watchmen tv show

Adapting Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons‘ bold and brilliant Watchmen is a fool’s errand. And Damon Lindelof, who is spearheading a television version of the iconic comic for HBO, knows this.

In a new letter, the divisive writer and producer has revealed that his take on the material will not be a direct adaptation of the comic. Nor will it be a direct sequel, even though it will take place in the same world.

And you know what? Good.

The Lindelof Letter

The five-page letter Damon Lindelof posted to his Instagram feels like a dozen different things at once. An apology for making a Watchmen TV series. An excuse for making a Watchmen TV series. A defense of making a Watchmen TV series. An extended stylistic homage to Watchmen itself, borrowing the language and structure of Doctor Manhattan, the god-like superhero from the original comic who experiences all moments in time at once.

In any case, it’s pure Lindelof: ambitious, heart-on-his-sleeve, soul-on-the-floor, raw and honest stuff. This is definitely the guy who helped run Lost for six seasons and then returned to television with the beautiful, terrifying, and brilliant HBO series The Leftovers.

Towards the ends of the letter (which you can read in its entirely below), Lindelof begins to explain his vision for what a Watchmen TV series even looks like. And it’s not an actual adaptation. In this show, the events of Watchmen happened. Those who died, died. Those who fell in love, fell in love. Those who left this universe behind, left this universe behind. This is canon. But it’s not the show he plans to make:

We have no desire to ‘adapt’ the twelve issues Mr. Moore and Mr. Gibbons created thirty years ago. Those issues are sacred ground and will not be retread nor recreated nor reproduced nor rebooted. They will however be remixed. Because the bass lines in those familiar tracks are just too good and we’d be fools not to sample them. Those original twelve issues are our Old Testament. When the New Testament came along it did not erase what came before it. Creation. The Garden of Eden. Abraham and Isaac. The Flood. It all happened. And so it will be with Watchmen. The Comedian died. Dan and Laurie fell in love. Ozymandias saved the world and Dr. Manhattan left it just after blowing Rorschach to pieces in the bitter cold of Antarctica.

So, does that mean the show will be a sequel? Kind of? Sort of? Not really. HBO’s Watchmen will be set in the same universe as the comic, but decades have passed. The alternate 1985 has grown into an alternate modern day. And while it certainly sounds like it’s possible for the original cast of characters to show up, they will not be the focus of the show. In fact, Lindelof makes it clear that the original comics’ political bent and cultural commentary will be front-and-center:

This story will be set in the world its creators painstakingly built…but in the tradition of the work that inspired it, this new story must be original. It has to vibrate with the seismic unpredictability of its own tectonic plates. It must ask new questions and explore the world through a fresh lens. Most importantly, it must be contemporary. The Old Testament was specific to the Eighties of Reagan and Thatcher and Gorbachev. Ours needs to resonate with the frequency of Trump and May and Putin and the horse that he rides around on, shirtless. And speaking of Horsemen, The End of the World is off the table…which means the heroes and villains–as if the two are distinguishable–are playing for different stakes entirely.

Considering that the original Watchmen was Moore and Gibbons’ way of using superhero archetypes to explore the comic book medium and pick apart the politics and hypocrisies and terrors of the mid-80s, this feels right. This feels smart. This feels like it could be the Watchmen adaptation we need.

This is the Right Approach

Let’s get this out of the way: I like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation. It is a beautifully made thing, a bold experiment in translating a comic rather than adapting it. It’s the kind of movie I put into my Blu-ray player and just absorb. Its aesthetics are perfect and its choices often bold.

It’s also a total mess that doesn’t really feel like the comic to which it is so slavishly adhering.

I’m reminded of how Terry Gilliam struggled and failed to adapt the comic in the early ’90s (Robin Williams as Rorschach, anyone?), eventually calling the project un-filmable. And while Snyder proved him wrong in a literal sense of the word, Gilliam’s reaction to the finished film reflects the very reasons he abandoned his version:

“I always felt it was not the best way to treat it because trying to squeeze it into 2.5 hours is an unlikely thing. I think we wrote an interesting version of it, but I think it needed more time to really work. I thought Zack’s film worked well, but it suffered from the very problem that I was happy to avoid by not making the film.”

Sure, you can tell the plot of Watchmen in under three hours (Snyder’s film runs 162 minutes), but it’s missing the texture of the comic. It’s missing the politics. It’s missing the patience. When you read a comic, an artist and a writer work in tandem to control the specific pacing of a scene, slowing you down and speeding you up depending on what the moment requires. By necessity, the film version is on fast-forward – it has to keep moving or it dies. The careful pacing of the source material is the first thing to go in Snyder’s film.

This makes for an entertaining and propulsive film, but it also makes for one that reads like a Cliff’s Notes version of the material. It’s an accurate beat-by-beat recreation of the plot, but it’s missing the bruised and angry soul that powers Moore and Gibbons’ work. It plays the notes, but not the music.

And honestly, I think Snyder did the best he could. I’m not convinced he fully understands some of Moore and Gibbons’ choices (he seems to emphasize with Rorschach and his rotten outlook more than they ever did), but damn it, he made the story happen in under three hours. That’s something! But the Watchmen movie stands as a better example of why you shouldn’t try to make Watchmen than a definitive adaptation.

So enter Damon Lindelof. Enter HBO. Enter Peak TV. In Lindelof, you have an artist bold and honest and self-deprecating enough to understand what a folly this is and to zig instead of zag. In HBO, you have a fearless network who has built its reputation on twisted dramas that aren’t afraid to get difficult. In Peak TV, you have audiences hungry for someone fresh, something that will leave them dizzy.

That’s one hell of a combination. And while I will argue with you all day about Lindelof’s work (Lost‘s ending stinks, but the series is still a masterpiece; The Leftovers is the best show you never got around to watching), this take feels right. It’s recognizing that Watchmen is something special because its world was special, an uncomfortable, all too real and unreal world where our greatest dreams, worst nightmares, most noble ambitions, and darkest desires are all possible.

Lindelof wants to know what happened next. And you know what? I do too.

Continue Reading Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen TV Show Letter >>

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