Watchmen returns: The 20-year struggle to bring a cult classic to the big screen

When 'Watchmen' was published in 1987, it was hailed as the greatest graphic novel of all time – and Hollywood immediately snapped up the rights. Two decades later, after passing through the hands of some of the world's biggest-name directors, the $150m project has finally come to fruition. Tim Walker tells the inside story of a tortuous journey from page to screen

Saturday 28 February 2009 01:00

Joel Silver is a powerful man. A Hollywood action movie producer with an explosive reputation, in 1987 he was busy counting around $220m in box-office takings from Predator and Lethal Weapon. Only for one of the world's hottest film properties could such a bigshot be persuaded to buy lunch for a pair of unprepossessing British comic-book artists.

But that's exactly what Silver did for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, the writer and draftsman responsible for Watchmen, a bestselling graphic novel about a troubled group of costumed crimefighters, who try in vain to police a world where Nixon is in his fifth term as President; and where the US won the war in Vietnam with the help of the one true superhuman, an omniscient physicist with translucent blue skin named Dr Manhattan.

Silver had just acquired the rights to turn the bleak, dystopian Watchmen – first published as a 12-part comic book series during 1986 and 1987 – into a brash, colourful superhero movie, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dr Manhattan. Moore gave his blessing to Sam Hamm, the screenwriter then at work on Tim Burton's first Batman film. And perhaps, in some other parallel universe, the project succeeded. But in the real world it has taken 22 long years for a film adaptation of Watchmen to finally appear.

In that time, Watchmen's tortuous journey from page to screen has become an archetype of development hell. The graphic novel's many passionate fans have learned to live both in feverish anticipation of a faithful film version, and with the creeping dread that Hollywood would unthinkingly dilute or destroy Watchmen's spirit.

The screenplay's various incarnations have passed through the hands of at least three visionary directors, including Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass. Four major studios have held the rights at different times (and often at the same time). Actors alleged to have come and gone include Robin Williams, Richard Gere, Joaquin Phoenix and Gary Busey. Thanks to some underwhelming adaptations of his other work, Alan Moore has renounced Hollywood for good. And Schwarzenegger has been painted blue for a comic book movie, but that was 1997's godawful Batman and Robin. He played Mr Freeze.

Now, minus Silver and Moore, a $150m film of Watchmen has been brought to fruition by Zack Snyder, director of 300, featuring a cast of relative unknowns, in an adaptation that Gibbons, Moore's co-creator, claims was well worth the wait. Almost derailed at the 11th hour by an inter-studio legal dispute, the worldwide release is at last set for next week. And if Watchmen has the same effect on the film industry as it did on comic books, it will be the movie event of the year.

"We showed the first 18 minutes of the movie to a roomful of fans at the New York Comic Convention and they went crazy," says Gibbons. "I was always quite happy for Watchmen to be just a graphic novel; if you really love something, you worry that Hollywood is going to spoil it. But at every stage of the production, the Watchmen devotees have felt as I have – that it gets better and better the more we see of it."

When Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons first met at a London convention in 1980, they were both members of a blossoming British comics scene. 2000AD, the popular, weekly sci-fi anthology originally published by IPC magazines – and boasting Judge Dredd among its roster of characters – had given British artists and writers a forum to compete with US publishers such as Marvel and DC.

Soon, Gibbons was drawing Moore's scripts for 2000AD, and it wasn't long before their work saw the dynamic duo snapped up by DC to contribute to such titles as Green Lantern, The Flash and Swamp Thing. In 1984, DC asked them to create their own series, with a collection of entirely new characters. What emerged from the pair's imagination between September 1986 and October 1987 transformed comic books for ever.

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Moore began with the premise that, during the late 1930s, a group of men and women had formed a crimefighting force in the US called the Minutemen. They and their successors, the Watchmen of the series' title, had inadvertently changed the course of post-war history – and not for the better. The story was told not only through images, but also with the aid of imagined source documents: medical records; one character's journal; another's memoir.

