The downside of being alive for five decades is that it's really easy to notice when certain once-implacable standards have been lowered beyond imagination. Gone are the days when someone's political career could be threatened by a weird yell or if you misspelled "potato." But we now live in an era when half of the American population can sleep soundly after voting for the sort of autocrat that would give Alan Moore waking nightmares.
Four years before Moore revolutionized comic books with Watchmen, he wrote V for Vendetta as a direct challenge to the leadership of Margaret Thatcher. Trends of crony capitalism, environmental disdain, overt nationalism and rampant, widespread surveillance, topped off with a generous dollop of racism, homophobia and xenophobia, had Moore legitimately concerned that the U.K. was tipping into despotism.
Although V for Vendetta was a critical and commercial hit for DC's adult-themed Vertigo line, it didn't get a movie adaptation until 2006, five years after 9/11. Given the prevailing political climate in the U.S. at the time, Moore's cautionary tale was suddenly looking pretty friggin' relevant again. As a result, the Wachowskis, looking for something to do after The Matrix trilogy ended with a resounding thud, wrote and produced a screen version with director James McTeigue at the helm.
Say what you want about the final result, but even the most hardened critic has to admit that their collective vision is distressingly relevant when viewed by contemporary audiences.
The year is 2027. After the U.S. has fallen into a state of civil war (!) and a pandemic (!!) has devastated Europe, the fascist Norsefire Party now holds sway over England, with the demagogic Adam Sutler (John Hurt) installed as High Chancellor. We're introduced to Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), a young employee at the state-run television network, as she gets accosted by a gang of "Fingermen" secret police. Just in the nick of time, she's rescued by the titular "V" (Hugo Weaving), a vigilante, political anarchist, alliteration junkie and Guy Fawkes cosplayer.
To reveal more about the plot would be a disservice, so I'll just say that the story mainly concerns itself with slowly revealing V's elaborate plan to topple Sutler's regime and how Evey fits into all of it. We also cut back and forth to a pair of Scotland Yard Inspectors, Finch (Stephen Rea) and Stone (Rupert Graves), as they try and puzzle out V's real identity and snare him. In doing so, they discover how the terrorist's origins are linked to the dark conspiracy which sent the country hurtling towards authoritarianism.
Famously, Alan Moore has disowned any cinematic adaptation of his graphic novels, claiming that his stories are exclusively designed for the medium of comics, any motivation to adapt them into movies is strictly mercenary and the end results will always be disappointment. Admittedly, in the case of something like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, he's pretty much spot-on, but I'd argue that Snyder's adaptation of Watchmen is reasonably good and V for Vendetta is even better.
I admire Alan Moore's stalwart integrity, which remains resolute, even when a massive financial carrot is dangled in front of him. Having said that, when something as important as V for Vendetta is clanging around in your brain, it makes sense to me, as a writer, to try and disseminate these messages as prolifically as possible. Sure, the results might not be as good as the original source material, but it's not as if film adaptation is the equivalent of Wrath of Khan's Genesis device and will destroy the original graphic novel "in favor of its new matrix."
Moore would likely argue to the contrary, and, admittedly, there's ample evidence to support his stance. After all, I'm sure there are plenty of people who've seen the film and aren't even aware that it's based on a graphic novel. The film makes a myriad of changes, some subtle, some major, and I'm sure that Mr. Moore is salty about every single one. In a perfect world, the original writer should be given complete oversight on these interpretations but, given DC Comic's draconian take on creator's ownership rights, I wouldn't be quick to play ball with them either.
Here are some of the changes between the original graphic novel and the film adaptation:
- When we first meet Evey in the graphic novel, she's a 16-year-old munitions worker who desperately turns to prostitution for financial survival. She's also more immediately helpful to V, voluntarily working with him to ensnare the creepy Bishop Lilliman. In the film, she's a lot older and more self-possessed, but she gets cornered by the Fingermen, not out of desperation, but simply because she's looking to visit Gordon after curfew. I think? I honestly don't know since it's not exactly made clear. She also volunteers to help V catch the Bishop, not because he's a creepy pedophile scumbag, but to create an opportunity for her to escape. In the end, I think novel Evey's personal journey is a lot more sympathetic, harrowing, and engaging.
- As the "Voice of Fate" in the original novel, Lewis Prothero is strictly a radio voice for the "Fate" computer, dispensing audio comfort food to keep listeners mired in the status quo. In the film, actor Roger Allam portrays the "Voice of London", a hyper-charged Fox News-style television pundit. Although I like the "disembodied voice of Fate" idea, as a screenwriter, I don't know if I could resist updating this for parody purposes.
- With changes like the latter, the film has clearly drifted away from the book's original "anarchy versus fascism" approach and it's now more of a liberal treatise against Objectivism and Bush-era Neo-Conservatism. And, honestly, considering the current day threat that this has grown into, it's hard to dismiss this warning outright.
- Racism was pretty prevalent in the U.K. back when Moore first wrote V for Vendetta but, as the Black Lives Matter movement will attest, it's just as insidious and widespread as it's ever been, maybe even more so. Sadly, all that remains of Moore's original exploration of this are a few clips of the fictional Storm Saxon show playing in the background and a couple of post 9/11 shots thrown at Muslims.
- In the original novel, a limited nuclear skirmish results in the dire conditions which give rise to the Norsefire party. Moore now admits that the concept of a limited nuclear exchange being survivable is pretty much ludicrous, so the film's lab-engineered virus is a helluva lot more realistic, not to mention oddly prescient. The funny thing is, neither the book nor the film got it right since it's pretty clear that the average idiot doesn't need an over-arching, fear-based reason to vote for a sociopathic despot. They can do it for much more frivolous, odious,ignorant and / or selfish reasons.
