Hearing that Watchmen is being adapted for TV no doubt raises some questions, especially for fans of the comics. For one, adapting Watchmen is a big undertaking, so how exactly are they doing this? Two, the work by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins was adapted into a film before, so how will this Watchmen TV show compare to the movie? (A third question for hardcore fans is also, probably, why?!)
To get the answer to some of those questions out of the way: The series and the movie are very different in some very obvious ways having to do with the time period, location, and characters.
But let’s start with the movie. The 2009 Zack Snyder film is a very direct adaption of the comic series — or at least as direct as possible, considering the way the original story jumps around, includes narratives outside of the central plot, and just has so much going on.
The movie and graphic novel (the comic series was assembled into one book in 1987) are both about a group of vigilantes, who aren’t really superheroes in the traditional sense. The story is set in an alternate reality during the Cold War and deals with super dark ideas, like whether killing off half the population of New York City is an appropriate exchange for avoiding nuclear destruction. The film starred Malin Åckerman, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Matthew Goode, Billy Crudup, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and it ended up being pretty divisive. The movie has a 64 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, with the Critics Consensus explaining that “its complex narrative structure may make it difficult for it to appeal to viewers not already familiar with the source material.”
The TV series avoids that issue entirely by existing in the world of Watchmen, but in a different time and place. The HBO show takes place 30 years after the original events and is set in Tulsa, Oklahoma. So far, it seems only three of the original Watchmen characters — Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Specter II, and Doctor Manhattan — appear in the new series. Instead of focusing on that group, it’s centered around a detective named Angela Abar (Regina King), who also goes by the name Sister Night. The show is focused on the relationship between police and citizens, with a focus on race relations as shown through a white supremacist terrorist group called the Seventh Cavalry. Their ideology is inspired by Rorschach, a character who died in the original Watchmen, even though he wasn’t a known white supremacist. Also, in the world of the TV show, Robert Redford (that Robert Redford) has been the president since 1992 and the internet and smart phones do not exist — the reasons for this will eventually be shared on the show.
“In the original source material, the book was highly political,” series creator Damon Lindelof explained at the Television Critics Association summer press tour (via IndieWire). “It was about what was happening in the American culture at the time, even though it was being presented by two British artists. What in 2019 is the equivalent of nuclear standoff between the Russians and the United States? It just felt like it was undeniably race and policing in America. That idea started to graft itself in the Watchmen universe and needed to be presented in a responsible way.”
Lindelof, who is also known for Lost and The Leftovers, posted a five-page letter for fans of the comics on Instagram in which he explained his idea, his love for the series, and his understanding if fans hate him. He also compared the original Watchmen to his Watchmen by saying they are like the Old and New Testaments and that the original is canon. “We have no desire to ‘adapt’ the 12 issues Mr. Moore and Mr. Gibbons created 30 years ago,” he wrote. “Those issues are sacred ground and they will not be retread nor recreated nor reproduced nor rebooted. They will, however be remixed."
Being a fan of the comic himself, another issue Lindelof ran into was how he felt about doing the project without the approval of Moore. The comic writer is strongly against any adaptations of his work.
“All I can say is I love the source material,” Lindelof said at the TCA tour, according to Entertainment Tonight. “I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you right now if Watchmen had never been written. I went through a very intensive terror of fucking it up … I'm not entirely sure I'm out of that tunnel. But I have a tremendous amount of respect for it." He added, “The spirit of Alan Moore is a punk rock spirit and a rebellious spirit. I'm channeling the spirit of Alan Moore to tell Alan Moore, 'Fuck you, I'm doing it anyway.'”
He probably won’t be the last person to say that, either.