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Watchmen : The Movies That Never Were

This week, Zack Snyder’s movie version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ groundbreaking comic miniseries Watchmen will finally be released. To many fans, myself included, it’s still somewhat difficult to believe it’s even going ahead – seeing huge posters on the London Underground with Rorschach’s face and Alan Moore dialogue remains an intensely surreal experience, particularly as so many attempts have been made in the last two decades to film the supposedly unfilmable book, with almost every one seeming doomed to fail from the start.

I'm convinced this would have been better than the Sam Hamm version.
Watchmen Babies

As it happens, the signs are that – visually, at least – Snyder’s film is going for a look very faithful to the source material, and that’s appeased a number of comics fans worried by a stream of Moore adaptations – From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Constantine and V For Vendetta – that have at by and large missed the point of the original work. Advance reviews have generally been positive, although there’s concern about aspects such as Snyder’s action-style and reliance on slo-mo, and the reportedly altered ending.

But what of those prior attempts? What might a Watchmen movie written by Sam Hamm – riding the wave of Batman’s 1989 success – have been like? Would the great Terry Gilliam have managed to do justice to the book? What about X-Men scribe and videogame voice artist David Hayter, or The Bourne Ultimatum’s Paul Greengrass? Could we really have ended up with Arnie as Dr. Manhattan, or Simon Pegg as Rorschach? And has Snyder managed to succeed where so many have failed, and film the supposedly unfilmable? Or is this just another "LXG"?

Be warned, of course, that the following contains spoilers for the ending of both the book and, to some extent, the upcoming film - so read on at your own risk!

Sam Hamm

The first version to be developed came in 1989, just two years after the series had completed, and was penned by Sam Hamm in the wake of his mega-successful Batman. He’s since admitted that he found it difficult to condense the book into a two-hour movie – and boy, it shows. In order to trim things down, many elements of the book are dropped completely, with no reference made to the 1940s masked vigilante team The Minutemen. Instead, we’re introduced, in an action-packed pre-credits sequence, to a 1970s team known simply as “The Watchmen” (this change from the book is present in some but not all later versions, including Snyder’s eventual production), who badly botch a terrorist situation at the Statue of Liberty, causing the destruction of the statue and the death of many hostages along with one of their own, Captain Metropolis. It’s nicely dramatic, but it seems an unnecessary use of running time just to explain the outlawing of superheroes, when you consider the various plot strands that have been truncated or simply cut out entirely. It also has an inherent sense of gung-ho ludicrousness that’s just completely at odds with the style of the book, including the immortally-horrible line “Christ almighty, it's the goddamned Watchmen!”

Once the script settles down into the 1980s and the main conspiracy plot, however, a number of recognisable story beats are played quite well. Most of the changes that are made are cosmetic ones, in order to fit better into the movie’s structure; but there are a lot of instances where Hamm needlessly rewrites Moore’s meticulously-crafted dialogue – and even randomly changes the odd character name – apparently simply for the sake of it. Where Hamm’s version really falls down, however, is in the final act. By this point, he’s already misjudged the blend of the various plot elements, and so while the Dan/Laurie romance and Rorschach’s imprisonment and escape take prominence and are handled well, the original murder mystery and conspiracy become almost an afterthought. Worse, though, is that they seem to bear little relevance to Veidt’s plan – which, in itself, is nowhere near as morally ambiguous as in the book (it involves going back in time to kill Jon Osterman before he can become Dr Manhattan, thus altering reality so that the nuclear apocalypse never happens), and in fact, actually gets carried out (by a self-sacrificing Manhattan) anyway once Veidt has been killed. There’s no explanation of how Rorschach suddenly realises that Veidt is behind the conspiracy, how Blake was in any way connected, nor indeed why they feel the need to stop Veidt’s “insane” plan only to stand by and let Osterman do it himself anyway.

Up until the ending, it’s not an awful script in and of itself – it’s well-constructed, and the final shot presents a neat twist (albeit one that worryingly seems to cry “sequel!”) – but it just shows a basic misunderstanding of what Watchmen is, or why it’s worth making into a film in the first place. As it is, it’s a fairly passable action flick about some angsty (and not very well fleshed-out) vigilantes – but very little else.

Terry Gilliam

"Zsermodynamic miracles... events viz odds against so astronomical dey are effectively impossibuhl..."

Having failed to get off the ground at Fox, the project was set up at Warner Bros., with fanboy favourite Terry Gilliam attached to direct. Hamm’s script was rewritten by longtime Gilliam collaborator Charles McKeown, but as this version has never been made widely available, it’s hard to judge how much of an improvement – if at all – it was. One would hope that Gilliam’s vision for the film would have been closer to Moore’s book, and the main things that are known about the McKeown script are that certain missing plot elements were reinstated, and the film was driven by a Rorschach voice-over. Funding problems put paid to this version, however (thus denying us the potential spectacle of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a name strongly linked with the part of Dr Manhattan, attempting to play a nuclear physicist – not that this stopped him later playing a molecular biologist in Batman and Robin, but that’s beside the point), and despite his name cropping up among fans as an ideal helmer every time the book’s name was raised throughout the ‘90s, Gilliam washed his hands of the idea, eventually agreeing with Moore that the book could not be adequately adapted.

