Now of course, it’s tricky. It’s not entirely realistic. It’s not meant to be.
—Stephen Rea, “Freedom! Forever!: Making V for Vendetta”
It’s more like 1984 meets Alien, if you want to do one of those modern meetings, than it is Orwellian.
—John Hurt, “Freedom! Forever!: Making V for Vendetta”
You may recall that V for Vendetta arrived in theaters attended by some controversy. This concerned graphic novelist Alan Moore, who so disliked the film that he had removed his name from it. Not surprisingly, the secondary materials on Warner’s Two-Disc Special Edition disclose nothing about this mini-conflagration. Indeed, the lack of discussion of this subject is deafening. According to co-creator David Lloyd, on “Freedom! Forever!: Making V for Vendetta,” “We were always aware that there was a possibility of a movie of V.” Consider the careful parsing of this observation: “we” remains undefined, the “possibility” intriguing, and “a movie” as vague as can be. “My only expectation and desire for any adaptation I’ve been involved in, is that it’s good.” And “good,” as everyone knows, is a relative term.
Joel Silver extols the genius of the Wachowski brothers, who transposed this “strange world” in stages, drafting a V script even before they wrote The Matrix (a draft that was, Silver says, “dense”), and director James McTeigue notes that in an “adaptation, I guess, there’s always things that you’re gonna have to leave out, put in, take out. So we tried to condense it, and make the graphic novel more filmic.” At the same time, McTeigue continues, the graphic novel is “very cinematic.” So there you are.
All this rhetorical angling frames the titular protagonist V (Hugo Weaving). Swirling a black cape and wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, V claims inspiration from the Catholic activist who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605. V is, as McTeigue puts it, “very altruistic and thinks he can bring about great change in the government by bringing the people together… but on the other hand he has this great murderous vendetta against everyone who’s ever done anything wrong to him.” V first appears in a dark alley, where he saves Evey (Natalie Portman) from being raped by a brace of policemen assigned to keep London’s post-WWIII curfew.
“He’s a pretty complex man,” says Weaving during an interview for the making-of doc. “He’s been imprisoned and tortured and abused mentally and physically… and then burnt in fire. So that has created a vengeful angel, if you like.” Evey isn’t immediately won over by this character, though she does appreciate being saved, of course. Repeatedly during this rescue, the camera looks up at a placard displaying the new national credo: “Strength Through Unity Unity Through Faith.” “The most interesting thing about making this movie,” observes McTeigue, “has been the chance to say something about the political climate we live in… It’s not saying, ‘This is right’ and ‘This is wrong,’ because, you know, the morality’s very ambiguous at times.”
Such investment in ambiguity seems to oppose V’s very strict moral sense, he being a victim and so a product of state and institutional violence. His rage makes him a “terrorist,” and the film argues that his violence only replicates and extends the state’s tactics. And yet, he’s intriguing and romantic, and Evey likes him. When he essentially kidnaps her—and so, she learns of his background—she puts together his pain with a recent history of increasing violence. This has been instigated by “America’s war,” referenced in the film by occasional television reports (which also show the States’ “second civil war” and ongoing unrest in the Middle East and Eastern Europe). “What was done to me was monstrous,” V tells Evey, who sees its effects: “And they created a monster.”
This cycle, as John Hurt remarks, tends to be conceived in ideological terms. As he ponders the script’s thinking on “terrorism,” he asserts that all forms of warfare are “atrocious, it’s peculiar that one form of warfare should be regarded suddenly as being not on.” While the movie allows that torture reproduces terrorism and violence, it also presents V’s own scheme as revolutionary and effectively symbolic. He says he detonates the Old Bailey “to remind this country of what it has forgotten.” A PA at the tv station that broadcasts the proudly conservative “voice of London,” Evey is intrigued by V’s promise of a new state, where information is accessible and citizens are unafraid.
Such was the vision set forth by the graphic novel, the point of departure for one of three short documentaries on the DVD’s second disc, “England Prevails: V for Vendetta and the New Wave in Comics.” Stephen Fry, who plays the closeted tv host Gordon Deitrich, says he was “really impressed by [the book’s] literacy, by the fact that the hero V quotes Shakespeare and Bacon and Marlowe and has a marvelous zest for the use of language.”
He also cites Fawkes, of course, and as the DVD’s “Remember, Remember: Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot” lays out, this background (especially helpful for U.S. consumers). V also reflected British comic book aesthetics and politics of the ‘80s: unlike U.S. comics, obsessed with superheroes, the Brits, and in particular, Alan Moore, created work that was “radically outside” and also published by a mainstream house. V was not “for children,” but was instead “very politicized,” according to the interviewees who fill in a brief comics “history” for this documentary.
Lloyd says the “original plan” for V was to have him be an “urban guerilla,” but Moore pushed for a more “theatrical” effect. The Guy Fawkes mask provided drama and a bit of hysteria. As V take son Evey as a protégé, she doesn’t ask to see beneath that mask, but instead, assumes his performative tragedy as part of his politics. The fact that her social activist parents were murdered by the government (“It was like these black bags erased them from the face of the earth”) makes her a ready candidate, but he presses her when she hesitates, in the only way he knows how, by locking her up and torturing her. The result is another seeming “monster,” though she remains a girl too—compassionate, earnest, vulnerable—which makes her able to rethink strategies as V apparently cannot.
While V is set off against a set of obvious villains—the popular conservative “voice of London” Prothero (Roger Allam), child-abusing Bishop Lilliman (John Standing), and Secret Police Chief Creedy (Tim Pigott-Smith), all operating under the auspices of the big-brotherish Chancellor Sutler (Hurt). Their oversight is not so much organized as it is unthinkingly repressive; they put their creative energies into squashing perceived opponents, and feel especially frustrated by the enduringly wily V.
Sadly, where the graphic novel was allusive and dark, the film is mostly heavy-handed. Its investigation of “terrorism” as a state product, part of a process rather than a departure, is surely well-founded. But its execution is disappointing, whether literal-minded (“If you’re looking for the guilty,” asserts V, “You need only look into the mirror”) or repetitive (a scene showing young V’s abuse is replayed several times).
Such distrust of the audience makes V‘s political and social commentary seem more cartoonish than shrewd. It’s clear that imperialism and Nazis (referenced visually) are bad. Honestly, V has no answers, and that does make sense. “Freedom and justice are more than words,” he says, “They are perspectives.” And as such, they need rethinking at every step.