Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.
Watchmen, an HBO series created by Damon Lindelof and based on the graphic novel of the same title written by Alan Moore. Content warning: Mature.
In the mid-1980s, Alan Moore’s Watchmen marked an epochal shift in comic-book storytelling. Before his groundbreaking 12-issue series, superheroes of the DC Universe were largely one-dimensional, endowed with superpowers that aided in their vanquishing of supervillains. Moore changed the game by envisioning original superheroes stricken with all the failings of human nature. The change in superhero characterization of Moore’s story was so profound comic-book commentators sight the year of its release as the dawn of comic’s Modern Age, emerging from the previous Bronze Age.
While Moore’s contribution to characterization remains valued, the relevance of the plot of the series has arguably faded. The original series took place in an alternative 1980s, where Moore laid much of the blame of nuclear-arms escalation in the hands of American President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Why he didn’t set the bulk of the series in the years of the Kennedy Administration, the closest the world actually came to nuclear war, is a mystery.
Moore’s fatal error was jumping to storytelling conclusions, unwilling to see how Reagan’s second term would resolve. Also, we’re all still standing (but the Berlin Wall and Soviet Union aren't). To boot, historians credit the aforementioned leaders (and Pope St. John Paul II) with the peaceful fall of Communism during the same time period.
Nevertheless, the plot of the original series was clear, even if dated. Other iterations prove equally lucid. Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation provided an upgrade to the original story. Before, Watchmen told the origin stories for the various superheroes in a comic-book limited series. The most recent dozen long comic series, Doomsday Clock, crosses Moore’s characters into the more familiar Superman, et al, of the DC Universe.
HBO’s foray into Moore’s world (official website here) leaves a lot to be desired. Unlike any of its predecessors, the plot sinks into murky waters. Taking the 1920s Tulsa race riot, a k a the Tulsa Massacre -- in which mobs of white residents attacked, on the ground and from the air, the African-American residents and businesses of the Oklahoma city's Greenwood district, leaving at least 36 dead -- as the jumping-off point, the narrative(s) hops around rudderless.
Each episode introduces a new character while trying to drag along the storylines of those characters already established. Most avid fans of the comics, myself included, will be disappointed the showrunners only retain Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons) and Silk Spectre (Jean Smart) as major characters in the television series. The show references the defunct Minutemen super team, and white supremacists take Rorschach as their inspiration, but that’s about the only connection made to past storylines.
As I write this post, only two episodes have aired on HBO. I’ve seen the first six episodes released to the media. The network embargoed writers from divulging specific plot details beyond what’s aired to the general public. Even without the quarantine, I’m not sure I would have a discernable story to write about. I’d imagine things will tie together by the ninth and final episode, but it may be too late for many viewers to care.
The tagline for the original comic story asked “Who watches the Watchmen?” With flawed superheroes running amok, this served as a legitimate question that expertly guided both plot and characters. With this current TV version, I would pose the same question to the showrunners. The answer is apparently, “no one."
Parental warning: Watchmen, as with many HBO series, contains adult themes and language, nudity, graphic sexuality and extreme violence. It is in no way recommended for family viewing.
Image: Mark Hill/HBO
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