Watchmen deconstructed the myth of the superhero using its own classic conventions: Gibbons' artwork deliberately referenced that of the genre's early godfathers; the careers of the fictional Minutemen coincided with the real-life "golden age of comics" between the late 1930s and late 1940s; and the costumed characters all echoed familiar superhero figures like Batman and the Silver Surfer. Unlike those titles, however, Watchmen brutally portrayed the real human costs – physical, emotional and socio-political – of becoming a masked vigilante.

Watchmen might have been the only comic to make Time magazine's 2005 list of "the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present", but its publication coincided with that of two other classic graphic novels. The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller, was the story of a middle-aged Batman's return to crime fighting. Maus, by Art Spiegelman, was an anthropomorphic adaptation of his father's experiences in the Holocaust. Smart, self-aware and postmodern, the trio of titles heralded the maturation of a medium. Comics had grown up.

Sam hamm lived up to his name. In 1989 – the same year that his Batman script became the world's highest-grossing movie – Hamm produced a Watchmen screenplay that opens with a group of terrorists taking hostages at the Statue of Liberty. When the Watchmen turn up to foil the plot, the Comedian – the least scrupulous of the superheroes – shoots an unarmed hostage in the gut before mowing down the criminals. "The joke's on you," he quips. Needless to say, this was rather different from the first pages of Moore's masterpiece.

Moore had begun on good terms with Joel Silver, Silver's fellow producer Lawrence Gordon (the only person to have stayed with the project from 1987 to the present) and the studio, 20th Century Fox. Until the screenplay was circulated, he declared his "complete faith" in Hamm, who had visited him at home in Northampton before setting to work. But he has long since changed his tune. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in September, Moore said, "I find film in its modern form to be quite bullying. It spoon-feeds us, which has the effect of watering down our collective cultural imagination. It is as if we are freshly hatched birds looking up with our mouths open waiting for Hollywood to feed us more regurgitated worms."

Hamm's draft of the script, which diverged substantially from the graphic novel, is now a curio tucked away in a corner of the internet. But for Moore, it was the first in a series of unpleasant run-ins with the movie industry. In 2001, his book about the Jack the Ripper murders, From Hell, was made into a flawed film starring Johnny Depp. Two years later, a dismal screen version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen also became a well-deserved flop.

By the time V for Vendetta was released in 2005, Moore had disowned all such adaptations of his work, called Watchmen "unfilmable", and refused to allow any more films to be made of comics to which he holds the rights. He also had his name expunged from the credits of the Watchmen movie. "Alan didn't want any money or credit for the film, and he's taken legal steps to ensure that," Gibbons explains. "He's not had a happy time with Hollywood and he decided he didn't want to play any more. I decided to keep my name on Watchmen. But Alan's made of sterner stuff and I respect the finality of his decision. The irony is that I think the film is something he could be proud of."

In 1991, the Watchmen project was passed to Warner Bros, who brought in Terry Gilliam to direct. Gilliam threw out the Hamm script and asked for a rewrite that stuck more closely to the graphic novel. A fantasy specialist, he seemed an ideal choice of director, but his past reputation as a budget-busting maverick made it difficult to raise the necessary cash for the production. Not the least of Gilliam's problems was the novel's length: at 400-plus pages, the director eventually told Lawrence Gordon that Watchmen would only work as a five-hour miniseries. The film was again without a director or a studio home until 2001, when the X-Men screenwriter David Hayter signed up to write and direct an entirely new Watchmen treatment, this time at Universal.

Hayter's version, while it brought the action forward to the present day, was more faithful to the original than Hamm's. But Universal was hesitant, perhaps due to Hayter's lack of directing experience. Undeterred, Gordon took the script to Paramount in 2004, where the arthouse auteur Darren Aronofsky was briefly attached as director.

When Aronofsky instead went to work on his own passion project, The Fountain, he was hastily replaced by Paul Greengrass, director of The Bourne Supremacy. Though his vérité style couldn't be more different from Gilliam and Aronofsky's, Greengrass's knack for making loud action sequences and outlandish plots seem plausible also matched Watchmen's requirements.

