"For as all Action is, by its nature, to be figured as extended in breadth and in depth, as well as in length...so all Narrative is, by its nature, of only one dimension; only travels forward towards one, or towards successive points: Narrative is linear, Action is solid."
Thomas Carlyle, On History (1830)
Carlyle, aged 35 in 1830, was soon to embark on The French Revolution, a huge and sprawling book, with multiple narratives, literary and dramatic devices, and with fragmented and interconnecting stories.
For me, The French Revolution is remarkably similar to Watchmen.
Carlyle described the French Revolution as vivid action and not as a linear narrative; Carlyle also depicted the revolutionary leaders as all having the distinctive and disturbed personalities required for their roles, constantly capable of committing or tolerating horrific violence for some supposed greater good.
This history, published in 1837, shook the literary circles of early Victorian England, went on to deeply enchant Dickens and Twain, and established Carlyle as perhaps the greatest historian of his time.
And Carlyle and his readers would no doubt have regarded The French Revolution as unfilmable; it was simply not a linear story.
Alan Moore's masterpiece Watchmen (1986-87) was the product of his early 30s. The graphic novel has long been regarded by him, and others, as unfilmable.
Now that a film has appeared (which I am afraid rather proves Moore to be correct), I want to examine the Watchmen afresh, and review the film, and set out what makes it, for me, one of the greatest English literary works of the twentieth century.
However, one of the least interesting parts of Watchmen as a graphic novel is the plot. Like that other skilled creator of complex literary situations, E. M. Forster, one can imagine Moore, recognising with reluctance that "yes - oh dear yes - the novel tells a story".
By the time the graphic novel gets to the concluding mock alien invasion, with a bemusing giant squid-like monster plastered over New York, the usual reader is far more concerned with the characters and what has happened to them over the previous twenty to forty years.
(In passing, one merit of the film is that the modified ending is actually more satisfying: there is no squid.)
By the conclusion of the graphic novel, Moore has set off a number of narratives: the 1940s Minutemen, the start of the modern Watchmen, Vietnam, the era of the Keene Act, as well as the (then) present day 1980s. The narratives are interlinked by artefacts, such as group pictures or statues, as well as by the simple poses of characters or views of a building in a frame which carry over to the following frame, but in a different time and place. The whole book interconnects. In a conscious double-meaning, the story is as intricate as watchwork itself.
So perfectly is this elaborate structure created that Moore's addition of a pirate story sub-plot and numerous written documents all fit neatly in.
Against all this complexity, a simple linear film has no real chance. It certainly shouldn't try to follow the story as it unfolds in the graphic novel. In any case, almost everyone who will want to see the film at the cinema knows that Ozymandias is the culprit; his exposure at the end is of no great dramatic value.
Indeed, I suspect the film may have worked better if it followed the lead of another of Moore's great works From Hell (my personal favourite), and was just open about the villain's identity from the beginning; or it could have told the story as a straight saga, without flashbacks, starting with the Minutemen, through the 1960s and Vietnam, to the time of Comedian's murder and beyond. Either approach, even if it would have been heretical to the core fans, could have had a better chance of succeeding than the slavish devotion to the graphic novel.
The film, however, is not that bad. It is perhaps strongest with the visuals: the dramatisations, often with CGI, of key incidents are a delight. A fan of the graphic novel can sit back and enjoy a sequence of animated postcards from the book, like a row of so many Hogwarts paintings.
It is also strong in what fascinates me most about Watchmen, which is the interplay of power and personality.
The recurring question, always incompletely written or obscured on the pages of the graphic novel, is who watches the Watchmen?
It is a question which Moore doesn't directly answer.
In one sense, nobody is watching them. The costumed heroes are routinely unleadable and incapable of real supervision. The original Minutemen fall apart as a group, with allegations, a rape, and other physical violence. They exist only as a photoshoot.
The Watchmen also only really exist in name form and as a group photograph. As a collective, they have no political or organisational significance whatsoever. Even if an individual Watchman needs to be watched, no one need trouble watching the Watchmen as a whole.
That is why the Keene Act is, in my view, one of the most ineffective pieces of legislation in fiction. It purports to prohibit masked vigilantism. Two of the "heroes" carry on anyway, but working for the government; Rorschach carries on without sanction; and Ozymandias has already retired, as have - in effect - all the surviving Minutemen (with poor drunk Mothman in the madhouse). The only two people caught by the Act - Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II - are so limp they hardly needed so profound a legislative nudge to stop their vigilantism. One suspects they would have happily acceded to a polite request.
But if the Watchmen are not an interesting as a political group, then most of the Watchmen are incredible political studies of the individual. Four Watchmen in particular can be seen as politicians:
- Ozymandias believes his better vision for the world should prevail, regardless of the ethics and the consequences;
- in contrast, Dr Manhatten grasps the futility of the world's affairs and, even though he has true power, he instead prefers inaction and quietism, allowing cruelty to continue around him;
- the Comedian is the ultimate cynical ironist, adept at exploiting raw power and indeed terror, accompanied often with lurid patriotic (and fetish) paraphernalia; and
- Rorschach - the true Robespierre incorruptible - is incapable of true compromise, always seeking to dominate his immediate environments on his own terms (in prison he observes correctly "None of you understand. I'm not locked up in here with you, you're locked up in here with me").
Each of these figures could easily be a revolutionary leader emerging from a profound crisis. And each shows how power either corrupts, or will not be used well. None of them can or would accept any restraint or supervision. None of these Watchmen want to be watched; but we know they each need to be.
For me, the Watchmen is a wonderful collection of psychological profiles of the individuals who either have - or want - power over others in a non-linear and complex world. In this, Watchmen is similar to some of Moore's other great works, V for Vendetta, The Killing Joke, and From Hell.
Moore, like Carlyle - and also like Orwell with O'Brien in 1984 and Napoleon in Animal Farm, can get into and portray the minds of those who seek power over others.
And here I think the film does well. In particular, Rorschach is played brilliantly by Jackie Earle Haley; almost impossibly, he makes Rorschach seem scarier without the mask than with it; that particular prison is dominated. Ozymandias is shown to be an entirely plausible smiling arrogant corporate-leading creep. The (hitherto unknown) actors playing all the main roles show us the sort of people who would actually end up as masked vigilantes (or, with Dr Manhattan, as one who has greatness thrust upon him). In a film full of expensive CGI, it is really heartening to see so much good fine acting.
The film has faults in additon to the lack of a dramatic exposure of the villain: the Apocalypse Now sequence is embarrassing; the fight scenes are identical and everyone has the same fighting style; most of the funny lines fall flat; and the needless sex-scene was excruciating for every geek in the cinema.
But it was a film which would never easily succeed.
What we do have is an extremely attractive and well-made gloss on the graphic novel, bringing certain situations and characters more fully and satisfyingly into view. And, as with the best literary criticism, and with any good cover version, it makes you go back and enjoy the original all the more.