In 1986, writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons, and colorist John Higgins upended the public’s perception of comic books. With the limited series Watchmen, the trio created a gorgeously emotional and sophisticated work of comic book fiction that could go toe-to-toe with the most esteemed literary classics. (In fact, Time Magazine placed it on its list of the 100 best novels of the modern era.) So it was only a matter of time before the resurgence of the comic book movie would generate enough momentum to push Watchmen to the big screen — which it did in 2009.
Of course, given such treasured source material, fans (and Moore alike) were understandably wary of the film adaptation and how the paneled page would translate to the moving picture. But by using the comic as an established storyboard, director Zack Snyder was able to maintain much of the look and feel of the original work.
However, there are still multiple differences between Watchmen the book and Watchmen the movie. Before you catch Watchmen on IFC, check out 10 ways the two titles differ from one another. (Note: Spoilers abound!)
1. The level of superhuman strength is greatly increased in the film.
The original Watchmen story chronicles the lives of average (albeit keenly trained) people who don costumes to fight crime and injustice. Aside from the godlike Doctor Manhattan, caped crusaders are limited to the peaks of human strength in the real world. Comparatively in Snyder’s film, the Watchmen are literally superhuman, with the ability to punch through concrete walls and withstand skull-crushing collisions with marble tables.
2. The Black Freighter subplot isn’t in the movie.
Acting as both a comic-within-a-comic meta narrative as well as a framing device, the swashbuckling Tales of the Black Freighter — featuring a shipwrecked mariner, an ominous ocean liner, and a raft of dead bodies — provides a metaphor-heavy counterpart to the main plot. But in order to keep the film at a reasonable length, the Black Freighter subplot was scrapped for the theatrical version. (An animated version of the story was released direct-to-video a few weeks after the film’s release.)
3. The character backstories are simplified for the movie.
Watchmen has a rich and storied history for the main characters, flashing back to conversations and events that directly influenced their actions. Although the novel had over 400 pages to work with multiple storylines, many of them had to be condensed or excised for the sake of the film’s running time. However, Snyder successfully sums up several narratives with a stylized credits sequence that showcases key historical moments with single slow-motion shots, which critics and fans hailed as arguably the best part of the movie.
4. The Keene Act is more important in the comic.
Along with personal histories, broader world events were pared down in the movie — among them being the law against costumed vigilantes known as the Keene Act. The book presents a fuller explanation for the public’s derision toward superheroes and how it led to their collective retirement as well as four terms for President Nixon. Although a fake Keene Act PSA from 1977 was released as a promotion, the movie barely addresses the legislative ban.
5. Comic book Nite Owl is more vulnerable.
To go with his paunchy stomach, the book version of Daniel Dreiberg/Nite Owl has character flaws and vulnerabilities that go beyond the physical. He’s not nearly as confident as he is in the movie (you’d never see him grin before a fight, for example) and his fear of Rorschach and Doctor Manhattan is palpable in light of the clear threats they pose to him. And speaking of Rorschach…
6. Rorschach’s character-defining moment is handled differently in the film.
The original Watchmen places more emphasis on the moment where Rorschach murders the child molester, depicting it as the moment he adopted his halting speech and truly became the deranged sociopath we all know and love. On the page, he cuffs the guy to his stove and sets his house on fire, leaving him to choose whether to hack off a limb or burn to death. On the screen, it’s multiple whacks to the noggin with a meat cleaver.
7. The inherent humor of Watchmen merchandise is lost in the film.
While warning Adrian Veidt aka Ozymandias of a possible mask-killer, Rorschach notices a line of Watchmen toys on Veidt’s desk and mocks his willingness to “prostitute” his persona for a line of “toy soldiers.” Since Hollywood would never denigrate the possibility of a merchandising tie-in, that mockery is omitted and replaced with Nite Owl happily musing at the tiny action figures on Ozy’s shelf.
8. Silk Spectre’s confrontation with The Comedian doesn’t happen in the film.
The very complex relationship between the original Silk Spectre and the Comedian includes sexual encounters both forced and consensual — the former of which causes Laurie Jupiter aka Silk Spectre II to publicly confront the Comedian and throw a drink in his face, the latter of which resulted in Laurie. The Comedian is left tongue-tied and unable to inform Laurie of his biological relationship to her. No such scene exists in the movie.
9. Nite Owl doesn’t witness Rorschach’s death in the comic.
A man of his convictions, Rorschach tells Doctor Manhattan in the book that the only way to stop him from exposing Veidt and his destructive actions is to kill him. Manhattan obliges by disintegrating Rorschach. Meanwhile, Nite Owl is making time with Silk Spectre and misses his death — unlike the movie, where Nite Owl witnesses Rorschach being vaporized and the resulting inkblot stain causes him to scream in angry disbelief.
10. The movie ending’s source of mass destruction is very different.
In the book, Ozymandias’ master plan to unite the world to fight a common enemy comes in the form of a giant psychic squid teleported to the center of New York City. This plot doesn’t involve changing the public’s perception toward Doctor Manhattan and declaring him the scourge of humanity. This, however, is central to the movie’s ending wherein Veidt’s actions frame Manhattan as a destructive force that needs to be stopped.