For fans of Watchmen, a “proper” screen adaptation of the landmark 12-issue maxiseries by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons, and colorist John Higgins is both a fond wish and a great heresy. Like so many of the great books, people want it dramatized, which is the natural order of storytelling itself. And yet that progression is something Moore considers incorrect. In his eyes, Watchmen is specifically composed for the medium of comics. Making it into a play, film, television show, or action figure breaks the magic around it — to say nothing of cheapening his artistic intent. His thoughts on the matter only intensified as his dealings with Hollywood took a sour turn, and Warner Bros. Pictures moved forward with the 2009 Zack Snyder feature film adaptation of his best-known work.
And it is happening again.
The Leftovers‘ Damon Lindelof is supervising an HBO television pilot based on Watchmen — the format and outlet that people less inclined to hear Moore’s wishes always thought was the natural venue for the adaptation. Regina King, Don Johnson, Tim Blake Nelson, Louis Gossett Jr., Adelaide Clemens, and Andrew Howard are set to star.
And as always happens when Watchmen development news breaks, the cries go up from fans about all of the issues: Moore’s shabby treatment at the hands of DC Comics, the inability of a film medium to encompass the scope and literary merit of the original work, and even the complaint that Moore himself is in no position to claim absolute ownership, as the Watchmen characters are based on old Charlton Comics characters DC purchased in 1983.
Ironically, Lindelof counts himself among those fans confused, devastated, and yet hopeful about Watchmen on TV. He said as much in a five-page missive on his Instagram account. The letter, addressed to Watchmen fans of all stripes, offers some intriguing clues to the nature of the show and, perhaps more importantly, his deeply held feelings on committing the great heresy itself.
Read on to learn about a few of the things Lindelof revealed and some important context surrounding the new information.
In the early part of the letter, which appropriates Dr. Manhattan’s trip though his own memories in issue #4, Lindelof makes it clear he turned down opportunities to adapt the comic book for television twice before. Once in 2010, less than a year after the feature film was released, and again in 2011 or 2012. In both instances, his respect for the original work outweighed any interest he might otherwise have. Three years later, a third overture “cracked the door,” as he put it before adding, “now I’m a hypocrite too.”
His extended metaphor of conversion to Orthodox Judaism — in which a person hoping to convert must ask three times — does not reveal how this third attempt made him see the project in a different light, though. Perhaps he finally realized it is better to be the fan in charge of the heresy than watching it happen anyway. That is the rationalization anyone who involves themselves with further Watchmen projects must ultimately make if they hope to reconcile their love of Alan Moore’s work and their own creative interests in Watchmen.
In the midst of describing the second Watchmen development offer, Lindelof recalls explaining Moore’s vision and concerns to an unnamed television executive. The response: “Who’s Alan Moore?”
The devastating truth in Watchmen’s behind-the-scenes drama is Moore’s deletion from the story as the cantankerous Northampton, England, native’s relationship with the masterwork is poisoned by its success. Originally envisioned as a swan-song for Charlton Comics characters like the Question and Judomaster, the eventual series featured new characters like Rorschach and Ozymandias, who certainly bare similarities to their Charlton counterparts. Consequently, Moore and Gibbons’ contract gave them control of the new creations once the series went out of print, a thing which always happened to comics at the time. Watchmen’s outstanding quality and popularity meant DC was in a position to publish collected editions of the series in perpetuity. A point which left Moore angrier as the years rolled on.
Not helping matters were film adaptations of his other works, like From Hell and V for Vendetta, which took great liberties with their sources or DC Comics’ attempt to get him to validate a Watchmen action-figure line in 2000 and a 15th Anniversary hardcover release of the series just as then-publisher Paul Levitz was pulping an issue of Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen because it contained a vintage 1890s ad for a douche syringe manufactured by the “Marvel Company.”
After being deposed for a lawsuit regarding the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film – in which he was accused of being a hired gun for 20th Century Fox by creating the comic book – and V for Vendetta producer Joel Silver claiming he was “excited” about the film during a meeting he maintained never took place, Moore refused credit and royalties on any future adaptations of his work. He assigned his portion of the money to his collaborators and when Watchmen debuted, the source work credit read “Based on the graphic novel co-created and illustrated by Dave Gibbons and published by DC Comics.” When another disputed Moore work, Marvelman, was set to be reprinted by Marvel in 2013, Moore declined to participate. His writing credit on the series was changed to “The Original Author” – a nom de plume which also seems fitting for his relationship to Watchmen.
And, again, confirming every fan’s greatest fear, Lindelof’s letter reveals at least one TV executive has no idea who The Original Author really is or why his thoughts on a television adaptation should matter.
In outlining his creative intentions, Lindelof makes it clear the series will not adapt the story told in the Watchmen maxiseries. Calling the original comic books “sacred ground” and comparing it to the Old Testament, he said the material will not be “retread, nor recreated nor reproduced nor rebooted.”
