Who's watching the Watchmen?

With V For Vendetta hitting cinemas this month, Alan Moore once again proves that his graphic novels are potent sources for big screen adaptation. Although From Hell and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen have made the crossover (with mixed results), Moore’s most celebrated work has yet to make it: Watchmen.

Published by DC in 1986/1987 as a 12-part series, Watchmen (co-created by Dave Gibbons) was central to the acceptance of comics as a legitimate art-form, and was met with universal critical acclaim. Telling the tale of a group of ageing superheroes being forced out of retirement to fight a new and mysterious threat to civilisation (yes, The Incredibles borrowed a lot), it scrutinises the whole idea of superheroes whilst also tackling contemporary themes of politics, science and ecology. Over the years it has gained a reputation as “the Citizen Kane of comics”. So where’s the film version then?

Back in 1989, Terry Gilliam was attached to direct a version written by Sam Hamm, who had just had success scripting Tim Burton’s Batman. Although he was initially cautious of following one huge project – the troublesome Baron Munchausen – with another, he quickly immersed himself in the project. But then the money disappeared and the project was dead in the water. Gilliam now claims he was “saved” from the movie. “I think it’s going to be impossible to make as a film, unless you make it three and a half hours long, which most people aren’t going to want”.

It is certainly an epic tale, and not one that could easily be squeezed into ninety minutes. After the Gilliam production faltered there was some talk of adapting it into a TV mini-series, but this also hit a dead-end. Things went quiet for several years as Moore’s other graphic novels moved into production.

Then in 2004 everything started again. With The Lord Of The Rings setting a new precedent for audiences’ willingness to cross their legs for over three hours at a time, the epic scale Watchmen that worried Gilliam now looked achievable. David Hayter, who had written the two X-Men movies, had written a script and Paramount put Darren Aronofsky behind the camera after pulling the plug on his own epic, The Fountain.

Since Gilliam’s attempt in 1989, a new element had been introduced to the industry – the Internet. Whole online communities were formed around a potential Watchmen film. Having already worked on an ill-fated Batman Year One project, Aronofsky was a popular choice with these vociferous fans of the book, and a leaked draft of Hayter’s screenplay was also met with favour. Of course, something had to go wrong. Warner Brothers suddenly green-lit The Fountain again and Aronofsky returned to that. Watchmen was once again without a director.

The production wasn’t called off though, and a new director was quickly found – Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy). He threw himself into the project and went as far as to launch his own official online message board for the film, finally bringing the filmmakers and the fans together – although they mostly just discussed fantasy casting. Then one day the website simply wasn’t there any more. The IMDB entry also disappeared. Watchmen simply vanished from the face of the earth. What now?

Basically, there was a change of personnel at Paramount and the new suits simply decided to get rid of a few things that were the legacy of the old suits. Watchmen was the first thing to go.

Things don’t look to rosy for Moore’s superhero epic, but there’s still a tiny glimpse of green light at the end of the tunnel. Warner Brothers have picked up the project, but have lost Greengrass and Hayter. With The Fountain almost completed, there’s talk of Aronofsky coming on board again. Perhaps everything rides on the success of V For Vendetta.

Fingers crossed.

Originally written for Sight & Sound/BFI Postgraduate Certificate in Film Journalism.