Obligatory spoiler warning in 3… 2… 1…
There are spoilers below for: Watchmen, both the graphic novel and the movie, and The Comedians, both the novel and the movie. End spoiler warning.
In the last installment, we were looking at chapter 1, page 11, panel 3 of Watchmen, in which Dan Dreiberg recounts a rumor about The Comedian’s covert government activities in South America. That in turn led the annotators to cite Alan Moore’s Shadowplay as another angle he’s taken on such activities.
However, what I didn’t mention in the last essay is that they don’t stop there. No, the annotations for that very panel continue with this speculation:
Moore may have named the Comedian in homage to Graham Greene. Greene’s novel The Comedians was about foreign interference in Haiti, and was made into a 1960’s movie with Richard Burton.
So I read the novel and saw the movie, and I have to say: annotators, this one’s a stretch. I mean, yes, I suppose you could assert that The Comedians is about “foreign interference” in Haiti, but it’s not the kind of interference that Eddie Blake or Shadowplay‘s eagle would recognize. The narrator, a Mr. Brown, is a cynical hotelier, originally hailing from Monaco, and much is made of how his Monaco origin is “almost the same as being a citizen of nowhere.” He’s inherited the hotel from his distant, adventurous, globe-trotting mother, and was hoping to make a go of it in Haiti. Unfortunately, his dream of a tourist paradise was shattered by the ascension of brutal dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. So he’s foreign (to Haiti), but not American, and I wouldn’t really call his presence “interference.”
There are a couple of Americans who do intend to interfere, but they’re far more innocent than sinister. Mr. and Mrs. Smith are evangelistic vegetarians, so much so that Mr. Smith ran for President against Harry Truman on “the vegetarian ticket.” (His status as an American Presidential Candidate gives him a comically disproportionate amount of political clout in the rather ignorant Duvalier regime.) They dream of building a grand “vegetarian center” in Haiti, complete with meals, speakers, movies, literature, and so forth, and they’ve got the financial backing to make it happen. They have no ulterior motive and represent no government. They just believe that meat causes acidity in the body, which leads to bad behavior. In the end, they become disillusioned with the Haitian government and leave the country, taking their money with them. Brown sees them as rather noble in their naivete, but Eddie Blake would find them ridiculous.
Finally, there’s a Brit, a Mr. Jones, who pretends through most of the story to be “Major Jones”, a hero of World War II. He’s got secrets, but they’re secrets of chicanery, not espionage, and the only “interference” he’s up to is a con of Duvalier’s government, a fake arms deal which falls through quite spectacularly. So there’s no CIA, no secret team, no assassins, no coup, no government-toppling agents, and certainly no “knocking over Marxist republics.” Greene has written plenty of books about secret agents, but The Comedians isn’t one of them. In fact, the thrust of the story is an indictment of America’s reluctance to interfere with Haiti — despite the barbarism of Papa Doc and his Tontons Macoutes, he is seen as “a bulwark against communism,” and therefore the United States is no threat to his government.
So as far as parallels to Watchmen, I don’t think there’s much to see here. I’m highly skeptical of the claim that Eddie Blake’s codename is somehow a reference to this story. [Although! In a bit of late-breaking news, I’ve come across an interview in which Moore says, “I believe I took the name from Graham Greene’s book, The Comedians.” So that’s confirmation, but I still think the connection is weak.] That said, the experience of reading the book and then watching the movie brought to mind some Watchmen comparisons from a more unexpected angle.
Greene’s novel was commercially successful and well-regarded by the critics. The movie, on the other hand, was a vehicle for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to clutch meaningfully at each other against a tragic backdrop. Its supporting actors saw some award nominations, but the film itself has a 27% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Several critics chided it for its overly faithful approach to Greene’s book, which led it to notch a whopping 156-minute running time. (Greene himself wrote the screenplay.) However, despite its dutiful recreation of many scenes from the book, its ending takes a radical, sudden turn away from the novel’s plot, altering the fate of its main characters and removing an entire layer of story.