- Sutler uses the virus as a "Reichstag fire"-style event to seize power but, in the novel, it's a much more insidious, subtle, creeping process. Which, let's face it, is more in line with the modern fascist play book.
- John Hurt does his usual great job as Sutler (Susan in the novel), but he's also playing a Mussolini / Hitler-esque caricature here. In the novel, the Norsefire party leader is quite cold, calculating and sedate. In fact, his complete and utter apathy towards his fellow human beings leads him into a really odd obsession with the omniscient "Fate" computer; a weakness that V learns to exploit.
- The original novel dedicates a significant amount of time exploring the lives of prominent party members and their partners. In other words, they're not just depicted as simplified thugs like in the film, they're presented with a lot more subtlety and nuance. They've largely convinced themselves that what they're doing is right and normal and they treat their roles like it's any other job. This is definitely more in-step with what most cogs in fascist wheels end up doing in order to assuage their conscience.
- The explanation of how V procured the chemicals to escape the internment camp is omitted from the movie, making for a pretty glaring logical plot hole. Later V somehow manages to mail a metric crap-ton of Guy Fawkes masks out to thousands of London residents. Um, okay.
- A subplot where Evie is abandoned by V and she shacks up with a random guy named Gordon might do well to explore her daddy issues, but it isn't a huge loss from the screenplay. The film's Gordon, played by Stephen Fry, is Evey's trusted T.V. station colleague who later confides his personal secrets to her.
- V is a lot more "wild card" in the book, reminding Evie that the chaos resulting from his actions isn't "anarchy" and that anarchy actually means "without leaders, not without order." One big feather in the film's cap is getting Hugo Weaving to play V. He communicates a staggering level of emotion and verbiage while never once showing his face. Truly impressive.
- Since V is a much more ruthless and morally ambiguous figure in the novel, Finch doesn't just abandon his life's loyalties at the end of the story.
Technically, the film is quite accomplished, with first-time director James McTeigue offering up some great visuals and some decent set pieces. As a hold-over from The Matrix-style "bullet time", some of the action sequences are in slo-mo, a technique which was already over-used, even back then. McTeigue and editor Martin Walsh keep things moving along at a brisk pace, but, as the script's perspectives and 11'th hour machinations become increasingly complicated, the cutting seems to get more muddied and whiplash.
The set design and costumes are all top-notch, though at times certain environs get over-lit and photographed like a cheap sitcom. Dario Marianelli's soundtrack is functional but devoid of anything memorable, a fact made even more glaringly obvious with the inclusion of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" and a few notable contemporary cover songs by Julie London and Cat Power.
But, when it comes right down to it, the original graphic novel wins the duke because Moore's singular vision trumps (no pun intended) the committee that made the film version. Whenever the film's script strays from the graphic novel, I get shades of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss desperately trying to write something Game of Thrones-y after running out of George R.R. Martin's original material. The dialogue is particularly glaring; I swear the Wachowskis drunkenly peppered the word "bollocks" into the script just to make the characters sound more "British."
It's not just the dialogue that's lunk-headed. In a particularly ham-fisted sequence, Gordon presents a broad, farcical Benny Hill-style open parody of Sutler and then blithely dismisses the possibility of any repercussions. His stance is so naive that you begin to suspect that the script made him do it just so Evey gets captured. As for Natalie Portman, she's a tad wooden throughout and her accent isn't 100% convincing to me, but she does shine during the imprisonment / rebirth scene.
After that pivotal moment, the plot gets increasingly convoluted, with V posing as an informant named Rookwood. This ruse is so blatantly obvious that I almost laughed out loud when Finch freaks out later when he realizes that he fell for it. If you think about it for just a second, you quickly realize that all of this Rookwood stuff exists just to explain the conspiracy, which didn't even exist in the novel. Speaking of, Moore's original denouement, which has Evie adopting a logical evolution, is a helluva lot more satisfying than the film's conclusion.
Yes, I think the graphic novel is superior, but I don't want to make it sound as if it's perfect, 'cuz it ain't. It's one of Moore's earliest writing jobs, and it betrays some pretty puerile, sophomoric and "edge-lordy" material. Beyond the aforementioned "nuclear winter" gaff, I find the characterization of Conrad Heyer's bitchy wife Helen to be laughably one-dimensional. Heyer is depicted as the sort of raging, power-hungry harpy that's more at home in an EC horror comic.
Then there's Rosemary Almond's husband Derek, who is shown to be a mentally and physically abusive piece of shit. After he's killed by V, Rosemary inexplicably pines over him. In fact, her despair grows so deep and her financial woes so dire, that she ends up publicly humiliating herself in some sort of perverse public vaudeville act. I don't buy it at all and it just seems to be planted there as a lazy way to "crush the head of the snake" without V's involvement.
As a writer myself, I really bristle at the suggestion that this story should be dust-binned merely because V's actions and methods are ethically and politically shaky. Frankly, I find that aspect of the character to be legitimately fascinating and I relish any opportunity to ponder the myriad of shades on display here. Increasingly so, people seem to want their heroes, even antiheroes, to be perfect paragons of behavior so that they can get behind them unquestionably. I think V is characterized with an appropriate level of complexity, leaving room to debate the eternal question of whether the means justify the end. Like Evey, there are times when my hatred for V is palpable while I'm reading V for Vendetta. There are also times when I adore him...or her.
Regardless of what form you experience this story, I think there's no better time than the present to seek it out, digest it and reflect on how much life is currently imitating art.
The graphic novel: