Watchmen Review: (A Few) Moments of Greatness

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Superheroes Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) and Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) in Zack Snyder's Watchmen

The book is always better. Seeing a movie made from a favorite novel, or even an ordinary one, the reader-viewer invariably finds something missing, lacking, overstressed or just plain wrong, because it was changed. When we read the book, we make the movie: we cast it, visualize it, control its pacing. We own it. Any other version of the book — say, Hollywood's — competes with our original experience and simply can't measure up. And this applies no matter how good the film, how bad the book. If there'd been a cheapo novel called Citizen Kane that preceded the movie, somebody who'd read it first would have said, "Nice try, but it's not MY Citizen Kane." (TIME's Lev Grossman, a devout Watchmen fan, sizes up the movie. Listen to the podcast)

So who would have the gigantic steel cojones to make a movie of Watchmen? Written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons and colored by John Higgins, the serialized comic book came out in 1986. This was the pre-Internet age — Moore pounded out his scripts on a manual typewriter — when most comics had an afterlife only in the back-issue bins. Yet Watchmen quickly achieved status as the Grail, the Bible, the Citizen Bob Kane of its medium. (TIME canonized it as one of the 100 best novels since 1923.) And it continues to expand its reach. Last fall Gibbons put out the latte-table book Watching the Watchmen. The story is also available on DVD in "moving comics" form: 5 hours and 25 minutes of very limited animation of the drawings, with a narrator reading the text and dialogue. There is also, you may have heard, a movie version that opens Friday. (See pictures of the Watchmen.)

From the start of the Watchmen cult, film people knew two things about the comic book: (1) that it simply had to be made into a movie and (2) that it couldn't. An epic superhero saga, spanning 45 years, with six major characters who all sport double identities and crucial, intertwined back-stories, does not lend itself to the narrative turbo-thrust of a standard action film. Indeed, the superest hero of the bunch — Dr. Manhattan, once known as Jon Osterman — is not an action hero; he's a passive one, a contemplative godhead, a sinewy blue nude Buddha, emotionally removed from the comic's central whodunit quest: Who killed Eddie Blake? A.k.a. the Comedian.

Complicating this is the possessiveness felt by hardcore Watchmaniacs, who believe that any change is an act of treason. When director Zack Snyder showed clips of the movie last fall to an audience of rapt but wary votaries, one portly fellow told him, "On behalf of the obese-obsessive demographic, I want your assurance that the ending does not puss out." Such is the snakebite of hype, especially for a project with such outsize expectations. The film, budgeted at $100 million and the object of a rights wrangle between Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox, has received less than rapturous early reviews. In his Hollywood Reporter critique, Kirk Honeycutt predicted that the film would be "the first real flop of 2009." (See the top 10 graphic novels.)

That's the dilemma the director faced: to risk disappointing both the fan base (for diverting from the sacred text) and the agnostic mass audience (for being a confusing, unsatisfying movie experience). Snyder — who had a big hit two years ago with 300, and who took Watchmen on after interesting auteurs from Terry Gilliam in the '80s to Paul Greengrass a few years ago fell out — went with the fan base. He worked from a script written in 2001 by David Hayter, and filigreed by Alex Tse, that was as close to the original as a movie could be. The best and worst thing to say about the Watchmen film is that, if you read the book, the movie you made in your head probably looked a lot like this.

Should a real Watchmen fan see the movie? TIME has the answer

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