V for Vendetta Redux

If I could say one thing about V for Vendetta to a fan of liberating ideas or dystopian narratives it would be this: if you still haven't seen the movie yet, don't waste another minute reading this review — go read the book right away.

Suppose I unwittingly stumbled upon the Cliffs Notes version of a great literary accomplishment with socially important ideas to impart. I might admire its contents, though I would remain unaware of the artistic power of the original work or its more sophisticated communication with the reader. And suppose a big-budget Hollywood action movie were made of a screenplay drawing upon those Cliffs Notes, but making unnecessary changes, leaving only some of the artistic worth and substantive ideas discernable. If I walked into the movie theater without prior exposure to the story besides some affinity for the spirit it conveys, more or less, I wouldn't become enraptured, but would probably think it was a pretty good movie. Certainly, an important movie, a movie people should see.

That movie is called V for Vendetta, after the original graphic novel by the same name. It is a movie one enthralled libertarian reviewer mistakenly called "without compromise." At the risk of raining on the enthusiastic, uncritical endorsements of ideological reviewers just as hungry for really heroic drama as V's London, and usually ignorant of the original story, I would like to put forth a contrary view. You could call my analysis a postmortem of V.

Of course as far as I know there were no V for Vendetta Cliffs Notes involved, but the screenplay shows that sort of detachment from the original work. Were the original any old "comic book" this might not matter, but V for Vendetta had an exceptional and uniquely subversive story. Libertarians, anarchists, friends of freedom, those who favor subversive or unconventional thought, and those who can appreciate superior art or intellectuality will find the book much more satisfying. Those who have seen the movie should read on if they remain skeptical. (Note: I won't concern myself with plot summary which you can find in any other review, but you will encounter limited spoilers below.)

I hasten to say that my objections won't include the reason some reviews panned the film, supposed endorsement of "terrorism" or any such rubbish. Let me state clearly that I'm glad the Wachowski brothers wrote and produced this movie, and I hope (although I doubt) it will have considerable impact. Getting even vaguely libertarian-anarchist ideas out there is better than not propagating them at all. But that was not the dilemma in this case. These highly influential filmmakers can get their way, and they chose to take on the task of bringing a great, uniquely subversive, classic graphic novel to the screen — which is to say not just anything would do. If the story of V's justice has importance, then doing justice to V has importance.

In this project, the filmmakers would have to not only fittingly adapt the book's story to a screenplay, but also stage its static visuals, drawn by David Lloyd, in a dynamic medium. Often the latter ruins the charms of the source material. However, this was a book which was always more laudable for its composition, language and storytelling, which should have been adaptable to the screen. The greatest art of V for Vendetta was in my opinion not in the drawings. In other words, the presentation could have been reimagined effectively, provided the filmmakers understood the power and subtlety of the original. The difficulty came not with the leap from graphic novel to film, but with the storytelling and story itself.

And when you take on such a task as a screenplay for V for Vendetta, you do have something of an artistic responsibility, I feel, to convey the work as faithfully as possible in its adaptation without too many unnecessary changes, and certainly none that make for a less effective end result that the original story would have produced. I also feel that since the Wachowskis can almost do what they want in big-budget filmmaking, and could write and produce a controversial and (these days) even counter-cultural film like V for Vendetta, they have inherited a responsibility with their opportunity, to do the damn thing right if you're going to do it at all.

Some may say I am taking a movie too seriously. I disagree. These days, the dystopian tradition and method of storytelling may be the only one capable of describing where our world is heading and why, and communicating it to enough people in a popular medium, with content intact. These stories must be told authentically and thoroughly, with a proper understanding of subject and style. This is difficult, as I know from my own study of this tradition and my own project to convey a dystopian future in novel form. But from creators behind critical work, an audience should demand a deep commitment to excellence.

So how well did the Matrix duo do? Significantly, V for Vendetta author Alan Moore removed his name from the project after early involvement. He did this for fairly substantive reasons, not simply on a whim. One has to be very charitably-disposed toward the film, or else insensitive to some of the delicacies of the original story to approve of the conversion (not having read it is one way). Besides those with statist biases who have understandably hated the film for their own reasons, I must say I have been disturbed by the lack of others' disappointment for the substantive reasons that I will discuss below, a response which to me evidences a lowering of standards due to desperation with popular culture.

We might have expected the Wachowski brothers to return to their Matrix habits and emphasize overdone action sequences. Check. But unfortunately they also continue to qualify themselves to teach film classes on how not to write screenplays. I had hoped they had learned from their mistakes with the second and third Matrix movies, but alas, the pattern continues. Watching the movie, early on I felt as though they had taken key scenes from the book and rearranged them in random order. Worse, they still don't have any knack for pacing their storytelling. Much of V for Vendetta the movie feels rushed or crammed in compared to the book, which unfolds with competent precision. The impression the book thereby cultivates of initially-planned yet organic progression is crucially symbolic of cultivating spontaneous order as V does, but in the movie this is reduced to moments of vague monologue given to one character, probably because the Wachowskis have no idea how to convey it in the structure of their movie. Frankly, I doubt they understand it, either. (I suspect that like the Matrix Trilogy's unsatisfying navel-gazing, they want to hide their dodge of the philosophical subject matter itself with a cloud of awe and mystery about it. But that's my admittedly uncharitable speculation.)