Does this sound a little bit familiar? Watchmen the comic is widely regarded as one of the greatest works by one of the greatest comics writers. Its movie, on the other hand, was a bit more of a mixed bag. It has a 64% rating at Rotten Tomatoes — fresh, but just barely — and it is frequently criticized for its overly faithful approach to the graphic novel. It clocks in even longer than The Comedians, at 163 minutes, with the DVD director’s cut running 185 minutes, and an “ultimate cut” that lasts no less than 215 minutes. That’s over three and a half hours, for those of you playing at home. Some of the acting (particularly that of Malin Akerman and Matthew Goode, who look their parts but don’t seem to embody them) falls flat, and the movie sometimes feels like a vehicle for Zack Snyder to stage long fight sequences and film loving close-ups of compound fractures. Also, its ending strips out the whole “space squid” angle from the book, making Ozymandias’ plan center instead on fooling the superpowers into thinking that Dr. Manhattan has turned against humanity.
There are good reasons and not-so-good reasons to depart from source material when making a film adaptation, and both of these films have their share of each. With any work of significant length (novels and graphic novels included), so much detail is present that filmmakers find it impractical to present all of it on screen. Consequently, they employ a number of tricks to compress the work while retaining its essence. Both movies employ some of the big ones:
|Technique||Comedians film||Watchmen film|
|Removing story/plot sections||Excised the first thirty or so pages of the book, in which Brown, Jones, and the Smiths are on a ship together, traveling to Haiti, and sizing each other up. Consequently, it also removes a later section in which Brown and Jones return to the ship. (Also, this isn’t story, but the book is entirely self-aware of its characters’ oddly common names, while the film displays no such awareness.)||Most famously, deleted all the Tales Of The Black Freighter stuff, and the attendant recurring newsstand scenes.|
|Eliminating minor characters||Among others, removed Fernandez, a rather mysterious character who shows up initially on the boat, then plays a crucial part in the book’s ending.||Pretty much got rid of Captain Metropolis (aside from some very glancing references), which alters the reason why the Crimebusters were brought together. In the movie, it’s Ozymandias as the driving force in that meeting.|
|Streamlining context||The visual elements help make the Tontons Macoutes and the Port-Au-Prince beggars actually more powerful than they are in the book, but the film elides the hotel’s history, and greatly downplays the fact that Brown’s recent absence is from a desperate attempt to dump it.||There are so many background elements crammed into the comic, and you can give them all the time and attention you want to. The film can’t hope to match that, though it tries nobly. It also removes scenes like the one with Nixon and his cabinet in the command bunker.|
|Reducing character development||The book has a lot of backstory on Brown’s mother and his education. The movie, not so much. It also leaves out some details about the frauds he’s pulled in his past, which are a key part of his character.||Again, give the movie credit for trying, and it does follow the book’s template of going in-depth on one character at a time. However, some significant things are still missing, like Rorschach’s Kitty Genovese story.|
All of these changes are fair enough. Compromises must be made, even when you’re making a 163-minute movie. However, some things do get injected that substantially change the artistic statement, often as a result of egos and market forces. For instance, The Comedians movie starred Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 1967, a time when public interest in their marriage was very high, and when they were in the midst of making a string of movies together. This was their seventh co-starring picture in 5 years. Thus, Brown’s affair with Martha Pineda, wife of the Uruguayan ambassador, gets a magnified role in the movie. Not that it was insignificant in the book, but as Roger Ebert said at the time, “in the movie he (Burton, that is) sees a lot more of her because, baby, when you’re paying Liz Taylor’s salary you really use her in your movie.”
Watchmen, on the other hand, was a comic book superhero movie at a time when comic book superhero movies had become golden tickets for movie studios. Certainly it was a very different sort of superhero story, and its R rating meant that its audience was much more limited than that of, say, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Nevertheless, it was sure to rake in some cash, and thus Warner Brothers (the eventual owners of the rights after the project spent 2 decades in development hell) approached Zack Snyder, who had proven with 300 that he could adapt a comic book into a hit movie. Snyder brought several kinds of fetishism to the table. His fetishistic adoration of the source material mostly served the movie well. His fetishistic adoration of slow-motion fights, broken bones, and hyper-stylized violence, not so much. I remarked on this when I wrote about the movie for the first time, and in my research for this article I was gratified to find this excellent analysis by Tasha Robinson, who totally gets that point, and explains it much better than I did. Great minds, Tasha, great minds.
