Watchmen: The Art of Adapting Graphic Novels to Film

07 April 2023
Watchmen is a timeless masterpiece that has captivated audiences since its initial release in 1986 as a graphic novel. The subsequent film adaptation of the same name, directed by Zack Snyder in 2009, has often been criticized for its perceived deviations from the source material. However, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the film is generally faithful to the original story and stands as one of the better comic to film adaptations ever made.

One of the key differences between the film and the novel is the compressed storyline of the former. The film is shorter than the novel, so some of the subplots and minor characters had to be cut for time constraints. However, the film still manages to maintain the core narrative and the complexity of the characters that made the original story so captivating.

watchmen- novel t0 film differences

Another difference between the two is the tone. While the graphic novel has a more philosophical and introspective feel, the film is more action-packed and visually stunning. However, this change in tone is not necessarily a negative thing, as it highlights the strengths of the film medium and delivers an engaging cinematic experience.

Overall, the Watchmen film is a faithful adaptation that captures the essence of the original story while still managing to be its own unique work of art. With its stunning visuals, strong performances, and compelling storyline, the film stands as one of the better comic to film adaptations ever made.

Here's some discussion of the main changes and differences.

There's less Giant Calamari in the film, like a lot less

In the graphic novel, the ending is a complex and intricate set piece that involves the creation of a giant squid-like creature by Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias), who then teleports the creature into the heart of New York City. The creature's arrival creates a psychic shockwave that kills millions, and the event is framed as an extraterrestrial invasion. This event unites the world against a common enemy, bringing about a temporary cessation of the Cold War and averting nuclear Armageddon.

However, in the film version, director Zack Snyder chose to change the ending significantly. In the film, Veidt's plan is still to avert nuclear war, but instead of creating a giant squid creature, he frames Dr. Manhattan for the destruction of several major cities, including New York. The climax of the film takes place at a nuclear facility, where Veidt has set up a device that mimics Dr. Manhattan's energy signature. 

The heroes confront Veidt, and he explains his plan before revealing he had already set the 'accident' in motion.

Snyder made this change for a few reasons. 

First, the giant squid creature was seen as too absurd and fantastical for a film adaptation. Snyder wanted to ground the story in a more realistic setting and tone, and the idea of a giant squid was seen as a bit too outlandish for a mainstream audience. 

Additionally, Snyder felt that the idea of Dr. Manhattan being blamed for the destruction made more sense thematically. In the film, Dr. Manhattan is a symbol of American military might and the arms race, and framing him for the destruction of major cities serves as a commentary on the dangers of nuclear weapons and the Cold War

By changing the ending to focus on Dr. Manhattan, Snyder was able to more effectively convey his message about the dangers of unchecked military power.

However, Snyder's decision to change the ending was met with mixed reactions from fans and critics of the graphic novel. Some praised the change, arguing that it helped to streamline the story and make it more accessible to a wider audience. Others, however, criticized the change, arguing that it undermined the central themes of the story and removed some of the complexity and nuance of the graphic novel's ending.

One of the main criticisms of the film's ending is that it reduces the scope of the story. In the graphic novel, the destruction caused by the squid creature is a massive and devastating event that has global ramifications. The world is forced to confront the reality of a hostile and seemingly invincible alien threat, and this leads to a temporary peace. 

In contrast, the film's ending is much more contained, with the destruction limited to a few major cities. This makes the event feel more like a conventional act of terrorism rather than a world-changing event.

Another criticism of the film's ending is that it removes some of the moral ambiguity of the graphic novel's ending. 

In the graphic novel, Veidt's plan is presented as a necessary evil - a horrific act that is committed for the greater good. The heroes are forced to grapple with the moral implications of their actions and are left with a sense of unease about the choices they have made. 

In the film, however, Veidt's plan is presented as a heroic act - a selfless sacrifice made to save the world from destruction. This removes some of the complexity of the story and makes it feel more like a conventional superhero movie.

watchmen novel film changes

One note superheroes?

One of the key differences between the book and film versions is the level of character development. While the film does a decent job of adapting the characters from the book, it does leave out certain key aspects of their development. For example, the character of Hollis Mason, the first Nite Owl, is given much more attention in the book. 

In the book, we see him as an old man, looking back on his life as a hero and reflecting on his regrets and accomplishments. His death is given more weight, and we see his relationship with Dan Dreiberg (the second Nite Owl) develop over time. 

Through his character, the book explores the theme of legacy and the passing of the torch from one generation of heroes to the next. In the film, his character is much more peripheral, and his death is not given as much weight. This change is significant because it lessens the impact of the theme of legacy and the idea of heroes as flawed human beings.

Another example of character development that is not fully realized in the film is the character of Adrian Veidt. In the book, Veidt is given more time to explore his worldview, and his motivations for his actions are more thoroughly explored. We see him grappling with the moral implications of his plan to avert nuclear war, and we see his complex relationship with the other heroes unfold over time.

