Full disclosure: I didn’t come to this movie completely unbiased, as I was once a student of both David Lloyd and Alan Moore’s at the London Cartoon Center back when I was a wee lad in the 1980s. I still keep in touch with David Lloyd as a friend, and I’ve been aware of the different screenplay adaptations of “V For Vendetta” over the past decade. On a personal note, the graphic novel was a key text in my experience of living in London in the 1980s under the awful rule of Margaret Thatcher, and the comic was a reaction to the times in the tradition of the best distopian Science Fiction. I still remember vividly the Tory government ruthlessly putting down the Miner’s Strike, destroying whole communities and families to put down the 1984 Miner’s Strike. In the mid-80s, Thatcher also seriously considered setting up concentration camps to intern gay people in a bid to contain the AIDS crisis. It never happened, but that it almost came to pass meant that the Orwellian world of “V For Vendetta” was frighteningly close to reality. I’m not alone in this sentiment.
Now, this doesn’t mean I’m automatically going to slag off the movie as another case of Hollywood messing up a great book. The bottom line here is whether “V For Vendetta” is a movie worth seeing, and, at the end of the day, the answer is “yes.”
It’s not a perfect movie by any means, but it’s as close as a Hollywood movie is going to get to the graphic novel.
For those of you coming into this cold, the setting is a near-future England that has been taken over by a brutal fascist dictatorship. The story follows a young woman named Evey Hammond (played by Natalie Portman) who meets the flamboyant terrorist V as he plans to bring down the fascist government through an elaborate and epic campaign of sabotage and the murder of key members of the ruling party.
The performances by the actors are impeccable. I thought Natalie Portman’s accent started out too posh and awkward, but she eased into it as the movie progressed. The scene where she finally breaks down is the most difficult scene any actress could ever be given and it’s here that Portman shows the true depth of her talent and craft, being every bit as wrenching as the book. And it’s always fun to watch renowned British character actors chew the scenery as if it was a lavish banquet, and dependable actors like Tim Pigott-Smith, John Hurt and Rupert Graves are well-cast in supporting roles. Stephen Fry has a sad dignity as a sympathetic TV talkshow host harboring secrets of his own, who becomes inspired by V to take some action, and pays the ultimate price. Hugo Weaving is perfect as the verbose and theatrical V, relishing language as he trips complex Shakespearean speeches off his tongue, acting behing a mask through the entire movie, and his face is never shown.
Stories tend to be the product of their times, and where the original book reflected the Thatcher years, the movie clearly reflects the Blair-Bush era with overt allusions to the War on Terror, the hunt for Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the use of such campaigns to manipulate the population into voting in a corrupt regime. There are a lot of right-wingers who are going to condemn this movie for being an apologia for terrorism, which can only mean it’ll hit a nerve. This is an angry film, unashamedly agit-prop. The climactic set-piece might initially seem over-the-top, but is really a surprisingly effective shift into non-naturalistic Brechtian symbolism that visually dramatizes the theme of people being both individuals and a collective who can make a difference once called to action.
As in “The Matrix”, there’s the theme of the hero who is forcibly awakened to the true, corrupt state of the world and rises to lead a rebellion against its rules. Admittedly, Alan Moore first wrote this theme in “V For Vendetta” in the 1980s, and then Grant Morrison reiterated it in “The Invisibles” before the Wachowskis took it up in “The Matrix” and now their movie version of “V For Vendetta”. In that respect, things have come full circle.
If I were to talk about the movie in its own right, I would say that this is an accomplished, surprisingly edgy and provocative mainstream thriller with some points to make about terrorism and whether violent rebellion is justified to overthrow a fascist system.
However, it’s impossible to separate the original graphic novel from the movie, since the movie could not exist without it. If this had been an original screenplay and the book didn’t exist, I seriously doubt it would have been sold, let alone filmed due to its subject matter. This is the most faithful film adaptation of an Alan Moore story to date. Several subplots and characters had to be abandoned for reasons of length, and the more complex and grey emotional moments have been sacrificed as well. All the key set-pieces from the book are here (the sequence featuring Valerie Page’s monologue is lifted verbatim from Alan Moore’s original, and is as moving and heartbreaking as it was in the book, because those really are Alan Moore’s words, preserved and intact) but the order in which they occur is altered, as is some of the book’s message. The movie avoids any mention or serious discussion of Anarchism as a political ideology, which was the heart of the book’s politics. Alan Moore positioned the story of V as not being about Fascism vs. Democracy, but Fascist vs. Anarchism, the two extreme ends of the political spectrum. Oppression vs. Absolute Freedom, which means Freedom without Political Leaders, where people rule themselves. The book takes the arguments as far as they will go. The movie does not go that far, and I would be very surprised if a Hollywood movie did. Without the discussion of Anarchism, the movie’s politics are a somewhat more conventionally anti-authoritarian, albeit expressed with more conviction than most movies. I already know one viewer who absolutely loathes “V For Vendetta” because he thinks it’s an apologia for terrorism. That’s proof that it will provoke a reaction stronger mere indifference, and for movies, that’s a good thing.
There is a famous story about a reporter who interviewed hardboiled detective novelist Raymond Chandler. He asked Chandler how he felt about Hollywood destroying his books in making crappy movie versions.
Chandler’s response was, “They didn’t destroy my books. They’re right here on the shelf, and they’re just fine.”
The movie version of “V For Vendetta” doesn’t “destroy” the graphic novel. It was made with sincere respect for the source material, without cynical commercialism, but the sentiment still applies: If you want to see an action movie with thrills and spills and Big Explosions, that asks some moral and political questions, then this is the one for you. But if you want something more complex and challenging, the original graphic novel is intact and there for people who want to discover the original and pure, unfettered version of the story.
CBR’s coverage of the New York Comic-Con is Sponsored by Comics Unlimited.