Finally, each movie significantly alters the ending of its source material. For Watchmen, this change also serves some of the simplification functions I mentioned above — no space squid means no Max Shea, no Robert Deschaines, no island of artists, no “psychic shockwave” that can somehow kill three million people. I think these changes are actually a win for the movie version — it’s always better when you can achieve the same effect without bringing in extraneous plot and characters. On the other hand, while the book’s carnage is focused solely in New York, the movie gets to blow up Moscow, Tokyo, Paris, etc. This is purely gratuitous. Not to mention, it reintroduces the economy of energy scarcity that Dr. Manhattan had banished, which to my mind would be more likely to cause international tension, not less.
The Comedians, too, achieves some simplification with its changes. In the book, Jones finally lives up to the lies he’s always told about himself, joining a disorganized Haitian rebel militia that is as just as ragtag as it can be. His brand of bullshit actually finds a noble use, inspiring this group in their attacks on Duvalier. Of course, they still fail spectacularly, and Jones dies in the mountains, distracting the enemy while the rest of the squad struggles across the border into the Dominican Republic. Brown, having brought Jones to his rendezvous with the militia, also escapes across the border. There he is confronted with the remains of the militia, and the body of his sole remaining employee, Joseph, who had joined the rebels. He scrounges for work in Santo Domingo, finally becoming an undertaker, apprenticed to Fernandez, that character who got streamlined away in the movie.
The film still has Brown driving Jones to the rendezvous point, and as in the book, they are discovered by the hostile Tonton named Concasseur. However, in the movie, Concasseur kills Jones before himself being killed by Philipot, head of the rebels. Then, in a complete left turn, Brown decides to assume Jones’ identity and, as Jones, joins and leads the rebels. This gives Burton the chance to look heroic in a way that the novel character never really does, including a rousing speech he gives to the 17 completely uncomprehending French speakers who make up the “militia.”
The movie ends on (who else?) Elizabeth Taylor, getting the news that the rebels attacked a Tonton outpost, resulting in two deaths, Joseph and “one other.” We never know for sure who that other one is, but Taylor, gazing moodily out the airplane window on her flight back to Uruguay, seems to fear the worst. This ending tidies up the plot into a neater, more ironic bundle, and allows the film to continue forgetting Fernandez, but it also keeps the focus relentlessly on the Burton/Taylor romance. In the book, Martha arranges to meet Brown for a last tryst before she leaves for Peru, but she doesn’t show, and Brown is glad — he’s completely emotionally detached from her. The film gives the ending of their romance a noble and tragic note. Thus, if the Watchmen movie was warped to fit its director’s obsessions, so was the Comedians movie warped to stroke the egos of its stars, pulled by the gravity of their fascination with themselves and the public’s fascination with them.
And that’s as connected as Watchmen and The Comedians get. However, there were a few lines in the book that did help shed some light on the meaning of the Comedian’s name, which has been a recurring source of mystery to me. This book is called The Comedians, but it too lacks humor, and its main character is deeply cynical. The explanation for the title comes in a scene at the Uruguayan embassy, in which Brown, a former con man, wonders if Jones is one too. But the words he uses are, “I remember looking at him one night… and wondering, are you and I both comedians?” Then Philipot, a former poet, joins in, saying “Wasn’t I a comedian with my verses smelling of Les Fleurs Du Mal, published on handmade paper at my own expense?” The ambassador cops to being a bad comedian himself, and says, “Perhaps even Papa Doc is a comedian.” To which Philipot replies, “Oh, no. He is real. Horror is always real.” Then Brown and Martha, a page later and away from the party, call themselves comedians for the affair they’re carrying on.
In other words, the comedians of this book are not funnymen. They are comedians as the opposite of tragedians. They adopt personas, acting in their own private commedia dell’arte, to trick and beguile their audiences. In other words, they are charlatans. Liars. Only behind the curtain do they acknowledge the difference between the show they perform and the real truth. In a way, Eddie Blake might fit this mold, with his leather mask and his brave face. And yet, if horror is always real, then The Comedian is no comedian, for horror seems to be his stock in trade.
Brown is the jealous type, and he envies the easy rapport that Jones seems to have with others. Jones’ secret? Making people laugh. Brown calls himself a comedian, but he’s far from funny. When his favorite concubine says she liked Jones, Brown has to ask:
“What did you like so much?”
“He made me laugh,” she said. It was a sentence which was to be repeated to me disquietingly in other circumstances. I had learnt in a disorganized life many tricks, but not the trick of laughter.
In that, at least, Brown and Blake have something in common.