 In the film, this is condensed into a single monologue, which reduces the complexity of his character and makes his motivations feel more simplistic. Additionally, the film leaves out some of the more morally ambiguous aspects of his character, which were an essential part of his arc in the book. These differences in character development fundamentally alter the way in which the story's themes are explored and the way in which the audience relates to the characters.

The film is set in 2009, not 1985

The book is set in an alternate 1985, and this timeline is an essential aspect of the story. The Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union is still going on, and there is a constant sense of impending doom. This sense of political tension and uncertainty is an integral part of the story's themes, as it shapes the motivations of many of the characters. 

For example, Ozymandias's plan to avert nuclear war by creating a common enemy hinges on the fact that the threat of nuclear war is very real in the world of the story. Additionally, the book's portrayal of a dystopian society is deeply rooted in the political and social context of the time period. By setting the story in 1985, the book is able to explore issues like the Cold War, Reaganomics, and the growing sense of disillusionment and cynicism that defined the era.

However, the film updates the story to be set in 2009, which changes the context of the story significantly. For example, the nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union is no longer a threat, which lessens the impact of the story's political themes. 

Additionally, the cultural and social context of 2009 is vastly different from that of 1985, which means that some of the book's more specific cultural references and allusions may not resonate with the audience as strongly. While the film does attempt to update some of the political themes to be more relevant to a contemporary audience, the changes to the timeline and context of the story fundamentally alter the way in which these themes are explored.

silk spectre

The tonal qualities are different

The graphic novel has a consistently darker and more cynical tone than the film. While the film does retain much of the graphic novel's violence and grittiness, it still feels more like a traditional superhero movie than a deconstruction of the genre. 

The graphic novel's tone is evident in its exploration of themes like power, corruption, and the nature of heroism. The book is not afraid to delve into uncomfortable and morally ambiguous territory, and it does not shy away from the consequences of its characters' actions. 

For example, the character of Rorschach is presented as a deeply troubled and violent vigilante who is unable to separate right from wrong, and his actions have serious consequences for himself and others. The film, while still gritty, does not delve into the same level of darkness and moral ambiguity as the book.

Additionally, the book has a much more complex narrative structure than the film. The graphic novel is told through a series of interwoven subplots and flashbacks, which give the reader a deeper understanding of the characters' motivations and relationships. For example, the subplot involving the relationship between the original Silk Spectre and the Comedian adds depth and complexity to both characters, and it helps to contextualize some of the events of the present day story. 

The film, by contrast, streamlines the narrative and eliminates many of the subplots and flashbacks, resulting in a more straightforward and streamlined plot.

Furthermore, the graphic novel is able to use its unique medium to convey a sense of mood and atmosphere that the film cannot replicate. The book uses a variety of visual techniques, such as the repeated images of the smiley face button or the shifting patterns of Rorschach's mask, to create a sense of unease and disorientation in the reader. These techniques are not present in the film, which relies more on traditional cinematic techniques like lighting and music to convey mood and atmosphere.

The complexity of Ozymandias

adrian veidt

In the graphic novel,  Adrian Veidt, is presented as a complex character with intricate motivations for his actions. He is a billionaire industrialist who has retired from his superhero identity, but continues to be involved in global politics and environmentalism. As the story progresses, it is revealed that Ozymandias is the mastermind behind the plan to create a false alien invasion that will unite the world against a common enemy, and his actions result in the deaths of millions of people.

In the book, Ozymandias is given more time to explore his worldview, and the reader is able to see his internal struggle and the philosophical justifications he uses to justify his actions. For example, in one scene, he talks about the limitations of democracy and how people are too selfish and shortsighted to see the bigger picture. 

He argues that his actions are necessary to save the world, and that the ends justify the means. This is an essential aspect of his character development and motivations, and it is not as thoroughly explored in the film.

In the film, Ozymandias is still presented as a complex character, but some of the more philosophical discussions are left out, and his motivations are condensed into a single monologue. In the monologue, he talks about how he has taken responsibility for the fate of the world, and that his actions were necessary to prevent a nuclear war that would have destroyed humanity. 

While the monologue does touch on some of the same themes as the book, it is not as nuanced or complex, and the viewer does not get the same level of insight into Ozymandias' motivations.

In conclusion, while the film version of "Watchmen" is a faithful adaptation in many ways, there are significant differences between it and the graphic novel. The changes to the ending, character development, timeline, tone, and dialogue all contribute to a different overall experience for the viewer/reader.


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About the author Jimmy Jangles

My name is Jimmy Jangles, the founder of The Astromech. I have always been fascinated by the world of science fiction, especially the Star Wars universe, and I created this website to share my love for it with fellow fans.

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