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Alan Moore, writer worst served by Hollywood, calls it quits

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If there’s one thing that Alan Moore understands, it’s dramatic timing. 

The writer of some of the greatest graphic novels ever — Watchmen, From Hell, V for Vendetta and Batman: Killing Joke, to name the most overexposed — announced that he’d be hanging up his keyboard and retiring with the last-ever issue of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. (Also retiring: its legendary artist, Kevin O’Neill.) A corpus of comics that transformed the entire genre, arguably turning it into true literature, is now complete. 

In the same week, the HBO series Watchmen — which has variously been described as a “sequel” and, more troublingly, a “remix” of Moore’s 1986 masterwork — is about to unveil itself to a skeptical but excitable legion of fans. The first trailer for the forthcoming and still mysterious series drops at San Diego Comic-Con: ground zero for the forces of big-bucks Hollywood geekery that have torn Moore’s work to shreds over the last 18 years. 

‘Dragged screaming to hell by their nipples’

Moore is no fan of the HBO show. On planet comics, this goes without saying. Moore, who has lived in the middle-England town of Northampton his whole life, is legendary for his opposition to large entertainment companies. 

His disdain began when DC Comics asserted its rights to do whatever it wanted with Watchmen, it kept trucking through the 2009 Zack Snyder movie version and DC’s Doomsday Clock (a comic series that blasphemously integrated Watchmen’s ambiguous heroes with the brightly-drawn world of Superman and pals), and it will continue even if HBO’s Watchmen is actually good. (It’s written by Damon Lindelof, who gave us both Lost and The Leftovers — so, you know, 50-50 chance.) 

“Anybody who has anything to do with any of these shitty Watchmen travesties, even as a member of the audience, will be dragged screaming to hell by their nipples,” Moore said in a rare 2018 interview. Consider yourself warned.

Yes, Moore is a cranky old comics genius. But here’s the thing — given the way Hollywood has treated his work, he has every right to be. The quality of all five movies based on his books is  uniformly awful, each one making basic storytelling errors, each one missing the points Moore was trying to make by a country mile. 

Attempts to translate his work has struck out so often, they should make it a case study in screenwriting school. Studio execs should be forced to write “never adapt Alan Moore” on a blackboard 100 times. 

The first was From Hell (2001), a strong contender for worst Johnny Depp performance ever, at least until Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Depp’s character wasn’t even central to the book, which focused instead on Moore’s most terrifying villain: a nightmarish, misogynistic government official committing all the Jack the Ripper murders as part of a complex occult ceremony that doubles as a twisted history of bloodshed and privilege in old London. 

At the book’s climax (spoiler alert, kinda) the killer gains a magical flash-forward vision of the future, our world, and delivers a searing speech about how we sleepwalk through our miraculous lives. In the movie, little more than a slasher flick, this key moment is edited down to “men will look back and say I gave birth to the 20th century.” Huh? 

The less said about League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), which holds a score of 17 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the better. V for Vendetta (2005) is the best of a bad bunch, thanks to Natalie Portman’s performance and the Wachowskis’ direction. Still, its tale of a future fascist Britain had been “completely defanged,” as Moore put it at the time — because it removed all mention of race from the fictional government’s fascist ideology. It’s fair to say, in 2019, that this creative choice has not aged well. 

Snyder’s Watchmen failed to deliver on the promise of an excellent opening credits sequence. Its version grew so aggressively mediocre — while retaining much of Moore’s dialogue — that it actually managed to make any re-reading of the original feel tainted. (I’ve stopped recommending the book to Moore newbies for that very reason, lest they have negative associations with many of the lines.) 

Same goes for Batman: The Killing Joke. The 1988 original, drawn by the peerless Brian Bolland with particularly meticulous Moore instructions, is one of the most eye-popping set of artworks in comics. The 2016 animated movie not only managed to look drab and slapdash by comparison; it also tacked on an unnecessary 30-minute opening chapter, featuring a creepy and unearned scene in which Batgirl sleeps with her mentor Batman.   

Less isn’t Moore

To be fair to Snyder, at least, any director would have been hard-pressed to encompass in two hours the factors that made Watchmen great. 

The true joy of the book lies in discovering the hidden symmetry on each page, and within each of its 12 chapters. It’s in the exquisite Dave Gibbons art, crammed with in-universe brands and weird products in each panel. It’s in hundreds of throwaway historical details, such as one line of dialogue suggesting Richard Nixon had Washington Post power duo Woodward and Bernstein murdered early in their Watergate investigation, which partly explains why Nixon is still president in the alternate Watchmen world.

To come close to doing all of this justice on screen, you’d need — well, something exactly like a 12-part HBO miniseries. Which is why it’s maddening that the network is only tackling the Lindelof “sequel.”

It’s common, on planet comics, to see a bad movie or TV show made out of great material. It is unusual, in this golden age of complex drama, to have every adaptation of a single writer’s work consistently miss the mark. Perhaps Moore was unlucky in that his Hollywood fans were chomping at the bit to adapt his stuff, so most did so in the early 2000s — before the age of the well-crafted superhero movie had really dawned. 

The MCU barely even existed. The bar on smart superhero movies had not been raised. Moore’s good friend and similarly complex writer Neil Gaiman had better timing: most of his works have hit the screen in the last decade, mostly smartly adapted, to far greater acclaim. 

But it’s also likely that Moore’s work is simply untranslatable to the screen. He is — I guess we should say was — a phenomenally well-read comic book guy. His work is shot through with homages to and jokes from and gentle fun-poking at great works of literature as well as golden-age comics. His plots are drenched in dirty, deep explorations of myth and religion and science and the shape of the whole damn universe. 

It gets seriously Jungian up in Moore’s joint, but always with a self-knowing wink and a smile. Nowhere is that more true than in Moore’s final League of Gentlemen arc, concluded in July 2019, which with an air of Shakespearean finality is called The Tempest

Alan Moore, writer worst served by Hollywood, calls it quits

On his final outing, Moore brings everything back home to the cheap and cheerful British comics he grew up with and cut his teeth on (the last issue’s cover is an homage to the comic that launched Moore into the stratosphere, 2000 AD). There are hundreds of old-school English characters no American studio exec would recognize. And at the opening of every issue, Moore pointedly salutes a different “cheated champion of your childhood” — a real-life British comic book writer or artist who was in some way or other shafted by entertainment corporations. 

The number of literary references squeezed onto each page is off the charts, as is the number of stories-within-stories (another favorite Moore device). It’s easily his most unfilmable work. And that’s how Alan Moore departs the stage, waving two very rude fingers at HBO and the rest of the Comic-Con elite. 

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