The limited series' creator details what he took from the original comic book maxiseries, while still finding ways to make his Emmy-nominated HBO remix feel fresh and original.
Like an egg infused with a blue god's atomic power, so too did HBO's groundbreaking limited series Watchmen spring forth from a legendary source: the iconic comic book maxiseries of the same name, from creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, with the former famously opposing any and all attempts at adapting his seminal DC Comics work.
For showrunner Damon Lindelof, whose own seminal work Lost was greatly impacted by his lifelong love of Watchmen, the notion of adapting Moore's comic against the creator's wishes was thin-iced terrain indeed, with all that comes with such territory: the danger of doing it wrong, the danger of doing it at all, and the thrill of the danger itself.
Fresh from receiving 26 Emmy nominations, more than any other program this year, Lindelof breaks down six key aspects of HBO's Watchmen, and how the writers room behind it — made up of Cord Jefferson, Stacy Osei-Kuffour, Christal Henry, Lila Byock, Carly Wray, Claire Kiechel, Nick Cuse, Jeff Jensen, Tom Spezialy and writers' assistant Ryan Lipscom — took one of the comic book medium's most ubiquitous offerings and made it into something wholly its own.
"It was almost like a theological conversation, the way that we were trying to interpret the text," Lindelof tells The Hollywood Reporter about early attempts at adapting the comic book, which he and his assembled writers came to know as "the old testament."
The comics' antagonist, Adrian "Ozymandias" Veidt, is the smartest man in the world, not to mention Lindelof's favorite character from the original comics.
Emmy-nominated for his work as the character, Jeremy Irons all but stood alone at the fore of his own story in Watchmen, as Veidt struggled to escape the faraway moon of Europa and return to the world he helped create so many years earlier with an assist from a genetically engineered telepathic squid. "The idea of him going slightly insane was really interesting to us," says Lindelof of the storyline, which filmed entirely in Wales. "I remember the phrase 'Escape From Downton Abbey' being bandied around in the writers room, with this idea of his world getting progressively stranger and more absurdist."
In the comic book, the final act all hinges on Veidt's actions, albeit ones that are largely off-page; he effectively presses a button and ends the world — or saves it, depending on one's interpretation. For the sake of the TV series, Veidt remains vital to the final act, albeit more through his own warped sense of ego than through any carefully laid plans.
"We loved the idea of bringing Veidt back to Tulsa for the endgame and just being there to watch, and him not liking that at all," says Lindelof. "That way, when he's teleported by Doctor Manhattan back to his [secret lair], he would rather mess up [his daughter] Lady Trieu's plans on general principle, rather than pull it off — largely because, 'I'm the only one around here who gets to execute fiendish mastermind plots.' "
In announcing his attachment to HBO's Watchmen, Lindelof penned an open letter to fans of the comic book, telling the tale of his own history with the source material — in essence, a love letter to a foundational piece of fiction within his own life as a fan, and a north star in his eventual career as a storyteller.
"We have no desire to 'adapt' the twelve issues [Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons] created thirty years ago," Lindelof wrote in the letter, posted to his Instagram on May 22, 2018. "Those issues are sacred ground and they will not be retread nor recreated nor reproduced nor rebooted … they will, however, be remixed.
"The original 12 comics were infamous for all these tiny details," he says about the Easter eggs littered throughout his Watchmen. "It created a secret cabal of enthusiasts inside the fan community who knew things about Watchmen that were not known by the general public, and that this information was a way of showing your geek cred as it were."
Although not the only card-carrying member of the Watchmen cabal in the room, Lindelof made sure to fill out a staff of writers with folks who were relative newcomers to the world of Doctor Manhattan, Rorschach and the rest — writers who studied up on Watchmen ahead of preliminary meetings about the series, but had little familiarity otherwise.
"I was able to have conversations about Watchmen with complete and total neophytes, and also people who were very Watchmen-literate and could discuss it chapter and verse," he says. "And I found through the course of those conversations, that the only way the show would work was to populate the room with both. We needed to get the people with no familiarity with Watchmen to fall in love with something new, and we had to convince the people who really had a preexisting love for Watchmen, that this was worthy of being called Watchmen."
Lindelof brought the Watchmen world's most recognizable icon back for his series: the atomic god known as Doctor Manhattan.
While Lindelof wasn't interested in outright adapting Moore and Gibbons' original work, he knew there were certain foundational aspects that needed to exist across both series, and Doctor Manhattan was one of them. The trick: telling a grounded story about racism in America when one character can see everything that's ever happened and everything that's going to happen next.
"There's a legacy idea in the 'old testament' of hiding in plain sight," says Lindelof. "It's what they do with the Rorschach character, who is basically masked for the first five issues, and when his mask is finally pulled off, it's revealed that he's this weird red-headed guy who had been carrying around a 'The End Is Nigh' sign all throughout those previous issues."
