The road from page to screen for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen has been arduous and often disappointing for fans. While Zack Snyder was able to bring an adaptation to the screen in 2009, and Damon Lindelof has a “remix” of the comics set to premiere in 2019 on HBO, there are even more near misses for the series that could have ended with sublime results or disastrous ones.
As fascinating as it is to track the story of the adaptation of Watchmen, Moore always stridently insisted he never meant the series to be anything but a comic, which is probably why directors have such a hard time with the material. But that hasn't kept some big names from taking a swing.
The series was a huge hit from the time it was first published in 1986; ever since, producers have been trying to adapt the graphic novel that’s been referred to as “unfilmable” by Terry Gilliam, among others. In the two decades it took to put Watchmen on the big screen, there was almost a version with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tim Burton nearly put Johnny Depp front and center, and countless other Hollywood heavyweights have gotten their hands on the property, leaving a trail of what-ifs and might-have-beens in their wake.
Watchmen's initial 1986 release was celebrated by comic book fans across the world who were looking for something more cerebral - and by producers on the hunt for a superhero hit. Artist Dave Gibbons told Entertainment Weekly that producer Joel Silver (The Matrix, Die Hard) scooped up the property immediately. Gibbons said:
I remember meeting with Joel Silver, who wanted to cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dr. Manhattan: "He’s gonna be Arnie!" We said, "Well, he’s got the physique, but the German accent…" He said, "Doesn’t matter!" It didn’t come to anything with Joel.
Silver and his producing partner Lawrence Gordon initially wanted Alan Moore to direct the film, but he wasn't interested. The writer later told the Independent:
With a movie, you are being dragged through the scenario at a relentless 24 frames per second. With a comic book, you can dart your eyes back to a previous panel, or you can flip back a couple of pages. Even the best director could not possibly get that amount of information into a few frames of a movie.
Though Watchmen writer Alan Moore turned down an offer to write the initial script, producers continued to ask him to work on subsequent versions of the film. He's never come around to the idea of working on a film adaptation of any of his work, noting that he works specifically in the medium of comic books. He told Entertainment Weekly:
My book is a comic book. Not a movie, not a novel. A comic book. It’s been made in a certain way, and designed to be read a certain way: in an armchair, nice and cozy next to a fire, with a steaming cup of coffee. Personally, I think that would make for a lovely Saturday night.
Producers pushed forward with their initial plans for a Watchmen film in the late '80s, and without Moore's blessing, they hired Sam Hamm, the screenwriter behind Tim Burton's Batman. Hamm took a year to write his first draft, and in that time, he broke the dense 12-issue comic into a 128-page screenplay (which, by the industry's loose one-minute-per-page standard, would make for a runtime of 2 hours, 8 minutes).
Hamm's version of the script introduced a time travel motif and changed the ending - a running theme with Watchmen adaptations. By 1991, the project fizzled and producers Silver and Gordon moved on from the planned distributor.
Following the success of Time Bandits and the Oscar-nominated classic Brazil, director Terry Gilliam was tapped to adapt Watchmen from Hamm's draft. They retooled the script but retained the time travel element. In that version of the story, Dr. Manhattan would go back in time to stop himself, Dr. Jon Osterman, from getting caught in an intrinsic field subtractor, thus keeping Dr. Manhattan from ever coming to life.
By doing so, he would have nullified the events of the story and made it so superheroes never existed. Silver loved the idea and said that it provided a satisfying ending to the story. He explained:
So the three characters, I think it was Rorschach and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, they're all of the sudden in Times Square and there's a kid reading a comic book. They become like the people in Times Square dressing up like characters as opposed to really being those characters. There's a kid reading the comic book and he's like, "Hey, you're just like in my comic book.' It was very smart, it was very articulate, and it really gave a very satisfying resolution to the story, but it just didn't happen. Lost to time.