Who Will Watch the Watchmen on DVD?

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008

Domestic DVD sales fell 3.2 percent last year to $15.9 billion, the first such drop in the medium’s history, and this is a big deal, because DVDs can account for 70 percent of the revenue for a new movie.

So Warner is going to try a new tactic to revive it DVD sales. After Watchmen — based on Alan Moore‘s graphic novel — hits theaters in March, 2009, Warner will then release Tales of the Black Freighter — which is based on a comic within the Watchmen comic — five days later as a separate direct-to-DVD piece.

My first thought was Cool!, because I would have enjoyed, say, a “scouring of the Shire” bonus feature, so we could get the real ending of The Return of the King.

My second thought was Wait, this doesn’t make any sense, because Moore’s comic-within-a-comic exists purely to play with the comic medium. It provides a separate, parallel line of narration to events in the main storyline — it exists to provide subtext.

At least that’s what I remembered from two decades ago. So I decided to re-read Moore’s magnum opus and see it through fresh eyes — and I found that it’s very much a product of its time. More accurately, it’s very much a product of a progressive — well, left-anarchist, in Moore’s case — view of the Reagan-Thatcher years, with the following features:

  • A sense of malaise, and a sense that we deserve this terrible situation — not because we’ve turned away from traditional virtues, but because we’ve devoted ourselves to violence, rather than caring for the poor, the old, etc.
  • Sex as violence, with characters emotionally scarred by rape, child abuse, and uncaring lovers. Violent images in the media, within the comic, are closely tied to sexuality, and vice versa.
  • Criminal gangs composed of white men and women with silly “punk” haircuts and outrageous sunglasses — and an occasional swastika. Crime is a right-wing phenomenon.
  • A fear of all things nuclear and a clear distrust of all things military. Nuclear power exists to destroy the world.

In a video interview, Moore makes it clear that no one before him had applied a political or sexual interpretation to the genre, and his work on superheroes is a meditation on power.

How all this will translate to the movie — or movies — is an open question, but Moore and his fans have seen his previous works dumbed down terribly. Moore no longer wants anything to do with Hollywood:

I don’t see how adapting it [Lost Girls, another graphic novel of his] to another medium makes any sense at all. But that’s me. [...] My position is, I don’t want my name on it and I don’t want the money. [...] But I really doubt that any of my comics can be [successfully] made into films, because that’s not how I write them.
I met Terry Gilliam, and he asked me, “How would you make a film of ‘Watchmen’?” And I said, “Don’t.” I think he eventually came to agree with me that it was a film better unmade. In Hollywood you’re going to have the producers and the backers putting in their … well, I don’t want to dignify them by calling them ideas, but … having their input, shall we say.
I don’t have any interest in directing films of my work. If something worked perfectly in one genre, why is there any reason to assume it’s going to work as well or better in another genre that it wasn’t designed for?

Judging from the early preview images, Hollywood didn’t “get” some key elements of what Moore was going for. Nite Owl, for instance, is supposed to be middle-aged, retired from crime-fighting, and decidedly chubby.

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