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How HBO’s “Watchmen” Is a Masterclass in Nonlinear Storytelling

Alongside films like “Memento” and “Pulp Fiction,” Damon Lindelof’s graphic novel adaptation breaks new ground.

Watchmen Main Titles and Episode Titles from Elastic on Vimeo.

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Fans of Christopher Nolan, David Fincher and Quentin Tarantino looking to boost their nonlinear storytelling chops should take a close look at HBO’s new dramatic series, Watchmen.

Set in an alternate history where superheroes are treated as outlaws, the new series embraces the nostalgia of the original groundbreaking graphic novel of the same name while attempting to break new ground of its own. With a cast including Regina King, Jeremy Irons, Don Johnson, Jean Smart, Tim Blake Nelson, Louis Gossett Jr., Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Andrew Howard, Tom Mison, Frances Fisher, Jacob Ming-Trent, Sara Vickers, Dylan Schombing and James Wolk, the nine-episode Watchmen series is from executive producer & writer Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers), and has been making waves since its debut in October.

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The new series is based on the graphic novel written by science fiction legend Alan Moore and illustrated by artist Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins. Published in 1986 by DC Comics, the original Watchmen was like nothing comic book fans had ever seen. The graphic novel deconstructed and satirized superhero conventions, introducing the now-iconic nine-panel grid to help structure intertwined narratives told using flashbacks and nonlinear storytelling supplemented by fictional documents.

Because of its dependence on the comic book structure and aesthetic, the original Watchmen was deemed un-filmable. Director Zack Snyder took on the challenge with his 2009 feature adaptation, but his film was widely criticized for being too faithful to original without adding anything that wasn’t already on the page. HBO’s new series, on the other hand, takes place 34 years after the events of the graphic novel, introducing new characters and storylines within the same alternate reality, and alongside classics such as Memento and Pulp Fiction, its effective use of nonlinear storytelling is truly a masterclass in filmmaking.

The Premium Beat blog breaks down some of the most important elements of successful nonlinear storytelling, noting that “while it may be tricky to get your head around at times, when done properly, it can be a powerful storytelling and filmmaking device for your short film, feature film, or video projects.” For tips on keeping a tight script and outline, continuity, filming chronologically vs. non-chronologically, and more, head over to Premium Beat and read the full story.

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