Interest in the project reached a crescendo, with Simon Pegg, Jude Law and Daniel Craig all reportedly considered for roles. But Paramount, concerned by the mixture of a high budget and unsettling themes, cast Watchmen back into the wilderness, where in 2005 it was picked up once more by Warner Bros. The studio handed the script to the director Zack Snyder, who'd just delivered an unexpected half-billion dollar hit with 300, his adaptation of another graphic novel by Frank Miller.

Snyder, aware of the project's convoluted history, set to work. Principal photography was scheduled to begin in September 2007, almost 20 years to the day since the final issue of Moore and Gibbons' comic series was published.

When the fans found that Snyder was close to getting Watchmen off the ground, they had their doubts. His 2004 remake of George A Romero's zombie classic Dawn of the Dead, and the visually ravishing 300 – about the Battle of Thermopylae – certainly had style, but did the director have the substance to deal with Watchmen's weighty themes?

Snyder soon dispelled their fears. Already a fan of the graphic novel, he and the screenwriter Alex Tse restored the story's original Cold War setting. Though there are rumoured cuts and minor changes to the story – including an explanatory credit sequence, which covers decades of alternative history in a single reel – they have so far proved acceptable even to hardcore fans. Moore has remained aloof, but Gibbons was welcomed aboard as a script consultant, and subsequently drew comic book pages of new scenes as storyboards, even employing the services of the original Watchmen colourist John Higgins.

"300 was such a huge and unexpected success," says Gibbons, "that Zack could call the shots on Watchmen. In the early version of the script I read, it had a Hollywood ending: good guy kills bad guy, gets girl, rides off into sunset. Those who've read the graphic novel know the ending is much more ambiguous, and the first thing Zack said to me when I arrived on set was that the proper ending had been reinstated. I believe he even re-shot some scenes after he'd persuaded the studio to change its mind."

Snyder's casting choices, too, were admirable. Instead of plumping for the sort of big name stars normally required to sell such an expensive proposition to the studio, he was allowed to hire character actors with indie cred. The most familiar face in the line-up is Billy Crudup as Dr Manhattan; Crudup is best-remembered as the rock guitarist Russell "I am a golden god!" Hammond from Almost Famous. Patrick Wilson, who plays the paunchy Nite Owl, is known for his work in low-budget pictures with troubling moral questions at their heart, such as Lakeview Terrace, Hard Candy and Little Children.

Jackie Earle Haley, who played opposite Wilson in Little Children as a convicted paedophile, is wearing Rorschach's mask in Watchmen. Haley came to the part after hearing that his name had cropped up in web forums as an ideal choice for the masked misanthrope at the heart of Watchmen's plot. He even shot his own audition tape.

By all accounts, Snyder's Watchmen hews as close as can reasonably be expected to the source material. Clay Enos, a close friend of Snyder's, was the production stills photographer on set. He says Snyder was not intimidated by the pedigree of those directors that had tried – and failed – to get the movie made before him.

"There's quite a history to the Watchmen film," says Enos, "but it's like a cresting wave: if you happen to be in the right place, the three guys before you will loop over and not quite make it. But when you catch it right, you just ride that thing. There was tremendous momentum and excitement around this film, and the fact it had failed in the past was just a little bit of film history. Once it was green-lit, Zack just rode the wave right to shore."

The buzz surrounding Watchmen did, at the last minute, threaten to be its undoing. Nowadays, Hollywood studios are always on the look-out for a comic book that they can turn into a box office hit, spinning from it not just DVD sales, but rollercoaster rides, a mountain of merchandising and at least two sequels. In the original 1991 "quitclaim" and 1994 "turnaround" agreements that allowed other studios to produce Watchmen, Fox had retained the rights to distribute the finished film and take a slice of the profits. As soon as Watchmen started to generate positive publicity, Fox decided it wanted a piece of the action.

