Violence in the Watchmen Movie

20:21 Tue 10 Mar 2009
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I don’t have much of a problem with film violence generally, and appreciate good fight scenes, but found myself disturbed by the Watchmen movie’s treatment of them.

Watchmen as a comic was a departure in depicting violence in comics. Moore states that:

[I]t’s better that people know that violence results in terrible injury and pain and suffering than that they think that it’s just something that, you know, people get a sock on the jaw and they are unconscious for a couple minutes and then they come around and they are taken off to the police station.
—Andrew Firestone, The Wizard of “Watchmen”, salon.com, 05 March 2009

The film version, however, seems to go well beyond that; further, that kind of shift isn’t really necessary in the same way in the film medium. Snyder seemed to be lingering on the brutality almost lovingly, and also increased the level of it. The clearest example of this is when Dan and Laurie get mugged. In the comic, they certainly beat the crap out of their attackers, and hurt them badly, but in the movie, they kill some of them, and we are treated to shots of graphic bone breakage and stabbing a blade deep into someone’s neck. That might not sound like much described here, but it was fairly sick on screen.

This was the pattern for most of the fight scenes: the violence was made more “extreme”, and not in ways that seemed necessary at all.

Another difference from the comic was in making the violence a little more sadistic, and somewhat less clever. Snyder made the protagonists into hyper-violent martial arts badasses, which isn’t much of a departure from the original, but took away some of what their edge really consisted of. When Rorschach is attacked in the food line in prison, in the book he defends himself first by throwing hot grease on his assailant. It’s a vicious move, no question, but nevetheless he is still acting in self defense, and it shows his awareness of his environment and his tendency to see everything as a potential weapon. In the movie, he first defends himself with straighforward fighting techniques, and then, only once his opponent is more or less incapacitated, does he get the grease and use it. This makes it seem much more like punishment and sadism than self-defense, and is much less impressive in terms of environmental awareness.

When he is attacked in his cell by the goon with the arc-welder, in the comic he defends himself by smashing his toilet, electrocuting the goon because Rorschach had noted that the wiring was damaged. In the movie, he first defends himself by traditional techniques, and only later kills the goon by smashing the toilet bowl.

In both instances, the movie makes Rorschach even more sadistic/psychotic than comic version, which seems rather unnecessary. It also makes him less interesting—some guy who’s a really good fighter is less unique than someone who sees everything around him in terms of its potential as a weapon. It also makes him seem less remarkable, and as if there is less of a difference in kind between him and those he fights.

When Rorschach and Dreiberg attack Veidt in his retreat, it is also treated as a straightforward fight, whereas in the book Veidt also makes excellent use of the things around him: he immobilizes Rorschach by pinning him to the table with his fork, and then protects himself from Dreiberg’s laser by reflecting the ray with his (golden, naturally) plate. Here the point is partly that Veidt probably planned the entire sequence as soon as he saw them, and partly that Veidt is to Rorschach and Dreiberg as Rorschach and Dreiberg are to the common goons (a motif repeated shortly thereafter with Jon’s “smartest termite” exchange with Veidt). By eliminating all of the ingenuity in the previous scenes, and making them into more basic combat sequences, Snyder makes it seem like a progression of martial prowess instead of intelligence/cleverness/ruthlessness, which is much more what the book is trying to get across.

Finally, this overall shift suggests an explanation for why they changed Rorschach’s line when he binds the hands of the thug trying to reach him through his cell door. The thug had asked “What’ve you got?”, and Rorschach, having trapped him, says “Your hands. My perspective.” As demonstrated by this use of what’s around him, his perspective, in both a broad (how he sees morality and his place in the world) and narrow (how he sees his immediate environment) sense really is a key advantage that he possesses. Either not understanding this or choosing to excise it, in the movie his answer is “Your hands. My pleasure.”—a completely different message, again increasing his sadistic side and diminishing his complexity. Which is similar to what the movie does to the original.

3 Responses to “Violence in the Watchmen Movie”

  1. Alexia Says:

    In both the graphic novel and in the film, Rorschach says “Your hands. My Perspective.”
    He never says “Your hands. My pleasure.”

  2. Tadhg Says:

    He says “my pleasure” in the film. You can hear it in this YouTube clip at the 0:48 mark.

  3. gever Says:

    You make a compelling case here and an excellent point about the purpose (and misuse) of violence in film and novel. As I mentioned over dinner, it was initially the flattening of the Ozymandius/Veidt character that marred the film experience for me, but your observations of the same dilution of Rorschach’s complex motivations makes me want to re-read and re-watch the materials.

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