How exactly does one adapt a complex, densly packed graphic novel from page to film while still retaining the themes that made it an incredible work, and at the same time pushing the limits of the medium in a similar fashion?
Zack Snyder's answer is: "By coldly transposing scenes directly into film form, inexplicably changing other details at random, awkwardly forcing in action scenes and highlighting them with gore that is inconsistent with the rest of the film, hiring a shitty actress to carry the crux of most of the dramatic dialogue scenes, and offering nothing of my own style other than the occassional speed-change and closeup of a broken bone. Did I get it right? Did I?"
Well, mission accomplished; Watchmen finally got made, after numerous failed attempts by more talented filmmakers (and Paul Greengrass). Snyder, still coming off of an exhaustless supply of adernaline from 300's near-constant stabbing and punching and never one to back down from an opportunity for a fistfight, begins the film with just that. An immediate problem occurs after it is over, when the subsequent scene goes over everything that just happened, containing no new information with characters who lack personality and only appear one more time, for two seconds. But who needs a concise film when you have an irrational sense of duty to the work you're stealing from?
There is no doubt in my mind that this is what the core issue is -- faithfulness to Alan Moore overrides the filmmaker's decisions (most, but not the decisions that involve making more action scenes). I understand the pressures of fitting so much into so small a container; almost three hours is the end result, and not much to consider or admire in that amount of time.
Watchmen suffers from a lack of clear focus. An opening credits montage does establish for newcomers that, yes, masked crime fighters did and do exist, and that what follows is a "what-if" scenario, where these heroes have been stripped of their nostalgia and outlawed in a world where their services are obsolete. Coming to this conclusion is work, however, as there is very little to be said about other masked heroes in this world. We know the fates of two. What happened to the rest? The flashbacks only provide a connection to The Comedian; they do not draw a coherent line to Present Day 1985. Too much is left unanswered.
Jackie Earle Haley, lovable psychopath extraordinaire, narrates passages of exposition from his journal, and after a seemingly brief investigation of the murder, disappears for a bit and is replaced by flashbacks of the surviving crime fighters that rarely illuminate much but contain one or two pieces of important information that could come at any time. In addition to being frustrating, it is exhausting to sit through, and coupled with inappropriate moments of slow-motion, the movie's pace grinds to a crawl, making the film less of a philosophical feast and more of an endurance test.
At least intact are Moore's characters, each representing a philosophical-political archetype wrapped in different forms of neurosis. Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II want normal lives, ones where they don't want or need to police an unstable populace, but cannot help but do so. Dr. Manhattan, like the universe itself, is largely indifferent and follows a path lived moment to moment; he does not understand or agree with human motivations/emotions. The Comedian is similar, but embraces his whims and instincts unquestioningly, finding nature's apparent amorality hilarious. Veidt and Rorschach each have a strict moral code, but differ in that Veidt is willing to sacrifice the few to save many, where common good is equal to how many of us survive. Rorschach's sense of justice extends past a threshold of what he views as evil, and deals with those evils in one manner: execution, on an individual basis.
It is enough that these nuances are visible. In these characters, one is asked to examine policies and how far to run with them, to find someone to agree with, or at the very least, relate to. Snyder and the screenwriters recognized this, I'm sure, but do little to provide a reality for them. The skeleton is visible, the vital organs are there, but there is no life to support. A larger world is implied but not created.
In 2005, there was another Alan Moore adaptation, V for Vendetta. A lot was different, a lot was changed by McTeigue and the Wachowksis, but nothing was missing. The theme is clear and beautifully stated, and like the graphic novel, it challenges the medium it presides in, with a clear, creative vision gleaned from an already creatively-executed work, and extending it far beyond and elimating much of the flaws and making it (crucify me) better than the graphic novel it was based on.
That is the primary reason for any adaptation. The idea that a movie that cannot stand on its own without in-depth knowledge of its source material is a flaw, and a major one, plain and simple. Nothing has been accomplished if what plays is a mirror, a mere companion piece to what one can watch and murmur "Hey, I recognize these scenes," and remember more meaning in them the first time around.