HBO's new Watchmen series is one of the most brilliant and electrifying uses of IP ever. Leftovers and Lost mastermind Damon Lindelof has somehow managed to extract the fundamental Watchmen-ness of the original 1986 graphic novel like it's a mutant fetus in a lake and built it into something fresh, new, and almost uncomfortably current. But not all Watchmen adaptations have been, uh, quite so successful.
The history of failed attempts at taking Watchmen to the big screen dates back to the early 1990s, when Terry Gilliam was attached to direct. Then came a decade of new scripts and new directors, including Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass, none of whom could get the project off the ground, until finally, in 2009, Zack Snyder successfully got a movie made. Well, sort of successfully—Snyder's version is an overly long, overly dour slog that slavishly recreates the comic's panels without maintaining any of its original spirit, and it didn't even give us a giant squid.
But this week, we got a taste of what could've been. In honor of HBO's series, X-Men screenwriter David Hayter took to Twitter to release test footage he shot in 2003 for his own failed Watchmen adaptation—and, even as test footage, it's better than Zack Snyder's version.
The grainy, four-minute clip recreates the scene from early in the comic where Rorschach breaks into Dan Dreiberg's house to tell him that the Comedian was been killed. Game of Thrones star Iain Glen plays Dreiberg, or Nite Owl, with Ray Stevenson as Rorschach, though Hayter says the role was original meant for Daniel Craig. It's a sparse, almost play-like staging—due in no small part to the fact that this was test footage and probably shot cheaply at a soundstage somewhere—but Hayter's obvious reverence for the comic gives it a certain charm. The way the shapes on Rorschach's mask change between shots is particularly effective.
According to an old i09 report, Hayter's full script made some pretty major tweaks to the comic; he made Dr. Manhattan more superhuman and was also planning to avoid the squid ending, among other changes. But this particular scene is fairly faithful to the source material. It's not perfect, and it's just a test, but it's still a fascinating look at what a stripped down, more character-focused version of Watchmen could've been.
We'll never get to see Twelve Monkeys-era Terry Gilliam make a brain-bleedingly bonkers five-hour miniseries or whatever in the 90s, sadly, but this is almost as good. Give the clip a watch above.