- The Continuing Adventures of the “Inherently Unfilmable” Book: Zack Snyder’s Watchmen
“More regurgitated worms” were the words Alan Moore used to describe Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation of Watchmen.1 Tempting as it may be to dismiss Moore’s vitriol as hyperbolic egotism, it is difficult to overstate the importance of the 1986 limited series that he coauthored with Dave Gibbons. Although its import for both comics and literature has been widely documented, Watchmen’s relationship to cinema has received comparatively less attention.2 Thus, Snyder’s film, and its relation to its graphic hypotext, requires further attention in order to appreciate what Watchmen means to the respective fields of adaptation, contemporary cinema, and comics studies. Rather than reclaim Snyder’s Watchmen as an underappreciated adaptation of an “unfilmable” comic, we are better served by situating its hyperfidelity [End Page 125] within a broader matrix involving several fannish preoccupations.3 These include cross-referential reception practices, attentiveness to medium specificity, and the acquisition of subcultural capital.
First, Watchmen’s reputation as an “unadaptable” text reopens old theoretical debates surrounding the perceived limitations of adaptive endeavors. Moore’s view that his comic is beyond adaptation has been uncritically echoed by uncountable online pundits, both academic and amateur alike.4 The film’s torturous, twenty-year development seems to give credence to Moore’s view. Watchmen’s adaptation involved five developed scripts, seven screenwriters, and five prospective directors—with at least one of these directors, Terry Gilliam, publicly admitting the folly of his own adaptive enterprise.5 The notion of certain texts defying adaptation—because of length, narrative scope, or their exploitation of medium-specific resources—is certainly nothing new. While the notion of perfect fidelity is oft invoked as a mythic holy grail, even first-generation film scholars have characterized any quest to obtain it as absurd. Writing in 1963, Jean Mitry asserted that the piously faithful adaptation is inevitably adulterous, unavoidably violating either the letter or the spirit of its source.6
Zack Snyder evidently missed that sermon. With devotional fervor, he insisted instead that production designer Alex McDowell “treat [the comic] like an illuminated text.”7 Not content with preserving the maximal degree of story elements and plot structure, Gibbons’s visual design and panel compositions were also painstakingly replicated. The film was completely previsualized and storyboarded shot for shot, with Gibbons’s panels serving as graphic referents.8 Thus, the “visionary director” repeated the profitably reverential tactics he had utilized before in his adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 (2007). Clearly, then, “adaptations which strive for high degrees of fidelity . . . will typically place the greatest stress on reproducing visual and graphic elements of the original.”9 But why invoke the comic artists’ work so devoutly in the first place? What animates the neo-literalist hyperfidelity of comic adaptations like Watchmen?10 [End Page 126]
The answer, quite simply, is the desire to cultivate a fan-centric adaptation—an altogether categorically distinct translation. David Hayter’s proclamation that Watchmen “is a movie made by fans, for fans” needs to be taken quite literally.11 For a large consortium of critics, Snyder’s literalism is regarded as a dunderheaded, slavish devotion to a canonical hypotext, and fan pandering of the grossest kind.12 Although there is some wisdom to the notion that “the primary motive for fidelity in the most widely known adaptations is financial,” many can still be taken aback by the lucrativeness of such cultic blockbusters.13 But the economics of hyperfidelity should not be so surprising given the basic generic function of adaptation: “to make their audiences recall the adapted work, or the cultural memory of it. There is no such thing . . . as a ‘secret’ adaptation.”14 Fidelity still matters, then, but it matters differently for fans. Critics might have been disappointed because Watchmen failed to be “an original film, but one that ‘faithfully approximated’ an existing source.”15 And yet they overlooked why filmmakers might devote so much effort to making a film whose generic status as an adaptation was excessively overt.
First, the fan-centric adaptation is designed to cultivate cross-referential reception practices in posttheatrical viewing contexts. Not simply...