THIS WILL PROBABLY be the first and last column to link Alan Moore’s nihilistic “Watchmen” to Charles Dickens’ “Little Dorrit,” but hey, where’s the fun in doing something if it’s easy?
Much of the criticism surrounding “Watchmen” has taken director Zack Snyder to task for being too literal in transplanting the graphic novel to the screen, in essence using the landmark comic (minus its ridiculous ending) as the movie’s storyboard. As Daily Variety‘s Justin Chang wrote, “The movie is ultimately undone by its own reverence; there’s simply no room for these characters and stories to breathe of their own accord.”
Although I liked the movie better than that, he certainly has a point — one that speaks to an age-old question in regard to cinematic adaptations: Do the filmmakers “open up” the material, seeking to augment its accessibility to a wider audience while potentially alienating those most predisposed to see it; or do they rigidly adhere to the source, at the expense of preventing newcomers from feeling able to belatedly board the bandwagon?
Both approaches are fraught with elements of risk. Yet the temptation to deride a film for excessive fidelity generally depends on its particulars, with no single answer to that long-standing dilemma.
THIS BRINGS US, in a roundabout way, to “Little Dorrit,” a “Masterpiece” miniseries based on the Dickens novel that PBS will air over five weeks beginning this month. A full review will follow, but I have no qualms confessing that I never read the book and didn’t have the inclination to start now, especially with eight hours of Victorian costumed drama to consume. In such instances, my tendency is to trust that the story is reasonably faithful but finally must stand on its own, letting librarians and English teachers nitpick the details.
Imagine my surprise, then, when the character of Miss Wade is pretty overtly portrayed as a lesbian. A little sleuthing (thank you, Internet) revealed this as dramatic license on the part of writer Andrew Davies, whose literary adaptations include works by Jane Austen and Dickens’ “Bleak House.”
So did Davies bastardize an English classic? Far from it, though when Davies told a British newspaper that Dickens is “probably implying” the character’s sexuality, that reasoning sounded a trifle squishy.
Modernized adaptations can go in radically different directions. Remember, the peasants were initially ready to take up pitchforks over plans to update the 1970s artifact “Battlestar Galactica,” yet with that series building toward its climax, it’s hard to imagine any but the most loyal colonial dead-ender still arguing that the reboot wasn’t an improvement. By the same token, one needn’t be a literary scholar to conclude the 1995 Demi Moore movie “The Scarlet Letter” absurdly revised Hawthorne’s tale, including a preposterous happy ending that at best left the letter an unflattering shade of fuchsia.
RELATIVE TO NOVELS, the relationship between comicbooks and movies remains in its infancy, and the underlying material has historically been mistreated more often than not. (Those wishing to do homework on just how badly might go back and watch campy pre-CGI exercises like “Sheena” and “Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze,” but I don’t recommend it.)
Indeed, as any middle-aged fanboy will testify, comics have been so ill-served by movies in the past that erring on the side of faithfulness represents the wisest policy. And while I suspect the liberties taken with “Little Dorrit” will pass without many protestations, reshaping “Watchmen” in any significant way would have prompted howls of righteous indignation — without, more than likely, yielding the hoped-for effect of attracting hordes of wide-eyed novices into Moore’s dense, forbidding world.
In this case, then, the accusation of being “too literal” reflects Snyder’s unflinching commitment to what seems like the most pragmatic course, which was to unabashedly win over a core “Watchmen” crowd already programmed to distrust Hollywood. Moreover, as studios expand beyond well-known commodities like Superman and Spider-Man into second-tier superheroes, they become like politicians — needing first to secure their base before they start wooing fringe voters.
So who watches “Watchmen?” The answer is that its existing fans do — and they’re a more suspicious, harder-to-please lot than those apt to dabble in Dickens.