Watchmen on HBO is Full of Possibilities


News broke this week that HBO brass met with Zack Snyder on a potential Watchmen project. For those not familiar with Watchmen, it was originally a 1986 graphic novel from Alan Moore that is widely regarded as one of the most influential comics of all time. Zack Snyder directed the 2009 movie adaptation.

Grounded in a realistic, but bleak, vision of New York City, the story was written at the peak of the Cold War when the world was firmly in the grips the fear that nuclear warfare could occur at any given moment. Watchmen follows the lives of human beings attempting to be vigilantes and battling the challenges of being an individual in a time of global conflict.

The plot follows the group called The Watchmen, which features a deep history with multiple generations of members, cooperation with the American Government, involvement with the Vietnam War and the eventual arrival of an atomic superman. Needless to say, there’s a lot of ground to cover. The graphic novel even features supplementary material between its chapters that include excerpts from a fictional autobiography by one of the retired Watchmen, articles from an in-story scientific journal and a comic within the comic called Tales from the Black Freighter. It’s as ambitious as graphic novels get and is somehow executed perfectly.

Zack Snyder’s big-screen adaptation was more respectful to the source material than most Hollywood directors would’ve been. The theatrical cut was close to the three hour mark, while the blu-ray Director’s Cut with extra scenes that had to be eliminated due to length ran 186 minutes. Snyder released a separate animated blu-ray for Tales from the Black Freighter prior to the film’s release, which was eventually woven into the movie in the “Ultimate Cut” blu-ray. The runtime of the Ultimate Cut was 215 minutes.

Most directors would have simply made a single cut of the movie, collected a nice paycheck and moved on to another project. Zack Snyder catches a lot of flak for his interpretation of Superman in the current Man of Steel series, but his unprecedented care of the Watchmen project is understated by today’s harsh Snyder critics.

So what could this potential new Watchmen approach be all about? There are a lot of possible answers to that.

Is a new story necessary?

While it wouldn’t be my favorite choice for a new Watchmen program, there is the possibility to tell an all new Watchmen story featuring the heroes and setting. There isn’t much room to craft a story after the events of the novel, but the potential for a prequel is there.

DC Comics released the series Before Watchmen in 2012 that consisted of 37 issues. They weren’t handled or even approved of by Alan Moore, which isn’t a surprise to anyone who is aware of the Moore’s attitude toward the comic book industry. A retelling of Before Watchmen would leave too much valuable source material untold. 

Is a prequel of Watchmen even necessary? No, not really. The graphic novel acts as its own prequel. Full chapters of the story delve deeply into the first generation of Watchmen. Readers of the graphic novel are fully aware of the original members, what they’re famous for and many of their eventual demises.

The problem with telling the story of the original class of the Watchmen is that it means little without the context of the events of the Watchmen of the 1980s. The reason the history is told in the graphic novel is because it develops the main characters within the 1986 story. The backstory illustrates how the era of the superhero changed over the 20-30 year span; how wartime made individual heros insignificant. The story of the past is insignificant without the story of the present.

The main story of Watchmen is driven by the arrival of the atomic superman (basically a god) Dr. Manhattan. American scientist Jon Osterman is part of an atomic experiment gone wrong, which gives him power over all matter. Watchmen explores Osterman’s transition from human being to cosmic being and how the affects global politics, vigilante justice and even the characters’ interpersonal relationships. His arrival causes a total shift within the Watchmen. As original Watchman Hollis Mason states, Dr. Manhattan’s arrival is the dawn of the true superhero. What can a mere human offer when Dr. Manhattan exists?

The point is that there isn’t much story to tell prior to Dr. Manhattan’s arrival. He’s such a key part of Watchmen that it wouldn’t make much sense to attempt telling a story that doesn’t involve him.

Series, miniseries or movie?

A 3+ hour movie with a hollywood budget already exists so there isn’t much of a reason to do another one of those for HBO. A full-length series with many seasons could work, but not if the purpose is to retell the Watchmen graphic novel. A series that goes on for more than five seasons would have to stretch the source material more than it needs to be. A miniseries is the best fit for the Watchmen story.

A Watchmen miniseries similar to a season of True Detective would be ideal. Consisting of eight one-hour episodes, that would be enough time to tell the story of Watchmen with all of its intricacies. Episodes could be split into segments that tell the story of the characters, their history and even the allegory of Tales from the Black Freighter.

The graphic novel has more than enough content to fill eight-to-ten hours of television. As a fan of the source material, this would be the preferred approach.

Expansion of the movie would be possible

While the Ultimate Cut of the movie is the best way to get the full Watchmen experience in movie form, there were still places where Snyder had to make cuts. Following his production of the project, Snyder has gone on record stating he was forced to make cuts whether it was due to limitations of typical cinema length or focus group reactions. Given HBO’s hands-off approach to their original programming, Snyder would have carte blanche to carry out his vision as he sees fit.

An HBO version of Watchmen could turn out to be exactly how Snyder intended it to be from the beginning. Think of it like an eight hour cut of the movie, retelling every bit of the graphic novel in serial form. Or even better, make it a 12-episode run with each episode covering a chapter in the novel. HBO just may hold the creative freedom that Snyder needed all along for his perfect adaptation of Watchmen.

Time will tell if Watchmen on HBO will even happen, since these are just preliminary talks that are currently happening. Don’t expect to see it any time soon if at all. But if Watchmen does come to HBO, the possibilities are potentially great for fans of the graphic novel. 

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