The Continuing Adventures of the “Inherently Unfilmable” Book: Zack Snyder’s Watchmen

Curator's Note

I have come here neither to bury Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, nor to praise it. The point of contention here is with the continual parroting of Alan Moore’s claim that the Watchmen comic miniseries is “unadaptable” – an assertion that continues to have a good deal of traction within popular journalism, fan debates, and comics studies. It remains important for comparative endeavours within adaptation and transmedia studies not to adopt hardline medium essentialist viewpoints, but even more vitally, not to hierarchize differing practices of reception.

For example, in “Making Comics into Film,” Henry James Pratt claims that film viewers are not “able to process and understand…complex narrative structures” as well as comics readers because film “juxtaposes frames in time” rather than on the space of a page (161). But this oft-rehearsed notion quite blithely discounts the astute memory of alert film viewers – who can and do recognize patterns intentionally established across time. The embedded compilation video here demonstrates just one of many ways in which Snyder’s Watchmen does, in fact, purposefully “juxtapose frames in time” through recurring graphic and motion-vector based patterns dispersed across the work. Here, we see an emulation of artist Dave Gibbons’ frequent return to the Comedian’s blood-spattered smiley-face button throughout the series’ twelve chapters – in greater or lesser degrees of abstraction (i.e., the “face” is transfigured into a Martian landscape as well as a character’s disintegrated remains). Moreover, Snyder adds various dolly, crane, and zoom out movements to these shots. These film-specific choices both translate Gibbons’ proximal framing choices, and remind us that the composition of his panels was, in turn, informed by filmic devices. Finally, the Mooresian account denies that strategies such as these represent intentional designs that are increasingly becoming the norm within fan-centric adaptations. Snyder’s Watchmen attempts to establish a structural density that its viewers – who are also understood as habitual comics readers – are intended to unpack and scrutinize via multiple viewings. How successfully constructed or meaningful this density might be within Snyder’s adaptation is, of course, debatable. But the point remains that comics and comics readers have no special claim to this (adaptable!) aesthetic complexity, and certainly not over film and film viewers.


Thanks for this great post, which points out nicely how exactly Snyder's film tries to stick close the comic book's aesthetics. I personally liked the film a lot when I saw it in the theatre back in 2008, but I have also aborted several attempts to re-watch it in the years since--mostly because even the theatrical cut is far too long for my taste. But I also think that the cinematography at times makes it appear as if the film is moving along at a glacial pace. Therefore, I am not sure Snyder's attempt to approximate Gibbons's aesthetic is ultimately very successful. What I find more interesting, however, is that this attempt at a close adaptation of a comic book aesthetic happens at all. In 1989, Tim Burton could still claim that his Batman was “too big a budget movie to worry about what a fan of a comic would say”--a statement he made to justify some of the artistic liberties he took in making the film. 20 years later, however, Watchmen is sticking so close to the source material that it might feel annoying. How would you explain this shift? Or do you think that this is just a question of Snyder's personal filmmaking style?

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.