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[Reviews] [Films & Books] : V for Vendetta

Posted by tortillafactory on 2006.09.05 at 13:39
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Film and Book Review:
V for Vendetta

Alan Moore's "powerfully subversive" graphic novel, V for Vendetta, was written in the 1980s as a response to Thatcher's England. The film adaptation, set in the present day, makes frequent and sweeping references to current and past events surrounding 9/11 and the war in Iraq. In this future, the United States are anything but united, and a totalitarian England is all that remains. Two renditions of the same story. How are they the same? How are they different? Is V still V, and are his ideas still bulletproof?

Allow me to introduce myself...

At its heart, V for Vendetta is about a terrorist. Its goal is to convince us that terrorism can be, if not justified, then at least motivated by something other than pure hatred. In comparing the graphic novel to the film, we can only effectively judge it on this criterion: does it effectively convince us of this idea, or does it not?

The novel opens with a teenaged girl name Evey Hammond setting out to walk the streets, desperate for money. In her attempt to whore herself out to the first man she meets, she is caught by police and narrowly rescued from a fate worse than death by a man in a Guy Fawkes mask. He is V, and he takes the shiftless girl into his beautiful underground lair, the Shadow Gallery. As charming and mysterious as he is ruthless, V slowly exercises his influence over Evey, until she agrees to help him bring down those who have wronged him.

Evey quickly discovers her limits. After serving as the live bait for a pedophilic priest whom V poetically slays with a cynaide-laced communion wafer, she insists she won't kill again - not even for him. But her respect for him and the affection between them is poignant and real, even when Evey clumsily inquires why he's never slept with her. She doesn't understand love any other way. V does.

When the two are torn apart, Evey seeks a normal life, but all is soon taken away from her. Through torture and imprisonment she comes to a greater understanding of V - and finally sees his face, without ever removing his mask.

Throughout the tale there are hints of what made V what he was, and why he feels the need for revenge. Individual characters from the world surrounding V are picked out and analysed, and each has something in common with the terrorist, whether it be cruelty, poeticism, fatalism, or that unbeatable rebellious spirit. In the end, it is not a story about a man with a plan - it is the story of freedom prevailing no matter what the cost.

The Wachowski brothers undoubtedly realised that this is the perfect socio-political climate in which to release a film adaptation of V for Vendetta. And so 2005 saw V's eternally smiling mask finally emblazoned on the silver screen. An acting challenge, to be sure - rumour has it that James Purefoy was replaced by Hugo Weaving at the last minute, in a desperate attempt to find someone who could "make the mask work" - but it is an essential part of V, and something that contributes to the feeling that he is not quite human.

Just seeing the powerful images in living colour, rather than in ink on a page, enhances the experience of the story. The problem is that the story is not the same. It was written in Thatcher's England, as a tale of what might someday be. The filmmakers couldn't resist the temptation to dilute the story until it meshed more comfortably with the American zeitgeist. When Alan Moore chose to tell the tale of a persecuted lesbian film star, it was a delicate, human story that spoke eloquently towards the cause of sexual freedom; the Wachowskis couldn't resist the temptation to play the gay rights card again, in the form of Stephen Fry's character. It's not too clumsily done, but it smacks of trying too hard. The point need only be made once; Moore's story of the actress is powerful, and works much better when it speaks for itself.

This small blunder wouldn't matter if it stood alone, but it doesn't. From V's proverbial snickering at the coincidence of Evey's name (GET IT?) to the total abscence of his theatrical revenge against Lewis Prothero - a nod is made to it, but that's just not enough - too many details details have been changed, making the story utterly different.

This Evey is an independent career woman, and, rather than setting out to become a streetwalker at the story's opening, she is merely going to curry favour with her boss. Still whoring, perhaps, but it paints a rather different portrait. Though V saves her from rapist policemen as in Moore's story, she doesn't appear to really need rescusing. From the policement, perhaps, but there is no need for her to be taken under V's wing. Because of this awkward problem, the Wachowskis change the nature of Evey and V's relationship - she does not immediately fall under his spell, or even respect him.

There is something scheming about Natalie Portman - the eyebrows, perhaps? - that make me doubt her ability to have played Evey in the way Moore wrote her, even with the Wachowskis had chosen to remain faithful to the source material. She was more likely cast for star power (of course) and for her ability to look sexy with a shaved head. The vulnerable, desperate creature of the graphic novel eventually transforms into something more fearsome - the problem is that Portman's Evey starts out with a hard edge.

While the climax of the film follows that of the novel closely, with one notable exception, the Wachowskis have again chosen to take one of Moore's motifs and drive it home just a little harder. The Thomas Crown Affair gag of multiple V masks is used by the titular character in both novel and film, but when rebels all over England actually start wearing the masks on their own - culminating in a veritable Guy Fawkes mob at the end - it becomes eye-rollingly obvious symbolism worthy of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Really - we get it.

It is hard to review these two in contrast without mentioning the biggest discrepancy of all, but to do so would be to utterly spoil the story of the novel. I can only recommend that fans of the film (and everyone else) read it, and prepare to be blown away. I was shocked that the filmmakers chose to drop it, and I'm sure Moore would be appalled as well, were he foolish enough to view films of his work.

So the stories are different - despite its flaws, does the film still work? Had I seen it without knowing the story, I doubtless would have enjoyed it as much as most people did. It's a decent story, and it gets its point across. In his novel, however, Moore does this much more effectively, and with a wonderfully delicate touch.


Film is a double-edged sword. Along with the ability to brand powerful images in the mind of the viewer comes the temptation to overdo it, as I believe Andy and Larry Wachowski have done with V for Vendetta (see above).

In translation to film, V for Vendetta becomes more of an anti-hero's tale. Many of Moore's most inspired scenes - V's monologue to Lady Justice, Finch's acid trip at Larkhill, and Evey's discarding of her belongings - unceremoniously landed on the cutting-room floor. (Metaphorically, of course - I'm sure most of them were never written into the script at all.) Certainly they simplify the story, focussing it on V and Evey and their OMG TRUE LUV rather than on the world around them. It is a sort of censorship - not of material that might offend morally, but rather emotionally. Hollywood does not want us to be conflicted about the characters we see on-screen. They want us to like them and buy the merchandise.

To have V abandon Evey in the middle of the street, rather than having her fly from his side in a moral outrage, makes him seem too cold. To have Evey sleep with the man who takes her in makes her seem - on the surface at least - much less hung up on V. "The Leader" needs to be a menacing figure, a huge, ugly face on the Big Brother screens - not a misguided, vulnerable virgin who is love with a computer and murdered by an ordinary woman. "The Nose" must be a nemesis up until the end, and to depict him taking acid in Larkhill to understand V's experience there makes him seem too sympathetic.

All of these quirks that make the characters real also make them too complicated for standard Hollywood fare. As an independent film, V for Vendetta could have succeeded on all the levels where the Wachowski's adaptation failed. Though I was appalled at some of what was dropped, I can't say I'm surprised.

With one notable exception.

In the film, Evey does not become V. One could argue that she becomes him in spirit, but she never dons the mask and wig - why the hell not? I have a feeling this motif was replaced by the gang o' Vs in the film, which makes me a little sick to my stomach. This is Moore's most powerful motif and the perfect climax of the story - Why, oh why, oh why, Wachowskis?

Rating out of 5 [Book]: 5
Rating out of 5 [Film]: 2.5

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