From Sequential Art to Film Storyboard: Watching “Watchmen”


Published: April 9, 2009

The girl sitting next to me frantically squirmed in her seat, compulsively looked at her watch and wondered what the hell she was getting into. “Who is that? What’s going on?” Her boyfriend, whose concentration was broken by her annoying and quick little blurbs, snapped back, “That’s Dan Dreiberg…Nite Owl II, and that’s Hollis Mason… Nite Owl.”

At this moment, five minutes into the film “Watchmen,” it was clear that there were two types of people in the theatre: people like me and this other guy—fans and avid readers of the graphic novel—and people like this girl (I’ll call them “‘Watchmen’ virgins”), who seemed to think that they just paid $18.50 to see another superhero-action-blockbuster flick on the IMAX screen.

Unlike the typical caped crusader film, “Watchmen” follows a group of five retired superheroes living in an alternate Cold War United States as they react to the murder of their fallen partner, the Comedian. The story is unique in that it avoids the familiar hero-versus-villain interplay and focuses instead on the psychological patterns of the protagonists.

With the release of many film adaptations of comics (like “Iron Man,” “The Dark Knight” and “The Incredible Hulk”) in recent years, the fans of graphic novels are exposed to their favorite characters on screen while general audiences get their first glance at a new world and character set. However, in some cases, the source material is compromised during the filmmaking process—or vice versa.

“It’s a great marketing tool. They can pull in the cult following and a general audience as well,” said Fr. Michael V. Tueth, S.J., associate chair of communication and media studies at Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC). “However, a movie must be more comprehensive to match the scope of the book or novel.”

Director Zach Synder—whose most recent films, “Watchmen” and “300,” both adapted from graphic novels—toys with the connection between sequential art and the film storyboard. In “300,” audiences saw a digitalized, stylized adaptation that was taken almost verbatim from the original source material. In “Watchmen,” Synder takes advantage of those aesthetics that worked in the past, creating a world that is almost too visually familiar to the avid “Watchmen” reader.

“[The ‘Watchmen’ film] tried too hard to look like [the] comic, [which] was deliberately scripted with storytelling techniques that could not be replicated in a novel or movie,” said Alan Kistler, a comic book historian who finished his coursework at FCLC in 2008. “One of Alan Moore’s points was to show that comics [are] their own medium. The movie adaptation should have done the same, using effects and techniques to give a new, fresh take on the story.”

Alisa Kwitney, former editor at Vertico/DC Comics who will teach an English course about graphic novels at FCLC beginning in the fall 2009 semester told the Observer, “Any time you translate something, you have to strike a balance between being faithful to the original and being creative enough to interpret the material—into a new language, or a new medium.”

Although a lot is lost, there are many instances in the film where Snyder succeeds far beyond the reaches of the graphic novel—certain concepts simply work better on film than on paper. Elements such as voiceover are much more effective, adding a complete aural element to the amazing visual presentation. For example, in “Watchmen,” the journal of main character, Rorschach, is more effective in the film, sounding like the narrative voiceover of a hard-boiled detective in a classic film noir.

However, in many cases, the standard Hollywood movie length (the movie is 162 minutes long) instantly restricts film adaptations of graphic novels, which are, in some cases, many volumes long. Sometimes, the background stories of many characters are left out, which can be very disadvantageous to the film. For example, the current Christopher Nolan Batman series (“Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight”) was adapted from more than one graphic novel and had a great deal of source material. Nolan has used sequels to create a comprehensive series out of individual films.

Comparatively, a movie like “Watchmen” is so comprehensive in and of itself that it is impossible to create a sequence of movie releases; the division of the source material would take away from, rather than enhance, the film. The graphic novel “Watchmen” has been published with excerpts from character Hollis Mason’s fictional autobiography, “Under The Hood.” This supplemental material force-fed readers background stories of the characters as well as insight into the formation of the Minutemen, the group of superheroes followed in the novel and film. In the movie, most of this material was left out, and audience members were left without an understanding of the background of the characters (unless they had read the supplement for themselves). Film adaptations of graphic novels, which focus solely on the major plot points of the source material, often leave first-time viewers without necessary information.

Most comic book film adaptations present the audience with characters that are pop culture icons, and even though the characters may not be fully understood by non-readers, they can be appreciated. In movies like “Spider-Man,” “Batman” and “Superman,” audiences might actually be well aware of the character and villains even if they haven’t read the books. However, recent adaptations such as “Watchmen” and “V for Vendetta” (both written by author Alan Moore) are based on source material unfamiliar to the non-reader.

In regard to “Watchmen,” Kistler said, “One major point of the comic was how the world would change if superheroes existed, how technology, fashion and pop culture would be different from our own. ‘Watchmen’ is most known for its political and social commentary. However, with a large amount of source material left out, the story loses a great deal of impact.”

Comic book fan Jake Leonen, FCLC ’11, said, “[The movie] seemed more like a tribute to the novel rather than a film adaptation of Alan Moore’s views on politics and society’s perception of good and evil.”

What made “The Dark Knight” such an effective adaptation was that  it stayed true to the source material but still added its own style. In this way, audiences could see the heroes and villains they love and also witness a whole new psychological profile of these characters that allowed for a fresh experience.

In “The Dark Knight,” Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker stayed loyal to the self-indulgent pscyho of the comics while adding a playfully anarchic style to the character’s psychological makeup (no pun intended). In “Watchmen,” even though the portrayal of characters such as Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan were exceptional, no new ground was broken. The pursuit of a perfect adaptation prevented the actors from reinventing the characters.

Graphic novels often fall into the trap of having mediocre film adaptations simply because the source material is so dense that it is impossible to create a movie that is 100 percent loyal to the book. On the other hand, a film adaptation which limits itself to the source material creates a barrier from any creativity that would make the film stand out as original. In order to engage the entire audience (yes, that means you too, “Watchmen” virgins), a film adaptation should find a balance between the source and the script in such a way that it can still stand on its own.