General Question

dalepetrie's avatar

I have a question for fans of the Watchmen (the graphic novel, not the movie)...

Asked by dalepetrie (18024points) March 5th, 2009

I have been hearing about The Watchmen movie for over a year now, and what I’ve seen and read of it makes me very much want to see it. But in almost every single story/review/anecdote I read about it, they always have to point out that this movie took forever to get made, no one was willing to tackle it, because…and here’s the part I’m curious about…“there are things the graphic novel did that just can’t be done on the big screen.” Seems there is this presumption that there are “things” that could NEVER translate from the written/drawn page to the big screen. But what I haven’t seen so far (and this isn’t the first graphic novel about which this has been said by the way), are any specifics…zero, nada, zip.

I guess my question is, can someone be more specific. It just seems to someone who just plain isn’t “into” graphic novels (though I tend to love the movies based on them), I’ve sometimes read the source material and if anything it just seems like an outline to me…usually if anything the movies seem to enhance and/or embellish on the story. I look at the graphic novels and they have very few words and much of the story is told through visuals, but that’s EXACTLY what movies do. I can understand purism where you have respect and reverence for the original, as it is the artist’s intent and so on. But to say that film has limitations that paper and ink don’t seems so…counter-intuitive to me at least as it relates to graphic novels.

What I mean is, yes, a regular novel, if you were to try to film every detail you can squeeze into say a 400 page novel, you’d need to make a 13 hour movie to do it justice. But graphic novels as I understand them (and maybe it’s the fact that I don’t wholly understand them which is the problem) really can tell a robust story which is far more rich than just the few words in it (if you just looked at the number of words in a graphic novel, it would be SIGNIFICANTLY fewer than a screenplay, whereas there are probably 5 to 6 times as many words in a regular novel than in a screenplay). The graphic novel substitutes pictures for words, so it seems to me that in most cases you really can fit the entire content of a graphic novel into a film, because you combine the words with pictures (moving instead of still), and if anything what you do (if you do it right) is to bring the pictures to life.

So, what is it about the qualitative aspects of the graphic novel, the structure of the storytelling or whatever that really can’t be duplicated (and indeed in most cases improved upon) by translating it to the big screen? I can see how one could have a preference for the printed work, I can see the appeal of one form of storytelling over another, but to say that there are things you CAN do with drawings and words that you CAN’T do on film? It sound like hollow fanboy rhetoric. But yet, EVERYONE says it.

So is it just a big lie that everyone repeats to be “hip”? Or do you think there’s something to it. And if so, please articulate it and give some examples of what can’t be done and why. Convince me this isn’t unadulterated BS.

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15 Answers

Waffle's avatar

As much as I would love to provide a great argument, convincing you that it isn’t unadulterated BS, in my own opinion, there is nothing that can be done in a graphic novel that can’t be done on “the big screen.”

dalepetrie's avatar

@Waffle – Well, maybe someone will convince us both. I like to keep an open mind.

btko's avatar

I haven’t seen the movie yet so I can’t say much about that. But I have my doubts that the movie will catch the underlying tones throughout the graphic-novel. For instance, the entire side-story of the shipwrecked man desperately trying to get home to warn his family of the coming doom – only to be the cause of their destruction.

They would have an impossible time trying to incorporate that into the movie. The audience would just be sitting there thinking… “why are their pirates in this movie..?”

Lightlyseared's avatar

Well it’s often said that certain novels could never be made into a movie without totally changing the story novel, why should it be any diferent with graphic novels.

dalepetrie's avatar

@btko & @Lightlyseared – I get your points, side stories and completeness can be challenges for any movie adaptation of any kind of novel. But I don’t get the impression that this is what they mean when they say “it couldn’t be done”. I would say re a side story, there’s no reason they couldn’t successfully incorporate it, it would just depend on what they wanted to focus on. I mean, some of my favorite movies are ensemble pieces where there is a positively sprawling cast, and you may not even connect the dots until the very end as to why this seemingly minor character is even of any importance. This seems to me like you’re saying there are tangents, and I think there is a challenge in storytelling as to whether or not to address various tangents, but can it be done? Sure it can. As for underlying tones, that seems to me to be saying that you’re not going to get the underlying feel of the graphic novel, and to me, that’s true of any adaptation, but I would never say that you can’t make ANY novel into a movie, I would disagree with that as well, I think any written work CAN be made into a movie, but you have to decide how you’re going to break it up. How are you going to tell a story that was originally told with descriptive language in a medium which uses images and words. You can never make a perfect copy, but I have yet to read anything where I thought “there’s no way this could be told in any other format.”

