The horrific visions that open the final chapter of Alan Moore's Watchmen haunt you long afterwards. But Zack Snyder's movie tones down that imagery, and screenwriter David Hayter says it's because of 9/11. Spoilers below.
As you probably already know, there's no giant squid at the end of Snyder's movie adaptation. But that's not the only thing that's missing. The film leaves out the gut-wrenching images that fill nine pages of the graphic novel, at the start of Chapter 12
In the book, a doomsday clock dripping with the blood of massacred New Yorkers is followed by in-your-face carnage. There are no words, just page after page of silent faces frozen in despair. Bodies are piled on top of bodies, hunched over street corners and splayed outside of windows. If you're familiar with the book, you know that the world, for New Yorkers, has just ended. The visually arresting images push forward the final issue that the entire novel hinges upon: Is it okay to kill millions to save billions? It's violent and necessary... but it's not in the movie.
Apparently these images were deemed too graphic for Snyder's Watchmen. We asked Hayter why the movie doesn't depict the dead bodies in the aftermath of Ozymandias' scheme, while he was doing press for the film:
When did the ending change, and who was responsible for that?
I changed it. Because it was just me, and I didn't have Zack Snyder. [When I was working on the script] the pressures were being put on me. "Six main characters. Can you cut it down to one? Can you cut all the flashbacks? We don't like all this history." And I'm like it's...[laughs in disbelief] What I would always say is, "Yeah, I can write that movie, but it's going to be a different movie, and you're going to have to pay me again." And they didn't want to do that.
I did understand the ending of the book, [but] there are a few issues that apply to the pressures of filmmaking. I'm always cognizant of the fact that when you're dealing with the studio and you're asking them to put up 100-plus million dollars, that that's a big thing. You can't just say, "I'm an artist and whatever." You're never going to work, and that's not a smart way to make movies.
The ending of the book shows just piles of corpses, bloody corpses in the middle of Times Square, people hanging out of windows just slaughtered on a massive scale. To do that in a comic book, and release it in 1985, is different from doing it real life, in a movie, and seeing all of these people brutally massacred in the middle of Times Square post 2001. That's a legitimate concern, and one that I shared.
If you're doing the movie for $40 million, fine - bloody bodies everywhere. And that's fine, and it's a niche film, and only the hardcore fans would go see it. But if you're doing it on this big of a scale, I just don't think that's... I understood their reticence to putting those images on screen.
So the studio had reservations about the ending, because of September 11 and because people wouldn't be ready for it. But weren't you worried about changing the ending, as someone who loved the graphic novel?
Well no, because what I did, the way I sort of convinced myself - And I don't really know what it looks like, because I've only seen a rough cut of the film, without all the FX in the end - But what I did was say, "What if they were all blown into the Hiroshima shadows, which are already set up in the book?" Then you can see the death on a grand scale, you see all the particles floating in the air, but it's not so ugly. It's almost beautiful in its way. This destruction that is done in an artistic way, and it's also fed by the themes of the book and set up in there.
I would have liked to have seen the squid. I would have loved to have seen it exactly the way it was in the book - but I also felt the same pain everyone else did living here when [September 11] occurred. My primary years working on it were also 2000 to 2005 [and 9/11 was a lot fresher in people's minds right afterwards]. So it wasn't just the studios. That was something I did for the studios with out having to be pushed on it."
How did artist Dave Gibbons, the gifted artist behind the graphic novel, feel about those images disappearing from the movie? We asked him:
You drew these panels that were full of carnage and bloody streets, and they're not in the movie. How did you feel as an artist, about not being able to see the actual destruction?
It relates to the whole question about violence in the whole thing. I think the consequences of violence should be shown graphically, just to show that violence is unpleasant. It isn't just [that] you get a little spot of blood, and then you put a band aid on it and you're all better. You know I haven't seen the final cut of the end of the movie, the version that I saw the ending wasn't finished so I don't know precisely what we do see but my remembrance of it was, I did get a sense of this wholesale destruction.
I suppose you also have to say that in a way, post 9/11, it's a very tender area anyway. So I think that might modify how you would treat it, if you were going to do it.
All in all, using 9/11 as an excuse to change the ending of the movie doesn't sit right with me - especially since the film already shows a little girl in a dog's mouth and plenty of gore earlier in the film. Why spend so much time remaining true to the book, only to drop the ball in the final act? I sympathize with film-makers who have to work with the studios, but they could have tried harder to meet them halfway. Perhaps it didn't have to be as graphic as the novel, but there must have been some way the filmmakers could have demonstrated the lives that had been taken. The loss of those images creates more confusion, and dilutes the seriousness of the movie's grand finale.