Wide Angle

Keeping the Faith

Watchmen and His Dark Materials are neighbors on HBO, but the way they treat their source material is miles apart.

Side-by-side photo illustration of Dafne Keen as Lyra Belacqua reading a tool in His Dark Materials, and Regina King in her Sister Night regalia on Watchmen.
Dafne Keen in His Dark Materials and Regina King in Watchmen Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by HBO.

It already feels like decades ago, but back in the spring you may recall that all anyone seemed to want to do was argue about was the final season of Game of Thrones. It was boring! The characters didn’t make sense anymore! The episodes were too long! And why weren’t there more of them?! At their core, many of these complaints came down to disputes over adaptation. Game of Thrones was the most ambitious television series of its kind ever undertaken, drawing from all five books (and counting, allegedly) of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga. But as the show began to exceed the scope of Martin’s extant work, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were thrust from the role of adapters into the role of creators, an awkward transition for a couple of guys who haven’t always demonstrated a knack for the best original ideas. Fairly or not, every disappointing aspect of the final season of Game of Thrones was laid at Benioff and Weiss’ feet. In moving past their source material, they had, perhaps inevitably, failed it.

If the spring was marked by a disappointment of adaptation, its fall has seen a redoubled commitment to it. With the ever-growing surfeit of streaming services, the franchise mania that has increasingly defined the movie industry is hitting television with remarkable force. Our small screens, like our big ones, will soon be overtaken by remakes, reboots, transmedia universe expansions, and intellectual property mining of every permutation. Two of these are currently airing on HBO, the same network that brought us Game of Thrones: the joint BBC One/HBO adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and Damon Lindelof’s reworking of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. Both literary works are widely considered masterpieces of their respective genres, and both have proven famously resistant to screen transition, as evidenced by the widely derided cinematic attempts of the decade prior.

His Dark Materials is a relatively straight-ahead transposition of Pullman’s work; thus far, the only significant deviation from the arc of the trilogy has been to introduce the character of Will Parry (and, by extension, the existence of multiple worlds) much earlier than in the books. The show features a raft of terrific performances from its mostly British cast, and the visual effects are frequently stunning, even if the CGI Pantalaimon seems to spend about 90 percent of his time morphing between various colors of ferret.

And yet while Pullman himself is credited as an executive producer, what the show misses most is his voice. The books’ third-person narration is their most intoxicating element, wry and mystical and always inviting; it’s the engine through which Pullman so beautifully realizes the trilogy’s worlds and the inner lives of his characters. There is a passage describing the heroic death of a beloved figure in the second book that chokes me up just thinking about it; and of course there’s the rightly famous description of sexual awakening that arrives late in the third, subtly recasting the entire conceit of the trilogy.

It’s hard to imagine how a television adaptation, even one as lavishly budgeted as this, will pull off moments such as these. And from a more practical standpoint, the absence of an omniscient narrator means that the characters need to spend far too much time explaining the worlds they live in to each other. As such, it’s a little hard to tell who the show is for; the exposition-heavy tone, particularly in the early episodes, seems likely to grate on readers and nonreaders alike, even as the faithfulness of the adaptation seems geared toward the pleasure centers of the already-devoted.

His Dark Materials also suffers for its proximity to Watchmen, which airs on the same network on an adjoining night. Moore and Gibbons’ work has long been viewed as impossible to extricate from its original context, with its shifts in chronology and perspective, its stories within stories, and, of course, the shape-shifting blue man to whom laws of time and space do not apply. Zack Snyder’s 2009 film was pathologically faithful to the book, less “inspired” by its source material than haunted by it.

Lindelof’s Watchmen sidesteps this by leaving Moore and Gibbons’ novel almost entirely to the side. The show’s story takes place more than 30 years later, in a world transformed by the comics’ final chapters. Lindelof and his co-writers have extended Moore and Gibbons’ story as a dazzlingly plotted Moebius strip about the past and present horrors of white supremacy. The result is easily the best adaptation of any of Moore’s work that I’ve ever seen (if that he almost certainly never will). It’s enormously ambitious, narratively and intellectually, just one of many characteristics it shares with its source material. Some might argue that Watchmen is a sequel rather than an adaptation, but categorical parsing diminishes just how richly the show draws from Moore and Gibbons’ work (and on a more practical level, it isn’t called Watchmen 2). There’s the chronological play, the vast tapestry of characters, the self-reflexivity and self-critique, the speculative history rooted in real historical horror, the deep concern with moral righteousness worked out through morally ambiguous characters. It’s adaptation-as-homage, a work of exceptional creativity and unmistakable love.

That said, the show’s narrative high-wire act occasionally gets in the way of itself: Characters are mostly one-dimensional and tend to speak in riddles that aren’t resolved until several episodes later, if at all, and the heavy use of flashback vacillates between being brilliant (see the show’s stunning sixth episode) and feeling like a patch job for shaky storytelling (see its seventh). Its alternative history can also invite pedantic nitpicking from those inclined to such things. Earlier this fall, Jeremy Gordon of the Outline wrote a hilarious essay on the incongruous appearance of Future’s “Crushed Up” in the show’s first episode, and I similarly flinched at a more recent use of James Brown’s “Living in America.” Knowing what we know about 1985 in the Watchmen universe, why would anyone have made Rocky IV?

And for a show that’s been rightly praised for unflinchingly taking on the history of American racial violence—notably its opening depiction of the 1921 Tulsa MassacreWatchmen’s own racial politics can sometimes feel a bit lumbering. The show’s two main black characters, Angela Abar and Will Reeves, despite terrific performances by Regina King and Louis Gossett Jr., are defined almost entirely by trauma—a tired Hollywood cliché in its own right—and the juxtaposition of Klansmen and masked adventurers feels less provocative than it’d like to be, and isn’t exactly a new insight. (Just ask Alan Moore himself.)

His Dark Materials and Watchmen represent divergent approaches to adaptation of canonical works, one a reverently faithful re-creation, the other a reverently faithful explosion. But what about a show that seems to conjure a new vision of its material from whole cloth? One of my favorite television experiences of this year was Apple TV’s Dickinson, starring the great Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson and created by Alena Smith. (In the interest of full disclosure, Smith and I are old friends—if you find that disqualifying feel free to stop reading, but please do yourself a favor and watch the show!) It might seem strange to label Dickinson as an adaptation, but every episode is structured around one of Dickinson’s poems, and its own speculative history is grounded in rigorous literary-historical research.

Emily Dickinson might be the most famous poet in American history, an artist whose words are thrust in front of American students almost as soon as they’re able to know what poetry is. She often stands as an archetype for the tragically ignored artist, a mysterious figure who published almost nothing in her lifetime and only gained fame and recognition for her genius decades after her death. If there’s an image that most Americans have adopted of Emily Dickinson it’s as a reclusive shut-in confined to her bedroom, scribbling poems in the face of a world too inured by sexism and general Victorian-era conservatism to appreciate them.

Elements of this are true, of course, but it’s hollowed out who Dickinson really was—a gap that Dickinson fills in exuberant fashion. For starters, the show is hilarious, not a word often associated with Dickinson’s public reputation. Its characters speak in Gen Z slang, do drugs, dance to iLoveMakkonen, and enthusiastically hook up with each other. The result is a loving re-invigoration of the period show, but also of Dickinson and her life’s work. If the loftiest goal of adaptation is to reveal corners of a work that have been previously undiscovered, to breathe new life into the already familiar, then Dickinson takes the prize, while reminding us of the only good reason to adapt someone else’s art in the first place: because it brings us joy.