I should start by admitting outright that I did enjoy many parts of the V for Vendetta movie (primarily those that remained truest to the source material). I think this adaptation of the brilliant graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd is probably the best film version of an Alan Moore work to date (The movie Watchmen was a more faithful adaptation, but I don’t think it worked as well). In fact, had I never heard of the book, I would have probably enjoyed the film much more than I did (and I did appreciate it much more when I watched it for the second time on DVD). I am always impressed when any mainstream, major Hollywood studio produces something that encourages audiences to question authority, even when that message gets muddled by science fiction trappings, convoluted plots, and special effects. However, having read V for Vendetta several times, while I am willing to overlook some of the cinematic alterations made by the Wachowski brothers (creators of The Matrix) as fairly harmless and perhaps even justifiable, there are two points in particular where I believe the film version totally undermines both the literary and political brilliance of the original story.
The first point pertains to the portrayal of two of the story’s central characters. By demonizing High Chancellor Adam Sutler, who’s depiction as a raving, frothing-at-the-mouth tyrant came across as an almost laughable caricature, the movie completely robs the story of the psychological complexity found in the book. There, the party leader, Adam Susan, is motivated by an absolute devotion to his country, and an unfaltering conviction that fascism is the only way to save it from destruction. He sacrifices his own freedoms to serve his people (at least the white, straight, Christians among them) and is willing to tolerate dissenters like Inspector Finch as long as they continue to serve the needs of the State (something I could not imagine the hysterical egomaniac played by William Hurt doing). The villains are further vilified by the insertion of a cumbersome and confusing conspiracy plot into the story.
It is eventually revealed that the ruling party orchestrated the nationwide plague that precipitated its rise to power years earlier. It was as if the Wachowskis were afraid their fascist state wouldn’t be frightening enough to audiences if it was only responsible for killing civil liberties, so they had to pin the mass murder of 100,000 people on it as well. This changes the party leader from someone—right wing nut job though he may be—who heeds the call of his country in its time of need to pull it from the brink of the abyss, into someone who is motivated solely by the desire for power and a narcissistic need to have the world shaped in his image. This further casts the movie’s High Chancellor as the most clichéd type of cartoonish supervillain. (It also further distances the story from reality and the kind of actual evil usually encountered in the world. Hitler did not have to orchestrate the economic collapse of pre-WWII Germany; he only had to exploit it.)
And while the Wachowskis chose to demonize their movie’s version of Moore’s High Chancellor, they also decided to subtly humanize V. It seems as though they were trying to skew the character to play as more of a hero with audiences by making such changes from the book as narrowing the focus of V’s vengeance to the party elite and those who personally wronged him, inventing a conscientious objection to killing their cronies (except when necessary), and having him anguish over his treatment of Evey and breaking down in sobs when she leaves him. Although less offensive to my intelligence than the over the top evil of Adam Sutler, this softening of the book’s much more menacing and Machiavellian V nonetheless detracts from the brilliance and uniqueness of Alan Moore’s story. The struggle between an all too human villain and a monstrous hero is much more thought-provoking than the black and white morality presented by the movie, which alleviates the audience from any need to question the rightness of V’s tactics or feel pity for any of his victims. It is a credit to Alan Moore’s writing that readers can still identify with and even like V despite some of his heinous behavior in the book—
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!!!!
most notably his torture of Evey, which somehow came across as much more brutal when presented by artist David Lloyd in the graphic novel.
Secondly, however disappointed I was with the film adaptation’s simplistic depiction of good and evil, what was even more tragic was its total failure to accurately convey the political ideology of its title character. I was horrified when the Old Bailey was blown up in the first 10 minutes of the film, and not just because V had inexplicably forgotten—despite his urging for us all to remember—that the target of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot had been Parliament. Even worse, I realized in that terrible moment that one of my two favorite scenes in the book had just been mercilessly obliterated. V’s feigned conversation on the roof of the Old Bailey, in which he explains his reasons behind abandoning Justice for Anarchy, is one of the greatest monologues in graphic literature (despite some of the misogynistic terminology V employs) and makes it clear that V’s goals are just as lofty as Adam Susan’s (regardless of how one might feel about how either character goes about achieving them). Likewise my other favorite scene, V’s address to the British nation via the State’s own pirated airwaves, was transformed from a stinging indictment of political apathy and rousing appeal for personal responsibility, into an invocation of some unspecified type of vague and uninspiring democracy. The choice presented to the audience of the film seems to be one between democracy and totalitarianism, which for most moviegoers means nothing more than preserving the status quo. In the book, V presents readers with “another way,” anarchism, that offers “new life [and] hope reinstated.” In other words, V is offering society as a whole the same sort of transformation Evey underwent (in the book, not the movie), which is nothing less than a complete paradigm shift. (Granted, he contradictingly goes about this, in both the book and movie, by the very anti-anarchist method of violently forcing his point of view on both the government and the people.)
The final scene of the movie reminded my wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s “The Masque Of Anarchy“, except without the sense of exhilaration. It’s a shame the movie, unlike the book on which it was based, ultimately failed to evoke the same spirit as the closing lines of this poem:
‘And these words shall then become
Like Oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain,
Heard again – again – again –
‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.’