When Zack Snyder steps onstage in front of 5,000 comicbook fans at Comic-Con this Saturday, he’ll be prepared for a deluge of questions regarding his upcoming adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel “300.” What the director may not be ready for is the legion of fans who will expect an instant update on his next project, the long-gestating cinematic version of “Watchmen.”
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ celebrated comicbook offered the first serious look at the private lives of superheroes, who had been stripped of their authority in a paranoid parallel America. Indeed, it’s been called “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of comicbooks” by Paul Greengrass, who was attached to the project at one point. Last year, Time magazine anointed “Watchmen” one of “the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present,” hailing its style as “cinematic.”
The irony, of course, is that Snyder’s recent attachment is just another turn the project has taken since producer Joel Silver first optioned the landmark 12-issue series in the late ’80s. Two decades, five studios, countless drafts and several high-profile directors later (Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Greengrass each tried to tackle it at one point), the project may still be no closer to principal photography.
According to Gregory Noveck, DC Comics’ senior VP of creative affairs, such setbacks are not limited to just “Watchmen.” “Spider-Man,” “Hulk” and “Superman’s” latest screen incarnation each spent more than a decade in development before reaching theaters (“Hellboy” producers Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin have been shepherding “Watchmen” for at least 15 years).
“The tricky part with comicbooks in general is that you’re dealing with established characters that in many cases have many, many years of history and interpretation to draw on, so there may not always be a direct route to the most obvious story,” Noveck says. “Because comics sometimes have more notoriety than novels or spec scripts, it might seem that they’re in development longer because people are aware of them for a longer period of time.”
That excuse may not fly with “Watchmen,” given sensitivities around the book’s ending (the destruction of New York City) and whether Moore’s commentary on Cold War nuclear proliferation, a worldwide fear when the book was originally published in 1986, is still relatable to anyone under the age of 25 today. Those concerns may have been what caused studios such as Fox, Universal, Revolution and Paramount to hedge their bets against greenlighting the picture.
And yet, “Watchmen’s” fans insist Moore’s doomsday parable would make the ultimate superhero movie. “X-Men” screenwriter David Hayter, who wrote eight drafts for “Watchmen” and was at one time attached to direct, feels that because of the events of 9/11, the themes in “Watchmen” are more relevant than ever.
“To me, what ‘Watchmen’ is really about is the superhero ideal,” Hayter says. “You don’t necessarily need the Soviet Union or a Cold War situation to say the world is in sorry shape, we’re all trying to kill each other and wouldn’t it be nice if somebody brilliant and powerful could solve that for us.”
Though Gilliam, the project’s original director (working with a script by Sam Hamm), felt the story was so dense and sophisticated that only a TV miniseries could do it justice, Hayter thinks quibbles over what might be lost in compressing “Watchmen” to a two-hour runtime are overblown.
“It’s very complex in its storytelling, but it’s only 12 comicbooks,” Hayter says. “It really wasn’t that difficult to cut into scenes.”
According to one exec close to the project, when Paramount put “Watchmen” in turnaround, the studio’s reported budget concerns were actually a smokescreen for the fact that Greengrass and the studio couldn’t agree on the script.
Now that the project is in Warner Bros.’ hands, Snyder is awaiting yet another screenplay, this time from Alex Tse. Hayter is enthusiastic to see the project moving forward: He describes Snyder as a “Watchmen” loyalist and says Tse is currently combining the best elements from two of Hayter’s previous drafts.
With any luck, Warner’s willingness to produce Moore’s other seminal work, “V for Vendetta,” and stick to its controversial themes will ensure that auds finally get a chance to watch the Watchmen.