How the fear of 'sacrilege' fuelled HBO's new 'Watchmen' adaptation

  • TV
  • Tuesday, 29 Oct 2019

You've got some nerve getting Sister Night to come out in the day.

New television series Watchmen was shrouded in so much secrecy that when HBO officially announced the cast last month, it simply named Jeremy Irons’ role as “Probably Who You Think He Is”.

Who, Voldemort?

There isn’t much known about this television adaptation of the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ comic book series of the same name, and word on the street (the Internet to be exact) is that fans are intrigued.

Based on the 12-issue maxiseries by the British duo, first published by DC Comics in 1986, the Watchmen series takes place 30 years after the unspeakable events at the end of the comic books. There was a giant squid attack (don’t ask) and three million innocent lives were lost.

Now, in the new nine-episode series, superheroes are treated as outlaws – vigilantism is illegal and the FBI hunts for the masked crusaders, and ironically, the cops wear masks as part of their uniform.

This is to protect themselves from the rising white supremacy group, the Seventh Kavalry, hell bent on killing cops, simply because. Like the comic book, the TV show also focuses on various current and political issues plaguing the world.

Show creator Damon Lindelof is a huge fan of the original comics and knows very well that other fans will have many questions regarding his latest undertaking. First question: “Why?”

“I have concerns all the time, about everything, and the biggest concern is always (having) the answer to ‘Why? Why are you doing this?’,” he told StarLifestyle at a recent interview in New York City, the United States.

Jeremy Irons' character was so secret that it was credited as 'Probably who you think he is".

“My relationship with Watchmen is very personal and very emotional. I have to acknowledge that if that’s the way I feel about this thing, then many others will feel the same way about it too.

“They’re going to look at anybody coming in and doing any version of Watchmen – at its worst – as some degree of sacrilege,” he added.

The 2009 Watchmen movie directed by Zack Snyder was a hit and miss among the comic book fans, so Lindelof’s anxiety is warranted.

However, for a “twisted reason” he needs the fear in order to “make stuff”. For the record, this is the man who made Lost and The Leftovers, two highly-rated television series in the last two decades, probably with the same anxiety and fear.

Forming the crew

The solid cast also includes more Oscar winners namely Regina King and Louis Gossett Jr, as well as Don Johnson, Tim Blake Nelson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen III, Jean Smart and Hong Chau.

This is not King’s first venture with Lindelof, whom she had worked with on The Leftover, as did Nicole Kassell who directed the pilot episode of Watchmen.

“We (herself and Kassell) were attracted to the project without reading the script because Damon is the creator. You can trust him to tell a story that is honest to him.

“When a person comes from a place of honesty, we can’t help but be attracted to that. He has done such a brilliant job (with the pilot) by putting so many people’s truths in one space,” said King who plays Angela Abar, whose alter ego is Sister Night.

You've got some nerve getting Sister Night to come out in the day.

Abar is a tough, butt-kicking cop, vigilante, mother and a female overall – a character with many intricate facades that are often not represented on screen, believes King.

“I’ve never seen this woman before on TV, someone who is wearing many different masks. And if someone has seen it, they definitely haven’t seen a woman of colour being that, so it’s pretty exciting,” she added.

Irons on the other hand said that it was Lindelof’s enthusiasm about the project that drew him to take on the iconic role – that and a 90-minute pitch.

“I had lunch with him and he talked about an hour and a half, and it was just mind-blowing. His idea wasn’t completely formed at that point but he certainly knew my character’s direction, most of it anyway.

“I knew nothing about Watchmen, I had never heard of Watchmen. So after the bombshell of a lunch, I went and found out a little bit more about my character,” Irons shared.

“I read the comic book. It’s hard work ... the prints are so small!”

Oh, by the way, fans have deduced that Oscar winner Irons will play the eccentric billionaire Adrian Veidt, also known as Ozymandias in the comics.

A hard look at society

Watchmen touches on several sensitive topics such as racial tension, gun violence and police brutality, eerily reflecting the current situation not only in the United States but many parts of the world.

Lindelof knows that the topics will rub certain people the wrong way, and he has an answer prepared.

“You can’t move through life without stepping on people’s toes. The only thing you can control is how hard you step on them,” he said, adding that he hopes the audience would understand that his is a work of fiction.

Masks in the rear view mirror are often more yellow that they appear.

He referenced Todd Philips’ controversial Joker, which some audience criticise would trigger mass shootings and other forms of violence.

“I haven’t seen Joker yet, but my understanding is that it feels uncomfortable because of the times that we are in.

“I think that great storytelling very often is a reflection of the times that we are in. And to not talk about race in a show that is about contemporary America is more irresponsible than talking about race in a way that may step on some people’s toes,” he went on to say.

Director Kassell on the other hand realises that the show can be construed as adding “fuel to the fire”, but insists that it is a necessary conversation to be had by many parties.

“I am very conscious about what I choose to do. It’s essential to me that violence never be just for violence’s sake or gratuitous.

“The fact that her (King’s) character is morally ambiguous – I really grappled with that. Race aside, she’s using violence to get information,” said Kassell.

Maybe if I point at the pot long enough it'll cook by itself.

The director believes that the hard-hitting topics presented on the show are already out in the open and are being discussed on a daily basis.

“Everyday there are headlines dealing with white supremacy rising; the president is being called as such. So, it’s already in the conversation.

“The solution is not a liberal being a president. It’s an issue of race whether we have liberal in power or not liberal in power. There is no easy solution but let’s talk about what we can do,” she said.

Keeping it real

It is always unnerving to share one’s version of a work that already has a solid fan base, and for that, Lindelof hopes that he has got Watchmen right with the “feel” of the comic book series.

To attain that, the team of writers worked to retain the essence of the original 12 issues, by asking themselves what adjectives could be used to describe the comics.

The descriptions include “mysterious”, “sci-fi”, “absurd”, “funny”, or “hopeful”, and the writers decided that they were going to keep the list of adjectives a reference for their writing.

“It’s our recipe. These are the things that go into the stew. We can’t replicate how the original Watchmen was made, because that was magic, but if we use the same ingredients, we may be able to cook a new dish that tastes like it was made by the same chef,” he explained.

Watchmen is now showing on HBO (Astro Ch 411).

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