Back in 2009, director Zack Snyder brought his vision for Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen to the big screen. While Snyder’s film was mostly faithful to the original source material, there were some changes to the ending to make it more palatable for movie-going audiences. The premiere of Watchmen in 2009 was the product of a very long road of production development that changed hands a number of times before it landed in Zack Snyder’s lap. In fact, one of those “roads not taken” could have resulted in a Watchmen film from Terry Gilliam.
The Watchmen film was in development pretty much from the time the comic book series was first hitting newsstands across the country in 1986. Producer Joel Silver and Lawrence Gordon acquired the film rights for Twentieth Century Fox, before it eventually moved to Warner Bros. While writer Alan Moore had no interest in seeing his story on the big screen, screenwriter Sam Hamm (who penned the 1989 Batman) painstakingly condensed 12 brilliant issues into one manageable screenplay. Silver then brought on Terry Gilliam to direct the film, following up on the artistic — if not box office — success of Brazil in 1985.
Joel Silver and Terry Gilliam’s version of Watchmen would have been very different from the film we eventually got, especially when it comes to its ending. Snyder’s ending was serviceable but angered Watchmen purists who believed it strayed too far from the original comic book. Well, Silver and Gilliam’s version would’ve taken Watchmen‘s ending in a very, very different direction. Silver told ComingSoon:
‘What Terry had done, and it was a Sam Hamm script — who had written a script that everybody loved for the first Batman — and then he brought in a guy who’d worked for him to do work on it [Charles McKeown, co-writer of Brazil]. What he did was he told the story as-is, but instead of the whole notion of the intergalactic thing which was too hard and too silly, what he did was he maintained that the existence of Doctor Manhattan had changed the whole balance of the world economy, the world political structure. He felt that THAT character really altered the way reality had been. He had the Ozymandias character convince, essentially, the Doctor Manhattan character to go back and stop himself from being created, so there never would be a Doctor Manhattan character. He was the only character with real supernatural powers, he went back and prevented himself from being turned into Doctor Manhattan, and in the vortex that was created after that occurred these characters from Watchmen only became characters in a comic book.
Yes, believe it or not, Zack Snyder’s ending for Watchmen was actually more faithful than what Silver and Gilliam had in mind. While it’s true that an intergalactic squid would’ve been a hard sell for movie audiences not familiar with the comic, having Doctor Manhattan going back in time to prevent his own creation is pretty bonkers too. After all, the ending would have effectively undone everything in the movie.
‘So the three characters, I think it was Rorschach and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, they’re all of the sudden in Times Square and there’s a kid reading a comic book,’ Silver said. ‘They become like the people in Times Square dressing up like characters as opposed to really BEING those characters. There’s a kid reading the comic book and he’s like, “Hey, you’re just like in my comic book.” It was very smart, it was very articulate, and it really gave a very satisfying resolution to the story, but it just didn’t happen.
I really think this ending would’ve angered Watchmen fans even more. It’s a cop out. Everything that has been building up in the story would’ve been completely undone with one time-travel event, a cliche that’s typically a no-no when it comes to good storytelling. The characters and story essentially meant nothing in the end. While the best version of Watchmen might still be the original comic book, Snyder’s version is probably the closest we’ll ever see to that on the big screen.
Watch Terry Gilliam talk about Watchmen in a 1989 documentary about storyboards below. The Watchmen talk begins at the 16:30 mark.