Which is exactly the film '300' director Zack Snyder has delivered. With the exception of an altered (and, it must be said, slightly improved) denouement, Snyder and his screenwriters have changed almost nothing from the original text. Costumes, sets, visual effects, the framing of shots and sequences, all the choicest lines of dialogue, even the music selections come directly from the novel. With all of these decisions taken out of the director's hands, what's left for Snyder to do?
Snyder's biggest impact is felt in the action sequences, which are also the film's weakest scenes: overstylised, repetitive and pornographically violent. Violence is the major theme of Moore’s book: it’s questionable efficacy in solving global problems, the conflicted, animalistic thrill of crushing one’s enemies. Snyder rides roughshod over such subtleties: 'Watchmen' may be the nastiest blockbuster ever devised. It luxuriates in snapping bones and literal explosions of gore. It's here that the gulf between comic and movie becomes most clear: Gibbons's drawings were often shocking, but they served a purpose. Snyder employs violence for the rush, and while this approach is sometimes brutally effective, it's also deeply crass.
The casting throws up mixed results: Patrick Wilson is agreeably vulnerable as Nite Owl, while Jackie Earl Haley makes for a supremely effective, unsettling Rorschach. But these two seasoned professionals stand out in a cast chosen for their physical similarity to Gibbons's drawings. Thankless female figurehead Silk Spectre demands an actress of real grace and vulnerability: Malin Akerman’s bland, soap-opera performance barely scratches the surface, while Matthew Goode's vacuous portrayal of the power-hungry Ozymandias suggests annoyed playboy rather than World's Smartest Man. But they can hardly be blamed: Snyder repeatedly fluffs the film's emotional peaks, blundering through on his way to another action setpiece.
But, try as he might, Snyder can't sabotage the sheer majesty of the source material. The breadth and grandeur of Moore’s globe-spanning narrative still astounds, and to see Gibbons’s iconic images writ vast and messy across the screen packs an undeniable sentimental punch. Like the book, there’s an impressive visual and narrative density here, cramming a bewildering amount of information into already overloaded scenes. The characters may be undermined by Snyder’s glib, hasty approach, but they still resonate, as do the overriding themes of power, corruption and human frailty.
But 'Watchmen' is still going to be the ultimate tough sell: there will be those who view the film as a bewildering mishmash of underexplored themes, thinly sketched characters and noisy, excessive violence. They're probably right: any work of popular art which demands prior knowledge must be deemed a failure. And yet, there’s something admirable about the entire enterprise: its ungainly size, its unrelenting weirdness, its willful, challenging intensity. Neophytes should probably steer clear, but for longterm fans of the source work this will be a hugely pleasurable, if ultimately unenlightening experience.