Why the Creator of 'Watchmen' Wouldn't Want You to Watch HBO's 'Watchmen'
On Sunday night, Alan Moore will likely not tune into HBO's Watchmen, the ambitious new television series inspired by the beloved '80s comic book classic he created with artist David Gibbons. According to HBO's president of programming Casey Bloys, Moore was "not thrilled" with the adaptation from The Leftovers and Lost mastermind Damon Lindelof, who has grappled with Moore's apathy for new versions of his work while promoting the show. This shouldn't be a surprise: the bearded English writer has a long, complicated history of expressing ambivalence and scorn for the different mutations of his art that have been released over the years. Why would the new Watchmen be any different?
Even compared to Moore's other acclaimed creations, which include titles like From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and V for Vendetta, Watchmen looms like a vengeance-seeking, hard-boiled-dialogue-spouting guardian over modern pop culture. As Hollywood became more superhero obsessed in recent decades, the comic, which was published by DC Comics over 12 issues in 1986 and 1987, has served as a grim, apocalyptic symbol of what a comic could be. In 2010, Time included it on a list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923, the only "graphic novel" to receive the distinction. At this point, it's a cliché to even bother to note it's a cliché to call it the best superhero comic ever written.
Along with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, which was also published to great fanfare in 1986, Watchmen ushered in an era of "serious" comic storytelling, which can be traced all the way to recent box-office-conquering blockbusters like Logan or Joker. Along with FX's now-concluded mind-fuck Legion and Amazon's foul-mouthed satire The Boys, HBO's Watchmen is part of a recent mini-wave of television shows seeking to bring a more "adult" touch to the genre. Now retired from comics, Moore hasn't been actively talking down HBO's Watchmen in the press -- Gibbons has spoken positively about the interpretation -- but that hasn't stopped Lindelof from saying he thinks Moore might have placed a "magical curse" on him. Moore's antipathy for Hollywood is legendary and justified.
When you consider some of the adaptations, like 2003's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen starring Sean Connery or director Zach Snyder's bombastic 2009 version of Watchmen, it's easy to see why he might be frustrated. "My main experiences in the past had been of the Hollywood variety, which was on many levels repulsive to me," Moore told the Guardian back in 2012. "Every film is a remake of a previous film, or a remake of a television series that everyone loved in the 1960s, or a remake of a television series that everyone hated in the 1960s. Or it’s a theme park ride; it will soon come to breakfast cereal mascots."
Snyder's Watchmen, with its ridiculous sex scene set to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and its slow-motion bursts of kinetic violence, remains an odd artifact of the '00s: It's obsessively faithful to the plot and look of the comic, going so far as to recreate specific frames and images, but it mostly misses the tonal richness of Moore's writing and Gibbons's art. Even if Snyder has argued that it should be viewed as a "satire," his movie is lumbering and grating in ways that the comic simply never is. Unsurprisingly, Moore refused to have his name attached to the film. At the same time, he was complimentary of writer David Hayter's original screenplay, telling EW in an oral history of the comic from 2005 that the script was "as close as I could imagine anyone getting to Watchmen."
Still, he quickly clarified he wouldn't be going to see it. "My book is a comic book," he told EW in 2005. "Not a movie, not a novel. A comic book." Leading up to its release in 2008, he took an even funnier and gleefully disinterested position on the upcoming Watchmen film. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times's Hero Complex blog, he said, "The Watchmen film sounds like more regurgitated worms. I for one am sick of worms."
Equally angered by the inner-workings of the comics industry, Moore's contempt isn't just for Hollywood: In 1989, Moore cut ties with DC Comics over a complicated dispute relating to the language of a reversion clause in his Watchmen contract, part of a long history of large comics publishers financially and legally exploiting the artists and writers who created their most popular titles. (Here's how Moore recounted the incident to The New York Times in 2006: "I said, 'Fair enough, you have managed to successfully swindle me, and so I will never work for you again.'") In 2012, DC Comics announced Before Watchmen, a prequel series to his original comic that would tell new stories about characters like Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Dr. Manhattan, and Rorschach. New writers and new artists were hired to put their spin on the material. To put it mildly, Moore was not super psyched.
"It seems a bit desperate to go after a book famous for its artistic integrity," Moore told Fast Company in 2012. "It's a finite series. Watchmen was said to actually provide an alternative to the superhero story as an endless soap opera. To turn that into just another superhero comic that goes on forever demonstrates exactly why I feel the way I do about the comics industry. It's mostly about franchises. Comic shops these days barely sell comics. It's mostly spin-offs and toys."
One can imagine that Moore feels similarly about HBO's Watchmen, which has mostly received positive reviews before its premiere with many critics celebrating Lindelof's radical approach. It sounds like Lindelof, a writer with his own favorite themes and formal tics, simply used the source material as a jumping off point to tell an entirely new story The praise likely won't matter to Moore -- and why should it? As Lindelof said to Vulture, "If you want to support Alan Moore’s wishes, do not watch the show. That’s what he would want." His statement turns the act of streaming Watchmen into its own ethical conundrum, one that reasonable people will disagree and argue over. "Who watches the Watchmen?" is the oft-quoted question from the comic, scrawled as colorful graffiti on walls, but "Why watch Watchmen?" might be equally pressing.