Warning: This post contains major spoilers for Watchmen’s fifth episode.
Some fans worry that adaptations, remakes, sequels, or—as Damon Lindelof describes his Watchmen series—a “remix” will somehow “ruin” the thing they already love. No amount of midichlorians can ever destroy a great piece of art. Not only is that concern almost always unfounded, sometimes experiencing a beloved story through the lens of another artist or medium can elevate the original work. That’s what happened in Watchmen’s fifth episode, which opened with a flashback to November 2, 1985, the night Adrian Veidt dropped his giant “alien” squid on New York City. It was the show’s most powerful and moving sequence, one that made Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal comic book far more real and meaningful than ever before.
“Little Fear of Lightning” opens in possibly the most ominous place in the Watchmen universe: Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1985. The Soviet Union and United States are on the verge of nuclear war. The young Jehovah’s Witnesses are just across the Hudson River from New York City, working as missionaries, believing the end of the world is imminent. The only thing stopping nuclear holocaust is a transdimensional squid, courtesy of Ozymandias, in the middle of Manhattan. As we know from the book, Adrian Veidt genetically engineered a fake alien attack to bring about world peace. All he had to do to accomplish that was kill roughly three million people, traumatize millions more, and terrorize everyone on Earth forever.
DC Comics/Dave Gibbons/John Higgins
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon show the fallout from this unfathomable catastrophe in full, dialogue-free pages of the comic. Dead bodies cover the streets of New York City as giant tentacles hang from destroyed skyscrapers. The panels are haunting yet strangely beautiful thanks to the work of colorist John Higgins. Including minor characters among the dead also helps make the terrible scene more emotionally accessible. Even though the scope of the devastation is limited to a small section of Manhattan, the overall effect of the aftermath is monumental. It’s the kind of moment that fundamentally changes the world forever.
But for everything the graphic novel achieves in that moment, it’s a surreal experience. It’s the most comic book-esque element in the story. Otherwise it feels like an authentic portrayal of a world with actual superheroes and incredible technology. And it has to be. Adrian Veidt designed the squid to be “alien,” and the comic’s vivid colors highlight its extraterrestrial appearance. It works both visually and in the context of the story, but it also limits how “real” the monster feels. Combined with the near impossibility of comprehending the instantaneous death of three million people, the entire scene is ultimately more shocking than heartbreaking. And one defined more by its audacity rather than how we can connect to it emotionally.
Seeing it on screen makes that connection. The brutal shot of the young girl who stole Wade’s clothes makes the surreal tangible. Ozymandias cloned the brain of a psychic and pumped violent imagery into it. Then he put that brain in a massive, colorful monster which emitted a psychic shockwave as it died. It was too powerful for human minds to handle. The story of the squid might be hard to make sense of, but the girl’s face wasn’t. Those not lucky enough to be in a house of protective mirrors die in the “blast zone”; blood pours from their eyes and ears, as a final frozen look of horror conveys the agony they felt in their last terrible moments.
If the scene had ended there, or after the camera panned over to a handful of traumatized survivors amid a sea of dead, it would have made the squid’s impact more powerful than ever. However, the camera continues across the Hudson and into Manhattan. With the weight of what we’ve just seen in Hoboken, it’s a nightmare come to life. Veidt’s victims are no longer faceless and remote, and neither was the tool of his heinous act. Seeing the creature draped across the greatest city in the world isn’t a splash page like in the comic. In the show, it’s heartbreaking.
Our post-9/11 world gave that scene a context it never could have had in 1985. But it contributes to the overall effect; seeing it in the live-action series is more powerful than how it comes across on the pages of the comic. That’s not a criticism of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ work. It’s a compliment to what Damon Lindelof is accomplishing with his remix. It’s also an acknowledgement that different mediums have different strengths. No one would deny the graphic novel is nuanced, insightful, and beautiful in ways the movie adaptation isn’t, even when it’s at its most faithful.
HBO was never going to “ruin” Watchmen, but there was no guarantee it would do what it. The show stood on the giant shoulders of Moore and Gibbons and gave their work more emotional weight. It made both versions better.
Featured Image: HBO