HBO’s upcoming Watchmen show, executive-produced by Lost mastermind Damon Lindelof, is not quite an adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ iconic graphic novel of the same name. Instead, it is an “extrapolation” of the events of that comic, imagining what that fictional world looks like 30 years on. But as Lindelof and the Watchmen cast made clear at their New York Comic Con panel on Friday, the show is heavily indebted to the original book and makes many visual references to it.
“I have such reverence for the original material, and the idea of just doing that again was not something I necessarily wanted to see as a fan,” Lindelof said. “So I started to think about how Watchmen was written in the mid-80s and it was about the mid-80s, it was very much of its time. If you were reading Watchmen when it came out, you would put it down and feel like, ‘okay, it’s an alternate history but I still feel a lot of the things that are happening in this comic book.’ So I asked myself, what happened 30 years later? What happened to Adrian Veidt after he saved the world? What was the world like after this giant squid on it? Robert Redford was running for president, so what if he won and was president for almost 30 years? I started to get captivated by those ideas.”
The NYCC event began by screening the show’s first episode, and followed with a panel discussion with Lindelof, director Nicole Kassell, and stars Regina King, Jeremy Irons, Jean Smart, Louis Gossett Jr., Hong Chau, Tim Blake Nelson, Yahya Abdul Mateen II, and moderator Jen Chaney. It is apparent in the first episode how much the show visually references panels and images from the original text, even as it tells a slightly different story.
“It was amazing to have the book of images as a source of inspiration,” Kassell said. “Damon was telling the story, the story was all set, but how could we continue to pay homage to it on every layer? We would just study that book. The most exciting moments on set were when I would set a frame, and we would have fans all throughout the crew would come running over with a panel from the comic asking, ‘This is the shot?’ ‘That’s the shot.’”
Most of the actors are playing new characters on the show. King plays a masked crimefighter named Sister Night, Gossett plays a survivor of the 1921 Tulsa race riot named Will Reeves, Chau plays an enigmatic “trillionaire” named Lady Trieu, Nelson plays another masked crimefighter named Looking Glass, and Mateen plays Sister Night’s husband Cal Abar.
Irons and Smart, however, are portraying classic Watchmen characters. In the advertisement for the panel, Irons’ character is listed as “probably who you think he is.” Though it was never officially confirmed on stage, it is heavily implied in the show that Irons is portraying Adrian Veidt, a.k.a Ozymandias, the genius who orchestrated the fake alien attack that destroyed New York City and resolved the Cold War at the end of Watchmen (while the Watchmen comic is set almost entirely in New York, that classic homeland of superhero fantasies, the show so far seems to be mostly set in Tulsa, Okla.). Smart plays Laurie Blake — formerly known as Silk Spectre, now working as an FBI agent.
Laurie does not appear in the first episode, so later in the panel they played a clip from the third episode when she flies into Tulsa alongside another federal agent.
“She was drawn to the masked vigilante world at a very young age since her parents were masked vigilantes, so she has a lot of resentment for that whole culture and time of her life,” Smart said. “But I think there’s a part of her that might miss that, the excitement of being sort of a celebrity. But she has, for a variety of reasons, joined the FBI and she’s now arresting masked vigilantes and putting them behind bars. She has some issues.”
A special guest joined the panel partway through: None other than Dave Gibbons, the original artist of Watchmen. As in his interview with EW from last year, Gibbons hailed Lindelof’s vision as his favorite take on Watchmen (and there are several to choose from; DC Comics has published both Before Watchmen prequel comics and the still-ongoing Doomsday Clock sequel that pits the Watchmen characters against Superman and Batman).
“What particularly attracted me to this was what Damon had in mind was not a prequel or sequel, but an extrapolation,” Gibbons said. “What Alan and I did with Watchmen was we initially said, what if superheroes really existed? What would they be like, and what would the world be like? Which is quite a big question. I think what Damon is asking here is the question, if that had happened back in 1986, what would the world be like now? That 30 years is a long enough time that all sorts of things can happen, and you end up a million miles away from the circumstances of the graphic novel, but still with extreme fidelity to it. There isn’t anything in this that contradicts the graphic novel. So to me it is an amplification of it, rather than a dilution.”
Although Silk Spectre and Ozymandias are still alive in the Watchmen series, Rorschach also has a powerful influence despite being dead. When the show begins, there is an active vigilante group called the “Seventh Cavalry” who wear Rorschach masks and are described as white supremacists by the other characters. The original Rorschach is an extreme figure, but has sometimes been hailed by fans as a favorite.
“Rorschach is a very interesting character,” Gibbons said. “Obviously Alan very much came up with Rorschach and wrote all the words that came from his mouth, but I think there’s a dreadful appeal to characters like Rorschach where you can’t possibly agree with them, but they’re so definite and so consistent and so hypnotically sure of what they’re doing that they’re quite arresting. I could quite see that Rorschach would be kind of a role model for people with unpleasant views in this future.”
Lindelof added, “When it came to that choice, we had to be aware that we as writers were appropriating Watchmen, and it was not ours. Other people had created it and we were taking it. Sometimes when you appropriate something, you make it about what you thought it was, and the original intention of the artists who made it in the first place becomes secondary to you forcing your will upon it. We thought on a meta/pretentious level, it would be really interesting in the show if characters had done the same thing to Rorschach. The Seventh Cavalry is appropriating Rorschach. He’s been dead for 30 years so he doesn’t get to say, ‘you misunderstood me. I wasn’t a white supremacist!’ They’ve decided what he was. We thought that was an interesting idea to embed in the show since we were doing it ourselves.”
Lindelof also credited Watchmen staff writer and former EW writer Jeff Jensen with introducing him and Gibbons. Lindelof complimented Jensen as “the one person I’ve had the pleasure of working with who knows even more about Watchmen than I do.” Gibbons said, “I think Jeff knows even more about Watchmen than I do.” Read Jensen’s 2005 oral history of Watchmen for EW.
The first episode of Watchmen premieres on HBO on Oct. 20.