Fascism and the Text: Alan Moore, the Wachowskis, and V for Vendetta

After reviewing a copy of Larry and Andy Wachowski’s script for the film adaptation of V for Vendetta, Alan Moore, author of the original comics and graphic novel, proclaimed in an interview with MTV, “I’m not going to be going to see it.” He charges the Wachowski’s with turning his political fable about anarchy and fascism in a post-Thatcher England into a weak tale of American liberals standing up to George W. Bush-styled neoconservatives. Moore is frustrated, even angered by the script’s departure from his particular vision. He is generally skeptical about the capacity of film to faithfully reproduce the rich detail of a comic. He desires absolute fidelity from his would-be adapters. However, in moving from page to screen, fidelity to source material is not the only consideration a director must make. There is also the question of context, not only of different media, but also of time and place. In their adaptation of V for Vendetta, the Wachowski brothers chose fidelity to context over fidelity to source material.

Moore’s argument with the script begins with the historical-geographic framing of the narrative and cast of characters. For Moore, this must be England, and particularly England in the 1980s with Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party in control of the government and the National Front on the march. Even if one were to read the film as still being essentially about England, and not about America in English clothing, the historical reference has clearly been shifted from Thatcher and the English right to Blair and the War on Terrorism. The real issue here is more about the effects of such changes, not the simple fact of them. The American political figures referenced in the film are easy to recognize, and as such, the alleged re-framing is relatively insignificant. From this perspective, and contrary to Moore’s assertions, Larry and Andy Wachowski do not seem to have used his novel as some kind of political camouflage, at least not from Monmouth, Oregon, USA. Maybe if I were in Monmouth, UK, I’d think differently.

More importantly, the time and place that gave rise to Moore’s novel is gone. Any meaningful adaptation of the book would have to address how the world has changed since Thatcher’s Britain. Even if the film were more firmly grounded as an English story, the conditions that might give rise to fascism in England are not the same as they once were. This is clearly noted in the film through references to Britain’s participation in “America’s War” and the recent subway bombings in London. As a geographer, I would be one of the last people to argue for the irrelevance of place or spatial context. However, I would also be one of the first to caution against overly deterministic and hermetic views of geography. In the present moment, the closeness of the national governments in the UK and U.S. suggests that the political boundaries between the two countries are not so clear. Indeed, British politics have become increasingly “Americanized,” that is, more focused on personalities than ideology, and more oriented to the top of the ticket than to parties. Insofar as it implies a different scenario for English fascism than the one spun in the comic, this picture of British politics implies that the movie version of V for Vendetta is more in the spirit of the novel than Moore wants to believe it is.

However, even if one accepts Moore’s assertion that the movie does violence to his work by transforming his English story into an American one, I would argue that, in some respects at least, England and America have changed places since the publication of the original stories. When looked at through the artistic lens and speculative politics of Moore’s novel, the rise of fascism appears far more imminent today in the U.S. than it does in Britain. Consider, for example, the very notions of “homeland security” and a “Patriot Act” designed to secure that homeland. These notions provide an ideological context wherein the federal government asserts the right to engage in the covert surveillance, unjustified detention, and a virtually limitless capacity to designate people as “terrorists” and “enemy combatants.” Underlying these ideas is an exclusivist conception of American space and identity that easily evokes Nazi calls for fealty to the German Fatherland and the belief in the binding of blood and soil.

That one preoccupation of current U.S. political life is immigration, and whether “they” belong here and under what circumstances and with what rights, if any, is not coincidental. Proposals for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and for making it a felony to merely enter the U.S. without official permission are merely logical extensions of an emerging ideology built around “homeland security” and state-mandated “patriotism.” Appeals for George W. and Jeb Bush to intervene in the Terry Schiavo case signify a public mood inclined towards governance based on entrusting our father-leaders to do the “right thing” regardless of democratic procedure. The related backlash against “unaccountable” courts, and the aforementioned justifications of presidential secrecy, also imply an acceptance of government according to executive will.

The question here isn’t so much whether the U.S. is truly on the brink of a fascist transformation, but which place is more like Margaret Thatcher’s England: George W. Bush’s America or Tony Blair’s England? The conditions outlined above suggest Bush’s America. Furthermore, the question in some sense answers itself insofar as we know that the late ’90s period envisioned in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta brought Blair’s New Labor into power rather than an English National Socialist regime. What comes after Bush is still an open question. If one’s motivation for adapting the novel is to put the basic plot and cast of characters to use in speaking to contemporary political circumstances, then turning it into a comment on the U.S. is not merely reasonable, it is entirely consistent with the thinking that produced the original work.

Whether this means that the Wachowskis should have made their case by relocating the story to the U.S., as Moore argues they could have, is certainly debatable, but they would hardly be the first writers or artists to employ relocation as a strategy for addressing issues of interests without being hamstrung by the immediate reality of a given time and place. Moore does this himself by placing his narrative in the future. Similarly, Good Night, and Good Luck, which Moore cites as a more “risky” text than the Wachowski’s, addresses the present through an examination of the past.