David Hayter

But not everybody agreed with Gilliam, and in 2001 David "Solid Snake" Hayter was brought on board by Universal to write a script for an entirely new production, which he was also signed on to direct. Hayter's script went through a number of drafts between 2002 and 2003, and was arguably the first vaguely successful attempt at translating the book to the screen, but it still wasn’t without its problems. The biggest change involves the method of destruction at the film’s end – rather than being an “alien” threat that the world consequently downs weapons and bands together in readiness to fight, Veidt uses solar energy to wipe out half the population of New York, giving threatening (anonymous) messages to the world’s leaders that more is to follow if they don’t change their ways. It’s all rather similar to The Day The Earth Stood Still, and I’m not sure it works – the world is united unwillingly by blackmail, rather than being hoodwinked (and thus we also lose the sense of it being quite the "joke" that the Comedian realises it to be) into the desire to collectively tackle an alien threat - plus it turns Veidt into a potential dictator, because it leaves him with the power to do it again and again if he doesn't get his way (whereas the "alien attack" could legitimately be described as a one-off event, the culmination of his life's work). Of course, Veidt isn’t around to enjoy secretly leading the Earth into a new utopia, thanks to the other incredibly controversial change – which sees Dreiberg kill him at the end. This completely eradicates the moral ambiguity of Moore’s original ending in favour of a Hollywood-esque “good triumphs” outcome, and it’s a huge disappointment in a script that otherwise works well at maintaining the integrity of the book’s story even while losing or changing various details.

There are other superficial changes in the various Hayter drafts, too, a lot of them in the interests of tightening the plot – and the entire narrative is shifted to the present day rather than being set in an alternate 1985. Another controversial move was changing Laurie’s character name to Slingshot, and in at least one version, giving her superpowers granted by Jon. Nevertheless, and despite these problems, Hayter’s script serves well as a foundation upon which to build, maintaining the structure and essence of the story almost entirely, and relying heavily on Moore’s own dialogue. It’s clear why it, or versions of it, remained ever-present throughout the subsequent production processes.

Darren Aronofsky

Hayter had departed the project in 2003 due to "creative differences", and after briefly moving to Revolution Studios, it eventually fell apart. The film was then picked up by Paramount in 2004, who brought in Requiem for a Dream director Darren Aronofsky - also linked for some years with the project that would eventually become Batman Begins - with a view to adapting and producing a version of Hayter's script. Despite the hype surrounding Aronofsky's appointment, however, this was one of the shortest-lived and least-developed versions, and the director departed in favour of his own The Fountain.

Concept art for Paul Greengrass' version of Dr. Manhattan

Paul Greengrass

The next name in Paramount's address book was the rather excellent Bourne and United 93 director Paul Greengrass. There was lots of excitement in early 2005 to greet his announcement, with many of the belief that his nous with both action and thriller elements would be ideally suited to emphasising the conspiracy elements of the story. Despite entering a full-on production process (the office of which was visited by a very enthusiastic Empire magazine journo), less is known about how the film would have panned out as a script has never been seen online. The assumption is that it would have used Hayter's script, or at least a version of it, but probably with greater deviation from the specifics and much less of a reliance on obsessively replicating dialogue and panels from the book. Strangely, though, this is perhaps the one time that the fanboy army didn't seem too bothered by that suggestion - a line of thinking shared by many, myself included, was that Greengrass was just the sort of helmer who'd be capable of maintaining the book's spirit, and goals, without necessarily being a direct page-to-screen transliteration.

The other interesting aspect of Greengrass' production is the fact that various names were by this point being thrown around in connection with starring roles. It was around this time that Jude Law's interest in playing Ozymandias - he's apparently a longstanding fan of the book - was spotlighted by the film press, and in what would probably have been an utterly catastrophic move, Simon Pegg was mooted as a potential Rorschach (I'm a big Pegg fan, but... come on). Sadly, we never got to see how Greengrass' vision would be realised, as Paramount shut down production before the year was out, effectively washing their hands of it by placing it into turnaround.

Alex Tse

Hayter’s script was still very much in the mind when the project was resurrected by Warner Bros. in 2006 – and in fact, although he’s had nothing to do with the production process since leaving Universal's version in 2003, his name is still on the screenplay that was adapted by Alex Tse. This was first drafted before Snyder signed on, and was certainly far more of a rewrite than a new script, incorporating many of the unique elements of Hayter’s version, although making some further changes. For example, the story is still “present day” (with specific reference being made to the World Trade Center still standing, having been saved by Dr Manhattan), but Laurie is back to being Silk Spectre with no mention of powers. Generally, it’s a bit more action-packed, but it does take its time in working through the earlier scenes at the expense of cutting some later material.

