Alan Moore's V for Vendetta was already a classic in 1988, when it was re-collected and printed by D.C. Comics for American audiences, and Moore's themes of insurgency, terrorism, and the price of security reverberate even more strongly today. One of the first works to be labeled as a "graphic novel," V for Vendetta distinguished itself from mere comic books by way of its detailed plot and complex characterization.
V is a terrifying vision of a post-apocalyptic England falling into anarchy as its economy, environment, and society crumble in the aftermath of a nuclear climate catastrophe. England's civilization is saved from mayhem by the rise of a fascist nationalistic movement, Norsefire, which drags England back from the brink. Under the new police state, political threats (homosexuals, socialists, minorities, non-Christians) are swept into concentration camps to be systematically eliminated. Enter V, a Guy Fawkes mask–wearing terrorist who, in homage to the original, blows up the Houses of Parliament to kick off his titular vendetta—accompanied by his young protégé, Evey.
James McTeigue's film adaptation, scripted by the Wachowski brothers and opening this weekend, tries to update V for Vendetta's vision for a post 9/11 world, while somehow making us sympathetic to a hero who is both a psychopath and a terrorist. Unfortunately the movie sacrifices some of the texture that made the graphic novel clever in order to create a more disposable set of villains.
Gone is the back story wherein Norsefire stops the rioting, the looting, and England's descent into chaos. Gone is the fragility of England's nearly-lost society. Instead, Britain's government becomes a cheap bag of clichés, easy to hate, impossible to understand. The totalitarian government is at once ultra-conservative, ultra-religious, ultra-prejudiced and ultra-corrupt. The Chancellor (John Hurt), Britain's head of state, is warped in the graphic novel, to be sure, but Moore takes time to flesh out the bizarre mix of motives that drives him. In McTeigue's film, the man who once played Winston Smith is reduced to a barking Big Brother sporting a Hitler hairdo who speaks only from Times Square–sized video screens.
But for all the wrinkle-free villains, McTeigue does a good job of connecting us to our two surrogates in the film, Evey (Natalie Portman) and Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea). Evey, at first a reluctant companion in V's plans, is held back by fear of a world she sees as beyond her control. As V (Hugo Weaving) shows her more of the beauty that has been lost in a totalitarian world, she comes to understand his fight as a battle for restoration, until finally her own confrontation with death frees her of all fear. Inspector Finch, determined to understand the thought patterns of a terrorist, sees V as a puzzle to be solved. As he pursues V's trail of clues, Finch's journey becomes one of self realization as his own morals begin to collide with the cruelty of the government. (McTeigue decided not to have Finch's climactic epiphany occur under the influence of a massive self-administered dose of LSD, as it does in the graphic novel.) There are poignant moments for both Evey and Finch as they lose their innocence in the wake of V's revolutionary campaign. Both start to question their own complicity in a world gone cold, and must decide where to draw the line against a government gone mad.
The same nuance, alas, is missing from the rest of McTeigue's execution. The challenge of connecting modern audiences with Moore's vision could have been achieved through solid storytelling. Sadly, McTeigue can't help himself, and instead resorts to a heavy handed delivery of glaringly obvious references to the war on terror.
The conflict that plunges England into chaos is referred to ominously as "America's War," while hinting at precursors such as the "Syrian Campaign". Prisoners get suspiciously familiar bags over their heads, and in a notable torture sequence, Evey is to various humiliations while wearing an orange (of course) jumpsuit. One character who collects cultural contraband (possession of a Koran is apparently a capital offense) even has a "Coalition of the Willing" poster complete with superimposed swastika. Just so we don't miss the point, the symbol of the fascist government is a variation of the patriarchal cross, as opposed to Norsefire's "N" in the graphic novel. Now we know who the bad guys really are.
If these gimmicks are supposed to inspire fist-pumping approval from the MoveOn.org crowd, they fail, instead creating villains who are preposterous caricatures. There is no hero worship in Moore's graphic novel, only the uneasy understanding that in a sufficiently corrupt world, a madman with a knife might be preferable to an officer with a badge.
But in the movie's defense, even Alan Moore couldn't resist his own set of paranoid hyperventilations. In the 1988 graphic novel, Moore explains that he's considering leaving the U.K. due to worries about AIDS concentration camps and potential government persecution of homosexuals. Alas, whereas Moore had the sense to keep his opinions wrapped in subtle fiction, McTeigue does not suffer the temptations of good taste. One wonders if it was he or Warner Brothers that decided to postpone the film's premiere after the London bombings. It almost seems as though McTeigue is hoping for the kind of hyped chatter that helped pique interest in Brokeback Mountain. Frankly, he may be right. Early conservative blogging on the film is already abuzz with indignation. Some notable critics are even calling the film subversive, despite its tepid mainstream stylings. If audiences are looking for a call to arms, they've come to the wrong place. The original V's message, despite its occasional flirtations with camp, managed to avoid coming off so ham-handed. If anything, V is about the power of ideas and the meaning of personal freedom. Moore's vision is less about literal revolution than it is about psychological liberation, a message apparent in both the graphic novel and the movie.
Ultimately, the main characters realize that they have given up their liberties of their own free will. They have been stepped on because they have chosen to lie down. If V has one truly heroic act to offer, it is that he helps his world find the integrity to stand back up. For V, that integrity is the difference between slavery and liberty. As Moore writes, "It is the very last inch of us. But within that inch, we are free!"
That message alone is worth the experience.