Nonetheless, the comic books are considered canon and those events will be “just the way” they were depicted in the 12 issues of Watchmen. This, at the very least, means fans will not have to worry about how the Tales of the Black Freighter comic strip will be realized in the series. It also means no choice will be made regarding Ozymandias’s squid monster. It happened.
But Lindelof writes enigmatically that the series will not be a sequel either. “This story will be set in the world its creators painstakingly built,” he explains. “But in the tradition of the work that inspired it, this new story must be original.” Like Moore’s remixing of the Charlton characters, it appears Lindelof is setting out to do the same with Watchmen. But he also writes that the show must “ask new questions and explore the world through a fresh lens.” It will also be a contemporary take with the president, British Prime Minister Theresa May, and Russian leader Vladimir Putin taking the place of Ronald Regan and 1980s British PM Margaret Thatcher in its critique of power.
He also promises “new faces” and “new masks” while a “surprising, yet familiar set of eyes” takes a look back the 20th-century heroes. This, he writes, comprises the project’s “greatest risks.” The obvious identity behind those familiar eyes would be Dr. Manhattan (played by Billy Crudup, pictured, in the film), but bringing him back lacks the risk that Lindelof characterizes with the possibility that his body might “shatter upon impact” once his full plan is revealed to the world.
If nothing else, it is a great teaser for those compelled to look at the project while intending to look away in respect of Moore.
On a more personal note, Lindelof described how his father gave him the first two issues of Watchmen while a boy and their personal journey with the series over the course of their lives. He recalled being 15 years old and watching his father “haggle with a man in a wheelchair” at a New York comic book convention for a supposed screenplay of a Watchmen feature adaptation. He also recalled his father’s dismay as he read the script, which featured “‘The Watchmen’ battle terrorists at The Statue of Liberty.”
Despite its title, there is no group called “The Watchmen” within the story. Among the many possible heresies in adapting Watchmen, calling the group of heroes by the book title is high on the list.
A further memory detailed Lindelof’s father buying him a new deluxe edition of Watchmen despite his knowledge of the continuing clash between Moore and DC. Lindelof called him out as a hypocrite, to which his father replied, “But it’s so goddamned good.”
He also recalled with vivid detail the last moments of his father’s life, indicating just how personal this all is. And while he accuses himself of using his father’s death as a cheap appeal to the fans, it also reveals how deeply he feels about Watchmen. It is not just another superhero comic book to him; it is a life-changer. That sentiment definitely rings familiar to readers of the series.
While trying to avoid the term “disruption,” Lindelof claims he wants to see what happens when Watchmen becomes the purview of a diverse set of writers and production staff. “In [the writers’] room,” he explains, “Hetero White Men like myself are in the minority.”
“Understanding its potential through the perspectives of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community has been eye-opening and exhilarating,” he continues. That sense of diversity will exist “in front of and behind the camera” as production on the pilot nears.
As a writer, Moore is sensitive to issues facing women and minority groups, but a fair criticism of his work is its treatment of women; particularly in Watchmen, in which Laurie Juspeczyk (played by Malin Akerman, pictured, in the film) can be viewed as a prize to be won with little-to-no agency for herself.
But in considering Lindelof’s comments about the leaders of the First-World powers elsewhere in the letter, it makes sense that the viewpoints of those outside comic’s traditional straight-white-male readership would come into consideration just as Moore’s work in the 1980s confronted the abuses and corruptions inherent in Thatcher’s government. And while certain debates will be sparked by Lindelof’s choice here, the iconography and themes of Watchmen are well suited to discuss the issues.
In admitting it is the right of the fan to decry developments in the things they love, Lindelof makes a tacit admission that he once shouted at the top of his lungs “You suck!” at the New York Jets while wearing a replica of legendary Jets quarterback Joe Namath’s jersey. The price of the jersey, so he claims, was his “entire first paycheck” from the Don Johnson CBS drama Nash Bridges. The outlay of cash, the passion and his critique of the Jets’ performance will be familiar to fans of any sports team, TV show, film, or comic book.
That passionate devotion is also at the core of fan’s concerns about another Watchmen adaptation. Why do this again? Why sully further what spin-off comics, the feature film, and various action-figure lines have already marred? At the same time, many fans still want an adaptation of the quality and distinction the original 12-issue maxiseries now carries. Some want it in spite of Moore’s objections and their own concerns about creators’ rights while others are burned out, preferring to ignore the project entirely.
Based on the letter, Lindelof appears to understand those feelings because he is a fan – and if he’s not, the letter is the most amazing work of fakery ever written. The concerns, emotions, and conflicts just about any Watchmen fan may have about the potential series are all right there in the letter.
And, as he mentions, this is still just a pilot. HBO may view the completed episode and pass. Development on Watchmen may end for a good long while after that. Or, it could be a rousing creative success. But if nothing else, Lindelof’s letter proves somebody who cares about Watchmen is in charge. That he can write passionately about the conflict in adapting the comic book is just a bonus.