From Development Hell: A Brief Look at Watchmen's Long Journey to the Screen

In 1986, "Watchmen" was published as a limited series comic book. Twenty-three years later, it's finally being released as a film. Here's a look at what it took to get here.

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When I was fourteen years old, I read a graphic novel called “Watchmen.” At this point, it had already been published for over a decade. I came late to the game purely because I was only two years old when it was published originally – but when I got to it, I was hooked. I’ve read it at least once a year since, and last night I got to see the film version of the story for the first time since turning to the first page all those years ago.

Even though I’m squarely in the fanatic base of the graphic novel’s corner, I recognize that there is a huge population of people out there that either haven’t heard of the novel or simply don’t care. “Watchmen” is an odd cultural icon in that it’s held in high regard by a sizable group of people while being completely unknown by others. It’s not Star Wars or Star Trek – two pieces of culture that benefit from “being heard of” by people that haven’t seen a film or an episode. “Watchmen” isn’t so lucky.

Because of this, I felt it important to take a look at why fans (and film fans in general) have been so unbearable for the past year. It has, mostly, to do with the excruciatingly long wait that had to be endured before finally watching Watchmen in film form. Here’s just a brief look at that frustrating wait:

  • 1986 – DC Comics publishes “Watchmen,” a limited series twelve-issue comic featuring a number of superheroes investigating the murder of one of their own under the dark cloud of the Cold War’s mutually assured destruction.
  • 1987 – The final issue of “Watchmen” is released, and the book is collected into graphic novel form.
  • 20th Century Fox (through Larry Gordon and Joel Silver) options the rights for the book and wants Alan Moore to write the screenplay adaptation. Moore refuses the job, and Fox hires Sam Hamm, a writer who, at the time, had written the script for Disney film Never Cry Wolf and the then-in-production Burton Batman film and would go on to write Batman Begins and Monkeybone.
  • Late 1988 – Hamm completes his draft that changes the ending of the story in a drastic way – opting to send the main “villain” back in time in order to kill one of the main superheroes so that the United States and the world are set back on their rightful course (the one our history is familiar with where Nixon wasn’t President for four terms).
  • 1991 to Mid-90s – Due to several factors, including the massive cost of staging a production, Fox places the project into turnaround where it lingers for a few minutes before Warners picks it up and attaches blockbuster producer Joel Silver and the wonderfully weird Terry Gilliam, who at one point described “Watchmen” as “The ‘War and Peace’ of graphic novels,” in the director’s chair for the feature.
  • Gilliam works with frequent collaborator Charles McKeown to write a script but is never fully satisfied with it.
  • For a film that needs at least $100 million budget, Silver can only raise $25 million, and Gilliam decides the comic book is “unfilmable” based on a conversation he has with co-creator Alan Moore. Later, Gilliam would proclaim that he felt the story would work better as a mini-series.
  • 2001 – Film rights revert to Larry Gordon who goes through Universal to hire David Hayter, who wrote X-Men and would also write X2, to pen a new script.
  • 2002 – Hayter finishes a filmmable draft of the story, but other writing jobs stall further work on Watchmen. Then, after shooting a scene to showcase his directing talent, Universal decides he’s not the right man for the directing job and tosses the production into turnaround.
  • 2003 – A partnership between Gordon and Revolution Studios doesn’t manage even to get off the ground.
  • 2004 – Paramount announces that they will be producing Watchmen using Hayter’s draft and up-and-coming director Darren Aronofsky who made waves after making a little film about a paranoid mathematician and another about the horrors of drug addiction. The young director has been stalled on future projects, but just like how you’re only attractive to women when you have a girlfriend, shortly after signing onto Watchmen, the pieces come together for a long-dormant passion project, and Aronofsky leaves the production in order to make The Fountain.
  • Paramount hires Paul Greengrass to replace Aronofsky and aims for a release in summer of 2006 (which coincidentally is when Superman Returns actually was released).
  • The production moves forward enough to have screen tests, costume designs, and sets, but it’s in danger of not moving beyond that if the budget can’t be reduced. Fate intervenes when Donald De Line steps down from Paramount and his replacement, Brad Grey, puts the project – you guessed it – into turnaround.
  • 2005 – Gordon and producing partner Lloyd Levin sell the project back to Warners (sans Gilliam this time).
  • 2006 – Zack Snyder – whose 300 will hit theaters later in the year officially takes the helm of Watchmen with first-time screenwriter Alex Tse reworking David Hayter’s draft into a new script. Pre-production begins in earnest.
  • 2007 – After several months of designing and testing, production starts in Toronto. Fans and the press are taking major notice, especially because of special teaser advertising.
  • 2008 – Fox brings a lawsuit against Warners for copyright infringement, citing the turnaround clause in their contract with Larry Gordon. Later in the year, a judge grants Fox’s stake and legitimacy in having their day in court. A last minute panic on the goal line.
  • 2009 – However, the case never sees a courtroom because the two studios settle early in the year. Just two months later, and three days from the publishing of this time line, Watchmen is released wide to audiences everywhere.

Hopefully this gives you just a slight appreciation of not only the lengthy amount of time it’s taken to see this thing through, but the hard work that’s been poured into it (mostly all for naught). Remember, all along the way there were press announcements and trades writing stories about the direction this thing was going. When “Watchmen” was published, it was published to wide public and critical acclaim, so it became a hot commodity for the film world immediately. Imagine every few years that something you’d love to see turned into a movie was announced as a new project featuring a new writer and director. Imagine that shortly after that announcement, the project always fell apart.

So at this point, not only will there be a film version of a fantastically rich story, but there’s a host of What Ifs. Real world, real life dreamcasting that ultimately just fell apart. In a way, it’s this mythos that’s made Watchmen even bigger than it was before, created the air around it that fans salivate over and annoy the uninitiated with.

It’s been a long time coming for some fans, still longer for others, and in three days they get to decide whether Alan Moore was right all along for believing the damned thing was unfilmable in the first place. Luckily, even after it’s released, we can all still wonder what a Gilliam version might look like.

For a much more in-depth look at the development nightmare for Watchmen, go out and buy “The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made” by David Hughes immediately. Immediately.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.