Rorschach was not only the basis for the masks worn by the Seventh Kavalry in the TV series, but also a point of inspiration for how Lindelof and the writers room ultimately resolved their own Doctor Manhattan project: by burying the all-powerful hero's consciousness in the body of Angela's husband Cal, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.
"There's a Memento and Bourne Identity idea that the best way to limit Doctor Manhattan's powers is that he doesn't know he has them," says Lindelof. "And it gave us an opportunity to put our protagonist, Angela, slightly ahead of the audience."
A key component in the HBO series' effort to blaze its own path forward: Angela Abar, alias Sister Night, played by Regina King. A police officer with roots in both Tulsa and Vietnam, Angela was conceived specifically for the television series, but in a way that extends the legacies of two Watchmen heroes: Hooded Justice, her secret grandfather; and the omnipotent Doctor Manhattan, her secret husband.
"The original 12 issues were all about legacy," says Lindelof. "It's set in the '80s, but things had happened in the late 1930s and '40s and everywhere in between, covering World War II, all the way through Vietnam and the Nixon administration. It's a century story, and we wanted to make sure that we were doing the same thing."
Through Angela, Watchmen examined notions of generational trauma, a core theme of the TV series, but one that's very present in the comic book. (See: Laurie Juspeczyk, aka Laurie Blake, played in the HBO adaptation by Jean Smart.) The series ends with Angela not only revealed as Hooded Justice's granddaughter, but also as the heir apparent to Doctor Manhattan's powers. While the series stops short of showing Sister Night in her full Manhattan glory, it should be noted that the first poster for the series features King bathed in blue light.
"Nothing happens by accident," says Lindelof about the poster's color scheme, "[but] what mattered the most to me was having Regina King front and center on a poster that said Watchmen on it. She represents the idea that this is not an adaptation of the Watchmen you are familiar with, because there was nobody who looked like Regina King in the Watchmen I'm familiar with."
In the comics, as in the show, the character Hooded Justice is the first masked crime-fighter in the Watchmen universe — and in both versions of the story, he's masked all the way, at least until the sixth episode of the HBO limited series.
A key figure in the early masked hero group known as the Minutemen, Hooded Justice was the only one of these vigilantes whose secret identity was unknown even within the group. As a reader of the comic from an early age, Lindelof says he was always intrigued by the notion that no one knew who Hooded Justice was, especially drawn to an in-universe description of the character as "this extraordinary being" — a passage that ended up titling the Emmy-nominated sixth installment of Watchmen, which introduced one of the series' central ideas: The first superhero was a Black man, a police officer in fact, who survived the horrific Tulsa race massacre of 1921 and ultimately pursued his own form of justice.
"You look at Elvis and you're essentially like, it isn't that Elvis is untalented, but musically speaking, everything that he took was from the African American musical culture," says Lindelof. "What if the same was true of costumed adventuring?
"I may have had the initial idea, but I did not know how to pull it off," he adds, citing the works of Ta-Nehisi Coates as inspiration for the Hooded Justice storyline. "I know it's a broken record to some degree, but it's the most important groove on the record: Had it not been for the voices and storytelling of the other writers in the room and then eventually those behind the camera as well, not to mention the actors in front of it, this never would have worked. It would have been at its worst actually harmful — and slightly less worse, it would have just been bad."
In the comics, Adrian Veidt enlists top scientific and artistic minds to create and deploy a genetically modified squid monster on New York City — a hoax positioned as an alien invasion that kills millions with its teleported landing and traumatizes many more with its psychic blast and sheer existence.
"It's really a 'you had to be there' moment," says Lindelof about the squid's place in the Watchmen canon. "Which is to say, if you describe to someone who's never read Watchmen the plot of Watchmen and you eventually say the phrase 'giant alien squid,' you will see their eyes glaze over."
The squid was entirely absent from Zack Snyder's 2009 film adaptation of Watchmen, replaced with a plot in which Doctor Manhattan is framed for New York's destruction. Where Lindelof and his writers were eager to take chances on undiscovered country within Watchmen, there were indeed certain core moments from the "old testament" that had to exist in the new one — and the squid was right at the top of that list, depicted early on in episode five in all of its alien glory, dead tentacles draped across Midtown Manhattan. Lindelof was initially skeptical that the image would look real and terrifying enough, only to have his mind changed by the initial reaction from the effects team.
"Their eyes lit up," he recalls. "It's like that moment in The Social Network when Sean Parker says 'a billion dollars.' That's the reaction you want to see from people: They see the challenge in front of them, but they're just so stoked to do it." It's a fitting way to encapsulate the journey of HBO's Watchmen, then; in the end, Lindelof and his Emmy-nominated team were able to have their squid and eat it too.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.