(James McTeigue, Germany/UK/USA, 2005)
What eventually became Alan Moore's graphic novel V for Vendetta began in the early Eighties as an episodic series in the British magazine Warrior. Seemingly an expression of rage against the Thatcher government, it told of a future 'Fascist Britain 1997,' where nuclear war meant America and Russia had ceased to exist, leaving the UK isolated and impoverished. A lone bomber in a Guy Fawkes mask, known only as V, is on a quest to murder the key figures in the fascist regime, assisted by a helpless young woman, Evey, whom he saves from being raped by policemen. Although V's acts of destruction were obviously vicariously thrilling to their author, it soon seemed Moore had doubts, and as time went by, there were hints that V might well be insane. While politically V for Vendetta had the feel of a pub rant, nevertheless it powered along on sheer fury, and was compelling.
Warrior ceased publication, leaving V unfinished, the last episode annoyingly coming just as a major twist had been revealed. If this was a strategy by Moore to inspire someone to publish the rest, it didn't work immediately, as there was a gap of six years before V was resurrected as a monthly title from DC Comics. By the time the ending was finally reached, it was clear the spark had gone. Moore's writing was better, but he'd calmed down, lacking the anger that made the early episodes work. In the early nineties, DC collected V for Vendetta as a graphic novel, and it has stayed in print ever since, a good but ultimately lesser title in the Moore canon.
Now, the series has inspired a Hollywood film adaptation, scripted by The Wachowski Brothers, writer-directors of The Matrix, and directed by their assistant director James McTeigue. Different in several ways to Moore's version, the movie version of V For Vendetta is not necessarily the poorer for taking liberties with its source. The main change is to the character of Evey. In the comic a largely reactive character, desperate and at the bottom of the heap, Evey had nothing to lose, making her decision to side with V worthless. She is now elevated to being a perky, middle class office girl at the Government approved TV station: a kind of Bridget Jones in 1984. This is a promising change, but annoyingly she still follows the actions of the old Evey: she helps V, but as she now has a life, it doesn't feel credible. She jeopardises herself by attacking a policeman, then wonders aloud why she did it. She agrees to dress up to entice a paedophile priest, but then tries to warn him what's about to happen. Her support for V follows her comic incarnation, but the new revised character insists on betraying him. The result is a schizoid character, and as a result her actions seem random.
The comic's best sequence comes when Evey is incarcerated in a Government prison/concentration camp. The downtrodden girl finally becomes an adult, finding her voice to resist after reading the moving story of a former inmate. The film does this sequence justice, and even outdoes it: here is why cinema is our leading popular art form - it can take something great, and make it stunning, simply because it has the advantage of real, talented actresses bringing this material to life, investing it with so much more power than lines on a page can manage. It would be no surprise if this sequence were the only reason Natalie Portman wanted to play Evey. Sadly, neither comic nor film have anywhere to go after it.
An additional character played by Stephen Fry has also been added: a homosexual TV personality. He is conceived as an echo of V, and there is a witty parallel between V's very own 'bat cave', the Shadow Gallery, where he displays banned juvenilia such as a jukebox and movie posters, and Fry's secret room stocked with gay porno photos, and a Koran - a banned book in the movie's world. His character comes to grief with the authorities after staging a Saturday Night Live style spoof of the fascist leader Adam Sutler (played by an under whelming John Hurt). This spoof is completely unfunny, and also very American in tone. The cutaways to toothless old geezers laughing in a pub, and a middle class family at home, also loving it, are deeply unlikely, and have the effect of making the whole thing seem idiotic. Fry's character does help smooth over the jerky later chapters of Moore's version, and the film's finale is clearer and more elegant than Moore's as a result.
That said, Moore's Fascist Britain was quite straightforward and consistent: everything was banned; people lived in miserable poverty, CCTV cameras on every corner. All non-whites, all non-Christians and all gays had been murdered. Evey was moved to floods of tears by the very sight of fireworks: something she'd never seen. The movie's world is much less extreme, more like modern America, but with some extra elements of fascism. It looks like either writers and/or director decided that George Bush Jr.'s war on terror gave them an opportunity to make the their story of terrorism against an oppressive regime more timely.
The resulting mixture is confused, the story becomes convoluted to account for all these competing messages, until it seems like it takes one step forward, then two back, then three sideways. It makes no sense, but is strangely fun trying to work out the underlying rules of this world. The gaps in logic don't seem like flaws: because the world is visually interesting and strong, the logic gaps seem like little puzzles, like an invitation to join in. Like Blade Runner, the flaws in V for Vendetta are what actually make it interesting, because whilst it hints at an underlying intelligence, it never adds up. Nevertheless, it's fascinating to watch, hard to forget, and by far the most successful Alan Moore adaptation so far. 8/10
Adrian Horrocks (December 2007)
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The
Nineteen Eighty Four
A-Z of Film Reviews