Watching another Watchmen

Today Watchmen debuts on DVD via Warner Bros. in a longer form that clocks in just over three hours, and it begs a few questions:

Was director Zack Snyder (300) too faithful in rendering Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel for the big screen?

Could a tighter adaptation have been written?

Will audiences give the film a second life on home video, now that they have the Pause button at their fingertips?

Watchmen isn’t awful, but one could brand it as a faithfully rendered extravagance for a niche market, or maybe as a daring attempt to replicate the page-turning format of a comic book without graphically charged transition effects, like the way Ang Lee shifted around panels in Hulk (2003).


That’s something no one will know until it Watchmen penetrates the home video market, but the fact it exists in multiple versions – theatrical, a new director’s cut, and reportedly a longer cut slated for a December release – opens the forum not for a discussion on purely egotistical filmmaking, but whether a director should be allowed to present multiple versions of a single work that maybe should’ve been done right the first time around.

I know you’re thinking about Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004), but each successive edit on DVD has to be regarded as a vain and pointless effort by the director to save a dud in a post-theatrical setting. Normally, a film is cut down, tested and retooled prior to a theatrical release, and sometimes the agreement with the studio allows a director to release his ‘director’s cut after the film’s theatrical and home video debut. Stone just went bonkers, trying to fix a film he never should’ve made in the first place (something John Boorman tried in 1977, with a futile efforts to fix the odiferous ineptitude of Exorcist II: The Heretic).

Revisionism within the home video market – the post-theatrical, home video release of a Director’s Cut – is often the studios’ excuse to indulge directors and give back catalogue films a new life, but the process can also muck up a good thing.

When Ron Howard was allowed to expand Ransom (1996), he ruined that film’s perfect pacing with redundant footage; when executive producer/screenwriter William Blatty was allowed his cut of The Exorcist (1973) into “The Version You’ve Never Seen” in 2000, he screwed up William Friedkin’s shock beats, gummed up the editing, and tacked on a godawful closing scene the director admittedly loathed; and when Ridley Scott expanded Alien (1979) with footage he knew damn well was wrong for the final edit, he destroyed that film’s pacing, and made brilliantly paced character and mood development all wonky.

What’s sad about the above is that, while one can get the original theatrical cut of Exorcist on DVD, most theatrical prints in circulation show the Blatty cut. Same goes for Alien (which quite frankly is a travesty for franchise fans). Worse, the theatrical edit of Ransom exists on dead tech VHS, as the old laserdisc and existing DVD releases sport the longer cut.

The lone exception to this is Peter Jackson and New Line keeping both theatrical and expanded edits of the Lord of the Rings films in print – giving viewers the chance and choice of versions, although Jackson would go bonkers and release his wholly unnecessary 3 hour 21 min. cut of King Kong (2005) on DVD.

Jackson’s theatrical cut (much like Spike Lee’s Malcolm X) was a mixed blessing, because it contains material that’s powerful as well as dramatically redundant. The first hour is too long, the later weird bug attack in the island serves no purpose beyond killing accessory characters, and the film drags at times.

For his film version of Watchmen, director Zack Snyder was faithful in spirit, tone, and detail to the original source material (ending excepted), but should a film version be a distillation a source material rather than a filmic copy?

This is actually a no-win argument, because it literally rests on whether the film works for a group of fans or filmgoers, rather than a handful of oddballs who just happen to like a stinker. Watchmen is a good film, but its appeal may well be limited, and yet, according to fans, it’s far more faithful to the novel than expected.

Snyder’s efforts might be the best attempt at realizing an Alan Moore novel; it may match the book’s prose, visuals, iconic imagery, cultural references, and dramatic peaks and valleys, much in the way Luchino Visconti nailed Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo novel in The Leopard (1963), but like the Visconti film, the tradeoff can also be a weak audience appeal.

Both films, however, weren’t derived from mainstream works, so should filmmakers rework the book into something alien?

When Twentieth Century-Fox released their English language edit of The Leopard in 1963, it didn’t fare too well, and in seeing Visconti’s longer Italian cut on DVD, once sees how many nuances and prosaic visuals were removed for the sake of mainstream pacing.

That’s probably the compromise Snyder settled for in the Theatrical Watchmen edit, which is why it’s theatrical performance wasn’t heavy or steady, and why, from early reports, fans seems to prefer the restoration of more important material shorn from the theatrical edit. The fact there’s another version on the way makes things frustrating, because it questions whether the project should’ve been developed with one design in mind, and not greenlit as something to be decided on during an assembly cut.



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