater scope

Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in Watchmen (Universal Pictures 2009)

A TV series will also offer the added benefit of allowing far more space for the story to develop. The series can take its time and fully immerse us into the Watchmen world, incorporating both the original story and elements from the expanded universe.

Zack Snyder’s effort was resolutely faithful to the source material but still had to leave some bits out. Story threads such as the “Tales of the Black Freighter” side-comic and the interactions between Bernard and Bernie had to be done as separate DVD extras, but here could be included far more prominently.

Furthermore, as impressive as Snyder’s title sequence was, brilliantly condensing down a host of backstory and alternate history, such brevity will not be required here. The history of The Minutemen can instead be hugely expanded upon, giving us a far greater depth and understanding of the history of these groundbreaking crime fighters. Captain Metropolis and Hooded Justice’s secret relationship, Mothman losing his marbles and the fallout from Silhouette’s lesbian leanings are all interesting plot points that can now be developed. The in-novel excerpts from Hollis Mason’s “Under the Hood” autobiography, which appear at the close of several chapters, can also be utilised. 

A further option for the series is to move away from the original story and incorporate further details from the 2012 prequel series “Before Watchmen”. These books fleshed out periods of the principal character’s lives from outside of the core events of Watchmen. Rorschach and Nite Owl’s early days as a crime-fighting duo and The Comedian’s time serving in Vietnam are both covered, while greater attention is paid to the fact that Dr Manhattan’s has the god-like ability to perceive multiple universes at once.

A 10-12 episode TV series will therefore not only give ample time to explore the original narrative but also these various intriguing backstories, giving us a richer and more complete world in the process.

Following Snyder’s film

Billy Crudup as Dr Manhattan in Watchmen (Universal Pictures 2009)

One final advantage that the upcoming TV adaptation will have is the fact that Zack Snyder’s film has already come before it. The movie covered the story faithfully, almost to a fault. There’s therefore no pressure on Lindelof and Co. to replicate Snyder’s work and make sure famous moments from the novel are faithfully recreated. Instead, they can expect far greater leeway to expand on Moore’s story as they see fit.

It’s clearly a long way off yet, but as production gets under way on HBO’s Watchmen, there are plenty of reasons to let the excitement start building.

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