Alan Moore is notoriously disdainful of cinematic adaptations of his work, and for good reason: With the exception of the Wachowski sisters’ V For Vendetta (which rules, despite flattening the political complexity of the original), every attempt to make a movie out of one of his comics transforms the original work from a challenging, gnarled story that evades simple understanding into an insipid, broadly commercial product.
Those adaptations, however, are not HBO’s Watchmen.
The series, which debuts this Sunday, is based on the landmark 1980s comic book series of the same name, by Moore and artist Dave Gibbons. The Watchmen comic is a classic, commonly credited with deconstructing the superhero genre and breaking open the door, for better or worse, to “grim” versions of superhero stories. It was also, notably, mangled by Zack Snyder in a movie that misunderstood the source of the comic’s cynicism and was too enamored with its characters, while giving us plenty of glowing blue dick.
Watchmen the TV series, created by The Leftovers’ Damon Lindelof, is not an adaptation of the comic. The show has been described as a “remix” of the themes and material of the original, but in the end, it’s closer to a partially authorized sequel.
Lindelof’s Watchmen picks up in 2019, 30 years after the events of the book. The world is, roughly, at peace: the destruction of New York planned by the genius hero-turned-sociopathic antihero Ozymandias had the intended effect, bringing the United States and Russia back from the brink of nuclear Armageddon. Robert Redford has been elected president and governed for several terms straight on a broadly liberal platform, including paying reparations to black Americans. The godlike Doctor Manhattan is gone, presumed to be meditating on Mars.
The Watchmen TV series takes place on Earth, primarily in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rather than a mysterious murder kicking off the plot, there’s a big, apparent threat: the Seventh Cavalry, a white supremacist militia inspired by the late antihero Rorschach. To protect themselves from the enemy, the police of Tulsa wear masks to hide their identities, sketchily evoking the mythos of earlier heroes while remaining officers of the law. The central character is now Angela Abar, played by Regina King, who uses the codename Sister Night and lives undercover as a “retired” cop who now owns a bakery.
Lindelof and the Watchmen writers take the original comic seriously, and treat it as canon. Still, they’re willing to take ownership of and use the world created by Moore and Gibbons, as well as a few of the original characters. In particular, Laurie Juspeczyk, formerly the Silk Spectre, is now an FBI agent using her father’s name and played by Jean Smart. Jeremy Irons plays the unnamed, but easily assumed to be Adrian Veidt, formerly Ozymandias, who is part of a deeply confusing, delightful side plot.
This is to say, Lindelof has only been respectful of Moore to a point: Moore reportedly asked Lindelof to not use his name in promoting the series, which Lindelof has done. The end credits of the series names the characters as “co-created for DC by Dave Gibbons.” But he has also seemingly steeled himself to take Moore directly on. At a Television Critics Association press tour earlier this year, Lindelof laid out his case for making Watchmen:
“I do feel like the spirit of Alan Moore is a punk rock spirit, a rebellious spirit, and that if you would tell Alan Moore, a teenage Moore in ’85 or ’86, ‘You’re not allowed to do this because Superman’s creator or Swamp Thing’s creator doesn’t want you to do it,’ he would say, ‘F— you, I’m doing it anyway.’ So I’m channeling the spirit of Alan Moore to tell Alan Moore, ‘F— you, I’m doing it anyway.’”
In contrast to nearly every other invocation of “punk rock spirit” by someone making a multi-million dollar piece of pop culture, Lindelof is basically correct. Taking iconic characters and being willing to genuinely subvert them in the name of saying something bigger is a creative risk, albeit one that has been paid off by HBO.
Without spoiling much more, Watchmen does take genuine risks with the source material. It treats the comic series as gospel while undermining its assumptions about some of the characters, and the nature of heroism writ large. In particular, where the comic series often uses some version of, as one character puts it, “sex stuff” as an explanation for the bizarre habits and proclivities of costumed adventurers, the TV show takes a broader, societal look at how and why people might subvert the law. (Though the pilot initially presents the series as a conflict between the masked cops trying to take down the white supremacist vigilante Seventh Cavalry, believe me: the show gets more interesting and complex.)
Though Moore is a singular artist with a well-defined perspective, his major work has been in a medium that didn’t need movie studios to cannibalize itself. The overwhelming dullness of incessant reboots, reimaginings, and revivals isn’t a product of Disney so much as it is an adaption of the way comics have traditionally treated their characters. Moore himself has frequently used other people’s characters as the foundation of his own work, whether it’s his runs with characters like Swamp Thing or the Watchmen characters themselves, who were originally going to be characters from the DC-owned Charlton Comics.
Before The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen became a movie so widely panned it may have caused Sean Connery to retire from acting, the original premise of a crossover group composed of iconic characters from different stories was prescient about what pop culture would turn into. Moore took characters from the entire history of fiction, everyone from Orlando to Nemo to Bond, and pressed them into service as players in his cast, in stories about everything from psychedelics to religion to the nature of stories itself. In this light, it feels a bit silly to decide that Moore’s “original” characters are the only ones off-limits.
Long-running characters often become cultural symbols, even outside of the creators’ original intentions. Superman is synonymous with ideals of ultimate power used in service of the greater good in a way that makes “what if Superman but evil” a plausible movie pitch, and he’s identified strongly enough with “the American way” that “what if Superman but Soviet” is a plausible comic series. The Watchmen characters, in particular, are designed to serve as ideological game pieces—The Comedian is a nihilist, Rorschach a kind of objectivist, Ozymandias a hardened utilitarian, and so on—and Lindelof is well within his rights to try to say something new with them, whether or not he succeeds.
The most respectful way Lindelof could adapt Watchmen is by being impossibly rude to it, by excavating the assumptions the original series makes and examining them with a cold, ruthless eye in search of something new to say. It starts to get there: Where Watchmen the comic offers sexuality as a sort of catchall sociopolitical explanation for vigilantism — nearly everyone is just extremely horny and can only fuck by either beating up other people or themselves getting beat up — the television show digs another layer, replacing sexual repression with American white supremacy.
Admittedly, this move seems tenuous at times, particularly in the first episode, which paints the conflict of the series as between the white supremacist Seventh Cavalry and the police trying to take them down. Thankfully, the show rewards patience: There is more to Watchmen’s understanding of race, though Lindelof keeps the mask on a tad longer than he should.
In fact, the Watchmen series’ greatest adaptation failures appear to largely be motivated by Lindelof’s love and reverence for the original material. In particular, though Jean Smart is fun and snappy as Agent Laurie Blake, the character — once broken by her romantic entanglement with Doctor Manhattan — has become an impossibly cool, if disaffected, FBI agent.
This version of Laurie is incredibly competent, and strides through the world like she owns the place — like she’s a comic book character, destined to come out on top. Though one of Laurie’s coworkers resists the designation when she calls him a “fan” of hers, he feels like the closest thing we have to an audience stand-in, interested in stylizing and obsessively studying the original work in a way that would seemingly produce another Snyder adaptation. Though the comic inspires this level of devotion, Lindelof’s Watchmen is great precisely because it rarely gives in to that impulse: If Watchmen has a foundational rule, it’s that no one is ever cool.
Eric Thurm is the founder, host, and overall doofus behind Drunk Education, which started as a party at his house that several people had to be tricked into attending. He is also a writer whose work has appeared in GQ, Esquire, Rolling Stone, The A.V. Club, and other publications, and the author of Avidly Reads Board Games from NYU Press, out now.