So I guess I think the side story is an interesting example of something that would present a special challenge, but how does it rise to the level of people claiming it can’t be filmed? If one writer can tell the story with words and pictures, why can’t another writer tell the same story with different types of words and pictures? But maybe that’s what it is. Maybe fans just think there is too much going on, too many nuances to really be captured…that’s not the impression I get though. What I hear is that the story is told on the pages in a way that would make it “impossible” to film. I really think I’m going to have to read the GN after I see the movie…I’m just not able to conceptualize any story that could exist in any form that could not be filmed. I think the only limitations of film these days have to do with imagination. If you can imagine it, you can film it…not saying it would be easy, but I simply can’t conceive of anything that would be impossible to convey with film. Though I do appreciate the opin expressed so far and I do get where you’re coming from, just not sure I agree.

MacBean's avatar

The side story with the shipwreck is a comic inside the graphic novel. It provides insight and foreshadowing about the main storyline that completes the reading experience and brings it to another level. Here and there throughout the book, a kid is sitting by a corner newsstand, reading a comic book. In the graphic novel, we’re shown the pages of the comic the kid is reading and therefore get to read it ourselves. I’m not sure how one would film that. Making it live-action would be stupid, because it isn’t something that’s happening. Just showing the kid sitting there reading doesn’t let us see it. Maybe it’s not impossible to adapt from page to screen, but I think it’s impossible to adapt well.

dalepetrie's avatar

Think of Hiro in Heroes, he’s the subject of a comic within the story, they show the pages. Or consider any other movie where a character is reading a book and the plot of the book becomes part of the movie, happens all the time. Think of the film Adaptation. Or even the cartoon series Fairly Oddparents which is always toying with the comic within a comic within the show concept. I think it’s hard to make ANY film well, you have to be aware of the story you’re trying to tell, and what is important to the story, and how you’re going to move that story along. It’s a compelling argument, and that maybe feels a bit more “right” as to what people might be talking about, so yeah, maybe that’s it, but I guess if it is, I’m going to have to say, it will be interesting to see if they even tried.

dalepetrie's avatar

Gotta love wikipedia.

I just went there to read the article on the film. Right off the bat, it says this….

“Following the series’ publication, the film adaptation was mired in development hell. Producer Lawrence Gordon began developing the project at 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. with producer Joel Silver and director Terry Gilliam, the latter eventually deeming the complex novel unfilmable.”

So, Terry Gilliam, who is known for filming some pretty incredible stuff, deemed it unfilmable. That’s PROBABLY where the idea comes from…I mean, if the guy who filmed Time Bandits, Brazil, Baron Munchausen, Twelve Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas says it can’t be done, who is your typical movie/graphic novel fan to argue?

In addition, Wikipedia says this about the comic within the comic and some of the backstory elements which are aparently what make it so “unfilmable”:

“A DVD based on elements of the Watchmen universe will be released; it will include an animated adaptation of the comic Tales of the Black Freighter within the story, starring Gerard Butler, and the documentary Under the Hood, detailing the older generation of superheroes from the film’s back-story. An extended edition of the film, with Tales of the Black Freighter interspersed through the main storyline in a manner reminiscent of the comic, is forthcoming.”

In other words, the impossible apparently HAS been done, but since the film already clocks in at 2:40, we’re going to have to wait a few months for the extended directors cut on DVD.

fireside's avatar

I don’t think the issue is that it can’t be done. I think it is more about the amount of time needed to cover everything well. Reflections of reality in a comic book was done in Lost too, but it was barley noticed that Walt’s comic book was telling them about the island.

That’s more about the camera work and editing though. Given enough time, everything can be worked in, but think of a comic depiction of fight scene and how it can be shown in a single panel. In a movie this fight scene would have to be extended to last more than a single glimpse which would take more time. Stretch that out over 12 chapters at 30 pages per chapter and you’ve got quite the epic.