The suggestion that his novel is essentially being (mis)used as a political shield, leads naturally to the charge of de-radicalization. As Moore puts it in the interview: “It’s a thwarted and frustrated and perhaps largely impotent American liberal fantasy of someone with American liberal values [standing up] against a state run by neo-conservatives — which is not what V for Vendetta was about. It was about fascism, it was about anarchy…” Part of the difficulty here obviously lies in how you define terms. As the above sketch of U.S. political culture suggests, the line between “neo-conservative” and “fascist” is arguably in the process of thinning. Another lies in the figure of V.

It is true that the V of the novel is more harsh and cruel than the one in the film (Hugo Weaving). However, his philosophy of anarchy is not particularly sophisticated, and essentially amounts to, “out of destruction comes creation (I hope).” In the end, even given that V has been smoothed out in the adaptation process, I’m not convinced that many of those edges were all that significant. The difference between the two is more a question of emphasis than one of absolute distinction. In both versions of the story, chaos is a means to an end of popular resistance. In the novel the emphasis is on the former, while the film chooses the latter. If there is a softening of the narrative, and the character of V, I think that it has more to do with how the film handles two other players, Evey and the general public, than it does with the characterization of V proper.

In the novel, Evey is naïve, not particularly resourceful, and prone to whining and wheedling. She is constantly pleading with V for enlightenment and simple solutions to her problems and discomfort. In the film, as played by Natalie Portman, she’s far more worldly and self-reliant. She demands answers rather than pleads for them. However, by making Evey so ripe for politicization, much of the drama is taken out of her transformation. Most importantly, it makes V’s use/abuse of her seem less of a transgression than it does in the novel. Like Evey, the general public in the film are much more primed for change and political action that they are in the novel. Indeed, the novel only implies an eventual uprising against fascism. It does not go so far as to show it happening.

In presenting V with a ready and willing disciple, and a general populace ready to be turned into a movement, the film changes the terms of battle. And here Moore may have a point. If the novel is about the responsibility that people have for their own freedom or oppression, then the film certainly does alter the print narrative. In Moore’s England, the people choose fascism and order over liberty and uncertainty. In the Wachowski’s, and director James McTeigue’s, they are duped into doing so. Does this let the people off of the hook? Maybe. Does it make change too easy? Again, maybe. The fact remains that, lied to or not, in both book and movie people are willing to believe politicians who tell them that a) various Others (homosexuals, Muslims, “terrorists”) are responsible for whatever sucks about their life and b) protection from said Others can be bought for a little freedom (and a little more, and a little more…). More significantly, both book and film ultimately rest on the hope that the people will eventually wake up. While Alan Moore the author may be less than sanguine about the possibility of a popular revolt, his hero, like a good 19th century anarchist, clearly hangs onto a belief in the people’s will to freedom and the capacity for the “propaganda of the deed” to unleash that will. The Wachowskis are willing to show V’s hopes fulfilled, while Moore is not. The hope remains the same.

The real target of Moore’s concern may not actually be the Wachowski brothers or film makers in general, but movie audiences. In the MTV interview, he explains his disillusionment with film:

My position used to be: If the film is a masterpiece, that has nothing to do with my book. If the film is a disaster, that has nothing to do with my book. They are two separate entities, and people will understand that. This was very naive because most people are not bothered with whether it’s adapted from a book or not. And if they do know, they assume it was a faithful adaptation. There’s no need to read the book if you’ve seen the film, right?

For Moore, books are a medium that the reader controls. Film is one where the author controls. As he puts it, “One of the things I don’t like about film is its incredible immersive quality. It’s kind of bullying — it’s very big, it’s very flashy, it’s got a lot of weight and it throws it around almost to the detriment of the rest of our culture.” He further describes movie audiences as “being dragged through the experience at the speed of 24 frames per second.” Within this view of film, the problem becomes not so much one of how a book is adapted, but that audiences aren’t sophisticated enough to appreciate, care about, or even realize the differences between movie and print versions of a story.

The question left unasked is why it should matter. If film and books are effectively separate works of art, regardless of the translation of one into the other, isn’t it reasonable to assume different audiences with different expectations for each? More to the point, if a film must be a “faithful” adaptation so that audiences aren’t seduced into thinking that they’ve “seen” the book when they really haven’t, doesn’t that actually leave less of a reason to seek out the print form? Faithfulness in page to screen adaptations is far more complex than just print equals good, film equals bad, or book author right, film author wrong. There are also always questions of context: artistic, social/political, time and place. On all sides — conception, production, reception — contextual differences shape the choices that authors/artists make when adapting works from one form into another. The film version of V for Vendetta may be less than faithful to Alan Moore’s comic and his sense of authorship, but it is faithful to the political world in which it was created. In that sense, rather than killing the text, the Wachowski’s have given it new life and relevance.