When “Watchmen” first arrived in comics form back in 1986, it spoke to the overriding political and social debates of the era. Now, three decades later, the new HBO adaptation of that source material is set to take on some of the biggest issues of 2019.
Speaking to reporters at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, “Watchmen” series creator Damon Lindelof discussed further details of the upcoming adaptation, particularly how this new show deals directly with current societal problems brought about by white supremacist forces.
The new series initially takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where a 1921 riot destroyed lives and livelihoods for a number of the Black citizens in that city. Lindelof talked about how reading about the subject, first in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations,” inspired a chance to connect both past and present.
“That was the first time I’d heard about Black Wall Street and what happened in Tulsa in 1921. I was ashamed and confused and embarrassed that I had never heard about it before. That was the beginning of my education,” Lindelof said.
From there, that throughline also represented a way to capture the same spirit of timeliness that followed the original release of the “Watchmen” comic back in 1986.
“In the original source material, the book was highly political. It was about what was happening in the American culture at the time, even though it was being presented by two British artists. What in 2019 is the equivalent of nuclear standoff between the Russians and the United States? It just felt like it was undeniably race and policing in America. That idea started to graft itself in the ‘Watchmen’ universe and needed to be presented in a responsible way,” Lindelof said.
Writing a new series with this strong thematic vein also gave the show the chance to subvert superhero genre expectations in its own way and ground the series in firm, recognizable human issues.
“In a traditional superhero movie, the bad guys are fighting the aliens and when they beat the aliens, the aliens go back to their planet and everybody wins. There’s no defeating white supremacy. It’s not going anywhere, but it felt like it was a pretty formidable foe,” Lindelof said.
Adapting such a well-known piece of source material – and one that’s had a previous high-profile adaptation in Zack Snyder’s 2009 film version – will always present pitfalls. Lindelof detailed how, for this project, one of those issues was original comics series writer Alan Moore’s unwillingness to be associated with this new show.
“Alan Moore is a genius. In my opinion, the greatest writer in the comic medium and maybe one of the greatest writers of all time. He’s made it very clear that he doesn’t want to have any affiliation or association with ‘Watchmen’ ongoing and that we not use his name to get people to watch it, which I want to respect,” Lindelof said. “I have made personal overtures to connect with him and explain to him a little bit of what we were doing and he made it clear that he didn’t want that to happen and I want to respect that as well.”
A significant element of updating this story for a new decade involves technology. In this 2019 “Watchmen,” the internet does not exist, a story element that also wove into one of the intended ongoing themes of the series: masks and anonymity.
“This is a broad generalization, but the less inclined you are to let people know who you are, the more empowered you are to put toxicity into the world,” Lindelof said. “We’ve created a world, for reasons you will find in subsequent episodes, that does not have an internet. People do not have smartphones, even though it’s set in 2019. The Redford administration [of the show] saw the writing on the wall and stepped in to make sure that we could not troll each other incessantly and say nasty things and sit in rooms where you see more Apple logos than eyes.”
Explaining that the original dozen issues of the “Watchmen” were unalterable canon for the TV series’ writers room, that decision came hand in hand with plenty of other recognizable changes in the overall timeline between the real world and the world of the show.
“One of the amazing things, to me, about the original ‘Watchmen’ is you don’t know what is actual history and what’s alt-history and things get blended in the middle. My hope is that over the course of the nine episodes that we’ve completed, you’ll have a much better sense of that,” Lindelof said.