Technologically speaking, there’s nothing they can’t recreate. But balancing the audience’s attention span with the story arc is the hard part.

dalepetrie's avatar

@fireside – I agree, I’m coming to think that’s what it is. It’s not that it can’t be done, it’s that it can’t be done in a way to keep the attention of the American moviegoing audience. It’s a shame really, some of the best movies clock in over 3 hours, but invariably they always get broken up in one way or another so the studio releasing them thinks they’re “watchable”. I’m still pissed that they split Grindhouse into two DVDs.

btko's avatar

The thing about Hiro from Heroes – he wasn’t a comic book character. He is a real person that Isaac drew into a comic. I think you should read Watchmen, and then you’ll see what we mean.

dalepetrie's avatar

@btko – I get the difference between the two scenarios and yes I do intend to read it (though I prefer to wait until after to read the source material, otherwise it’s harder for me to judge the film on its own merits as invariably the book is always better). I’m just saying there was a story arc that was told via a comic book, within the main story, and it did help to move the story along, different purpose, but still a hard (but not impossible) thing to incorporate.

kevinhardy's avatar

you can only do so much for a story

dynamicduo's avatar

SPOILER warning… please don’t read unless you’ve seen the movie!

Thanks for asking this question! I am also new to the Watchmen franchise, having seen the movie on Saturday and having just bought the hardcover anthology from my bookstore today.

I have only read a few chapters, but already I am finding the movie has better represented some of the scenes. For instance, the scene in the movie where Dr Manhattan tells Laurie to “say hello to Dan for me” and then explains how his logic got him there, I feel the movie did a much better job of summarizing his character than the comic book which showed Laurie calling Dan up on the phone and a quick shot of Dr M with a rather null facial expression.

One thing that’s bugging me about the comic is the ugliness of the women (and some men) characters. Such as Laurie’s mother’s hairstyle. I mean, come on! It’s outlandish and ugly! As a woman I am finding it very hard to sympathize with these women characters (I flipped to the end of the book and saw the ‘different identity’ Laurie and she’s even MORE ugly, ugh). Now I know some of it was because of 80s style and all… but again this is one reason why I enjoy the movie version more, is because they’ve modernized certain aspects.

As well, the special effects in the movie were rare yet poignant through their usage. The transformation of Dr M. The disintegration of the corpses. The crystal palace on Mars. All were done spectacularly, yet did not distract from the plot, but simply highlighted Dr M’s amazing abilities. This point right here is where I fundamentally disagree with the folk who say it cannot be translated to film – film supersedes the comic book clearly here!

There are a few things I prefer the graphic novel for. For instance, I found it hard to discover why the Comedian was named as such when he was the character he is, and the book makes it much easier to pick up on this and see it clearly illustrated. Also, I found it hard to realize who the characters were in the beginning (Night Owl 1 and 2) and the black ill defined costume provided no easy clue. However, I accept that these were caused in part by my newness to the franchise.

So I am keeping my mind open when I read the novel, to try and find the scenes where I feel the novel supersedes the movie, finding these “untranslatable” parts. However, so far, I feel the movie has more pro points than the novel does. Ultimately, I believe the two form a more perfect story than either standing alone does. I for one am simply amazed Dr M didn’t fall into the Uncanny Valley… fogging the eyes really helped!

dalepetrie's avatar

@dynamicduo – well said. I have yet to get my hands on the GN, but I saw the movie now, and you make some good points. I think your second to the last paragraph, my wife kind of got hung up on some of that too, she was thinking some of the people in the beginning were the same people now and didn’t pick up on the generational things about it. Nor did she register that indeed only Dr. M had “superpowers”, with for instance the way Rorshach would almost seem to fly at times when he was climbing. We didn’t get the Batman Begins treatment where we see the heroes’ early martial arts or whatever training that allowed them to fight the way they did or what not. The difference between myself and my wife was that I had read and heard a lot of things about the movie, so I had an introduction to the characters’ backgrounds where she went in completely cold.

I was majorly impressed with the story, so I’m going to have to say that the storytelling aspects were done well. The film was beautiful to look at. It certainly went to places I never expected it to go. I thought it was amazing just how much of the film was dedicated to backstory and filling in all the blanks. I do still have to read it to see what might have been missing, what might have been done better or what maybe gasp the movie might have improved upon, but as a standalone work of art, I’d definitely say this was a 10 out of 10 in my book, I loved every second of it.

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