But the biggest alteration comes with the conclusion. Here, Veidt’s plan is similar in essence, but this time involves impersonating a global attack by Dr Manhattan, making Jon the “external force” that the world ends war in fear of. This is a marginal improvement, but Jon’s departure is subsequently brushed off without an explanation of how he’d feel seeing himself portrayed as humanity’s ultimate threat – and it still means that the motivation for peace is based on fear of reprisal rather than collaboration to actually defend against an external threat. And Tse still features the “clean” resolution of Veidt being killed as apparent punishment for his crime, while also increasing the uncomfortable emphasis on Dan’s actions making him more similar to Rorschach (who, in just about every version, seems to be far more of a “hero” than is in any way correct).

Zack Snyder

While 300 director Zack Snyder originally intended to use the Hayter/Tse script once he was brought on board, it was subsequently announced that Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, fresh from Transformers, would be coming in to do a page one rewrite. But it’s not known how far they got with a script (there’s never been a leaked version online) before Snyder reverted to using an updated amalgamation of the Tse and Hayter scripts – with one of the biggest changes being that the narrative finally shifts back to 1985 (and other smaller ones, such as going back to using “The Minutemen” as the name of Hollis Mason’s team - Tse had simply used "the Watchmen" for both the 1940s and 1970s lineups). We know that the “impersonating Dr Manhattan” aspect remains intact, but thankfully, Snyder has stated in interviews that he was keen to ditch the ending in which Veidt was killed, so one would hope that the more ambiguous moral tone has thus been preserved to at least some extent.

Beyond this, though, until the film is released it’s hard to tell exactly how the final product will combine the various versions – but it does seem to have pleased a number of advance reviewers and comics industry folk (not to mention Dave Gibbons), who maintain that it’s faithful to the book’s spirit and tone while making story trims that make sense in the context of fitting everything into a movie. Personally, I retain some scepticism (due to a belief that however the story pans out, Snyder’s directing style is incompatible with making the film feel like the book), but I’ll still be there on Friday in the hope that this long-running development saga has finally seen something approaching a happy conclusion…


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Excellent, Seb.

So far the only details that’s really irked me is the naming of the 85 heros as The Watchmen for the reasons that have been explained to death everywhere. I reckon the new ending will be fine as it should end up covering all the bases the alien ending did, while handily removing the need for The Island storyline. A sad but necessary loss.

It’s encouraging to me, though, that out of all of those potential movies, this one sounds like the one I’ll most enjoy. So I’m happy about that.

See you back here on Friday, then.

Jonathan Capps's picture

By Jonathan Capps
March 05, 2009 @ 4:37 am

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Excellent article, thanks!

Marleen's picture

By Marleen
March 05, 2009 @ 11:14 am

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Well, I thought that was pretty damn good. I never expected it to even begin to touch the quality of the book, so I’ll take what we got gladly.

In the main, the performances were fantastic (I honestly couldn’t imagine a more perfect Rorschach, Dan or Jon) and even the maligned Veidt worked well for me, even if he was played and presented too much like the obvious villain from the start.

Most of the problems lay in Snyder’s directing, though. Far too many overly gratuitous moments, the worst being that horrific sex scene, but I thought the slo-mo bits were fine, and it makes sense to use them when you’re so bent on recreating frames from the book as they give you a lingering snap shot. It wasn’t perfectly executed, but it was mainly fine.

The new ending was also fine. Probably the neatest way they could’ve altered it as it instantly lets them cut out the island/squid plot and still present an almost identical ‘event’. It does change the overall moral of the conclusion, though, as having people being forced to get along because Big Bad Jon is watching is a LOT different to solidarity in preparation for future alien attacks.

I think anyone wanting to watch this movie HAS to read the book, though, as I can’t imagine it being nearly as satisfying without the ability to fill in the gaps with the story. The directors cut might be much more satisfying, but the only way you can possibly get past the lack of real depth in the film is to absorb it all from the book first.

Jonathan Capps's picture

By Jonathan Capps
March 07, 2009 @ 4:38 am

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> Jude Law’s interest in playing Ozymandias

While I would definitely have preferred him to the guy who they cast in the end, he would have stuck out like a sore thumb as a much more widely-known face in an otherwise excellently balanced low key cast (Malin Akerman was a little dodgy…but not as bad as most people are saying IMO). Arnold as Dr. Manhatten… while he would have fit the role to some degree, his presence would have been too overwhelming, everyone would just think of it as a Schwarzenegger film (and would we have seen his blue penis, like fuck we would!) instead of simply Watchmen.

By performingmonkey
March 10, 2009 @ 2:32 am

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You said: “nor indeed why they feel the need to stop Veidt’s “insane” plan only to stand by and let Osterman do it himself anyway.”

That doesn’t really need explanation; Veidt planned to shoot Osterman dead, but what Dr. Manhattan does is alter time so that the intrinsic subtractor does NOT affect Osterman; therefore Dr. Manhattan never happens and Osterman gets to live with Janey Slater.

By Vintaro Voumon
March 31, 2009 @ 8:39 am

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