When style and substance converge

July 25, 2009

I got around to seeing Watchmen last night.

I’m not a big comic book reader and although I read the novel back in my teens, it didn’t make much of an impact on me back then and I’d basically forgotten the story by the time I saw the movie. I gave the cinema release a miss too, citing too many negative IMDB reviews and the unfavorable expense-ratio of cinema tickets to my measly paycheck.

So let me get this off my chest for a moment. Ahem…

Curse you IMDB haters! And curse me for listening to you and hence missing this excellent tale on the big screen!

That’s better. Thanks.

I suppose I should mention that I don’t intend to talk about movies a whole lot in this journal, but I’m going to make an exception for Watchmen, not because I enjoyed it so much but because it taught me a valuable lesson about storytelling.

I’m currently working on a novel called Wick that has been growing and reforming in my mind for the past four or five years. Wick is both my baby and my curse. It’s had so many false starts that my wife even remarked a few weeks ago that I seem somehow scared of it.

She’s not far wrong.

The reason I haven’t finished Wick, and indeed the reason I’m a little scared of it, is because I’ve always wanted it to have two faces: first and foremost I wanted it to be fun and entertaining – a memorable ride through an unusual land; but I also saw in it the capacity for dense social commentary and the examination of some heady philosophical constructs. My problem was that for the longest time I wondered if the two elements were mutually exclusive.

It certainly seemed that way… Every time I sat down to write Wick, the more action I worked in, the more faded the thematic elements seemed to become. The story always ended up slipping off the fence one way or another, either into garden variety fantasy adventure or into self-important social commentary instead. I almost lost faith that the two could be merged successfully.

But in Watchmen, we have exactly such a successful convergence. It’s a wonderful marriage of style and substance: on the one hand it’s a densely-layered, intellectual deconstruction of the superhero mythos; on the other – a violent, sexy, action ride. Its characters are complex and fascinating, each living by their own twisted moral code. It’s full of enough allegory and symbolism to spur conversation for days afterward. Best of all, it’s all, it’s fun and pretty to look at too.

Of course this is my own subjective opinion. One only has to browse through the IMDB reviews to see the massive polarization of opinions on this movie: “Narrative bankruptcy” one review writes… “Rich, perverse, and resonant” says another. That reality echoes the post I made a couple of days back about the function of a story being essentially out of the hands of the author – especially when it reaches a wide audience. In this case, though, I have to profusely thank original writer Alan Moore and director Zack Snyder for proving (to me at least) that style and substance can peacefully co-exist after all.



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