In 1963, Bob Dylan thought big. He wanted to write an anthem, something that could capture the spirit of Scottish and Irish ballads that would gather large crowds to spread a message. “Come gather around the people / wherever you roam,” he began, “and admit that the waters / around you have grown.” The lyrics of “The Times They Are A-Changin'” are rhythmic and steady, layering until each verse reaches its inescapable conclusion.
Dylan struck a chord, even as times continued to change. As literary critic Christopher Ricks wrote in Dylan’s Version of Sin, lyrics like “your sons and daughters / are beyond your command” could themselves change. Once warning square parents not to hate their hippie children, the words decades later could be seen as a warning to adult hippies that their children would rebel against them. The song has never changed, but the passage of time has allowed its meaning to change and grow.
Eventually, this growth would come to encompass Zack Snyder’s superheroes watchmen, a 2009 adaptation of the legendary graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Snyder jumps to Dylan’s broad but specific song, which encompasses generational change and fear, and charges it to accompany a quick glimpse into the film’s world.
Starting in 1940, audiences navigate historic events like Hiroshima and the assassination of JFK with the help of masked crusaders. Dylan’s lyrics get sharp as “the curse/she’s cast off” plays on the comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) walking away from the grassy knoll.
This sequence, which writer David Hayter said met with extreme resistance in the studio, is one of the film’s best. Audiences come to understand the supernatural powers of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the sexiness and pregnancy of Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino), the isolated pain of young Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), the cool avant-garde of ‘Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the societal reverence of Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), and how an off-duty 1940s crime-fighting cop group, the Minutemen, transitioned to a second generation, the Crimebusters, in the 1940s. 1960.
The world-building in the original watchmen, building a 1985 America where Richard Nixon is still president and Vietnam is the 51st state, is rich. One could get lost in the details of Moore and Gibbons, so Snyder sticks to the bones of the story, taking his biggest plot points and weaving them in and out of the character vignettes.
Some of the recreated comedic scenes work well, like the comedian’s opening murder in his apartment and Dr. Manhattan reconstituting himself from the skeletal system. Others, like Rorschach’s diary acting as a monologue, are presented as a retread of city of sin.
The road to watchmen was long, hampered by both Moore’s lack of interest in an adaptation and the material itself, which Terry Gilliam, accustomed to complex material, deemed unfilmable. Directors like Paul Greengrass and Tim Burton came and went before Snyder’s work with 300 got him the gig.
300 and watchmen are wildly different sources, and Moore and Snyder are wildly different creators. The graphic novel was written during the final years of the Cold War, with no expectation that it would end so soon. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the threat of nuclear annihilation felt alien in 2009, though the events of 2022 arguably make watchmenThe political analysis again seems quite timely.
It wasn’t that Moore was specifically against the idea of Snyder’s adaptation, but any transformation of the work. “There are things we’ve done with watchmen that could only work in a comic book, and were indeed designed to show things that other media cannot,” he said. Weekly entertainment. A simpler option might have been to create a sequel story suitable for new media, like 2019 watchmen TV series.
But Snyder was never one to take the easy route. watchmen does not capture the details and idiosyncrasies of his original work, because how could he? But she knows the story she wants to tell, and she wants to tell it with the greatest respect possible. If Snyder couldn’t get the whole orchestra, he could at least play the hits.
watchmen is streaming on Hulu until May 31.