Lloyd Levin, Lawrence Gordon's co-producer, issued a statement suggesting that Warners, not Fox, deserved to be rewarded for its bravery in finally funding the film. Warners called Fox's intervention "opportunistic". After trying to have the film's release delayed or cancelled altogether, Fox finally settled for an 8.5 per cent share of the film's gross.

The case for Watchmen was strengthened by the success of last year's Batman sequel The Dark Knight. Moody, critically acclaimed, and two-and-a-half hours long, Christopher Nolan's vision of the Gotham crimebuster is also one of the highest grossing movies of all time.

Released as it was in the midst of Watchmen's production process, Nolan's film will no doubt have convinced Warners (which also distributed The Dark Knight) that neither duration nor darkness necessarily drives audiences away. Watchmen is 10 minutes longer than The Dark Knight, and has been given an R-rating in the US, which restricts under-17s from watching without adult accompaniment – immediately cutting out the core audience for most superhero films. The comic book movie, like its printed counterpart, is growing up.

"Back in the Eighties, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns leant on each other," says Gibbons. "Frank [Miller]'s book was out of the gate slightly before ours; it drew attention to graphic novels, and we benefited from that. The fact that The Dark Knight movie is almost as long – and is also a thoughtful film – makes it the perfect primer for Watchmen. Superhero movies have become such a staple of the cinema experience that we're now in the perfect position to have something like Watchmen deconstruct them, without having to explain what it is that we're deconstructing."

"If people thought The Dark Knight was gritty, edgy and dark," Enos explains, "they're about to get hit with a ton of bricks."

'Watchmen' opens nationwide on Friday. Watching the Watchmen, Watchmen: The Film Companion, Watchmen: The Art of the Film and Watchmen: Portraits, all available from

Comic appeal: Five of the best graphic novels

"Goodbye!" reads the note left for Jimmy Corrigan, the anti-hero of one of the most acclaimed graphic novels of recent years, at the opening of Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth. Within five frames, the co-worker who wrote it is standing on the roof of the office dressed as Superman, and within another two he has jumped to his death. There could hardly be a more apt introduction to the graphic novel as a medium. After the comics of the Fifties and Sixties gave the world characters whose one-dimensional heroism limited their appeal to the young and the immature, later generations of cartoon artists used the medium to explore a dazzling range of stories and topics.

Newcomers need look no further than the now legendary Maus by Art Spiegelman, first published in 1986. Depicting the author's father's experiences as a Holocaust survivor, the book borrows a device from George Orwell and retells the story through anthropomorphism. Though the effect is at times crude (German soldiers are depicted as cats and Jews as mice, while the hapless Polish are shown as pigs), perhaps the character of the author, Artie, sums up the medium's crisis perfectly: "Reality is too complex for comics," he writes. "So much has to be left out or distorted."

American Splendor, which has run since 1976, is the autobiography of Harvey Pekar, a long-time file clerk at a veterans' hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. Written by Pekar and drawn by Robert Crumb and other artists (including, at one point, Alan Moore), the series deals with the writer's everyday troubles, from car problems to his discomfort with the fame he receives when his story was turned into a film in 2003.

It's impossible to mention the medium without talking about Frank Miller. A year before Alan Moore's 'Watchmen' was published, Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns told the story of how an aged Batman comes out of retirement to try to save a Gotham City terrorised by gangs and corruption. Published in the mid-Eighties, the resonances with soaring crime rates in the big cities of America was obvious. Miller's characteristic film noir style has seen other successes; 'Sin City' and 'V for Vendetta', both adapted for the big screen.

Another recent cinematic success has been Persepolis, another adaptation of a graphic novel written by Marjane Satrapi, a French-Iranian writer whose retelling of personal experiences of political upheaval has garnered international critical attention since its first publication in 2000. Combining the personal and the political, the dark subject matter of Marjane Satrapi's original finds its graphical counterpoint in the black-and-white panels of 'Persepolis' and its sequel, which told of the writer's upbringing in the politically tumultuous Iran of the Seventies and Eighties and subsequent education in Vienna.

Words by Jack Riley

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