Some of the most striking, affecting, and significant scenes are still ripped from the book, but dashed off. I grew particularly annoyed at the injustice done to the sequence depicting the imprisonment of Evey, and her reading the heartbreaking yet triumphant message from the next cell. A climax from this sequence in the book has been condensed and rearranged to hit almost immediately, with far less power (lines about "the last inch of us"). The whole sequence, critical to the story, feels edited and rushed compared to the book's elegant pacing. This is the kind of signature sequence someone as competent as Peter Jackson would have known to polish to perfection, until at least the significance of every word and moment was retained on the screen if not the exact language, despite the editing that must occur during the adaptation of any book to film.

In this case, what was removed from the story to make way for the screenplay was simply unbelievable to me. Sure, I had expected that no Hollywood film was going to show a character dropping acid in an ex-concentration camp. (A concentration camp, sure, but dropping acid?) Naturally, that sequence featuring the investigator Finch getting into the mind of the "terrorist" V was not featured, as I had predicted. But really puzzling, from the book the filmmakers had among other provocative things a fascist cabaret as a significant setting — a gift to sex-and-violence ticket sales — and didn't want to show it? The character of Evey was originally a would-be prostitute, by the way. All told, for some reason the Wachowskis, infamous for pushing sexual boundaries on and off the screen, almost completely bailed out on the themes of corrupted sexuality and corrupted relationships so necessary to the plot of V for Vendetta. But then, they seem not to have understood how to show a dystopian society's socio-cultural decay to accompany its political centralization, or why it's so important to show the two together — they always go together. Nor did they effectively stage the progressive calcification of that society, for that matter. V the movie is largely composed of events logically unconnected except through conspiracy theory and implausible plot. But a dystopia doesn't simply happen, nor does it require conspiracy. The achievement of the book, on the other hand, was to communicate a dynamic, interconnected and meaningful context throughout.

Speaking of the setting, charming and authentic British localisms were lost as well due to the screenwriters' poor acquaintance with British culture, something Alan Moore himself drew attention to in an interview. (Apparently, before corrections the screenplay was more embarrassing in this regard.) This in itself is far from unforgivable. But just to set the record straight about one example from the film: the British do not universally find Benny Hill funny. Rather, including a Benny Hill style sketch was instead an inappropriate, and groan-worthy way to send up fascist authority in a stereotypically British manner. (Those Americans interested in really hard-hitting satire from modern Britain should acquire Brass Eye on DVD. You'll be shocked; The Daily Show it isn't.)

However, as a writer of dystopian fiction myself I was interested to note the book's approach of cultivating such distinct hereditary Britishness, and even an old-fashioned feeling now and again. Instead of being obsessed with present-day, Americanized relevance to current events, the authors spent a great deal more effort on seeming ageless, or at least drawing upon references from throughout British history. Evidently the authors felt it important to connect a dystopian world of the future to established history, even grounding it in a certain hominess. It's just possible that the film misses something universal in its hurry to cram in current events from Hannity-style punditry to the avian flu pandemic, something which would have made the message more accessible after this particular moment in short-attention-span theater.

Worse among the omissions, however, is the short shrift the script gave to the main characters' development. The depth and complexity of V's many sides — trickster, poetic wit, mentor, prisoner, madman, theorist, idealist, revolutionary, iconoclast, fugitive, killer, deceiver, hero, villain, torturer, rebel, friend — in short, one rich character — generally cannot be found in the movie. To cover up their ironically comic-book caricature, the screenwriters even resorted to giving V amnesia! The movie's Hollywood idea of substitute complexity seems to have been adding doubt and weakness in the face of an implausibly-staged love affair, regardless of the fact that doubt and weakness are things V does not show in the book.

The absence of Evey's development also disappointed me. After her imprisonment, it seems as though the film loses interest in what happens to her, until she resurfaces at the end to play a minor role. The book however follows her consistently throughout her change under V's wing from fearful, typical citizen to active heroine and free thinker. She represents everyday people becoming extraordinary people up to the challenge of living free despite any restraints, a transformation V underwent as well. The movie can't portray this because, having bowdlerized Evey to a degree in the first place, and having put her at odds with V as often as she helps him, it finally drops what's left of her original story like a hot potato partway through, and shows mere excerpts which fail to represent her life.

This is not even to discuss casting, which by and large was tolerably successful despite Natalie Portman. Let's be fair though, in playing Evey she pulls off a job almost beyond her talents. Unfortunately, her talents are not nearly sufficient for this role, which is challenging to say the least. I would prefer to blame the directing as well as the casting. Thereby we nearly lost the remainder of the metamorphosis so ably depicted in the book. A stern Natalie tells us early on, rather than showing us emotionally, she is weak and impotent before events. Also she can hardly become the heroine she does in the book, when her performance changes little from the beginning to the end. Instead, we are told how much she has changed, a cardinal mistake. Never mind, because most of the continual metamorphosis of Evey was never translated into the screenplay anyway, not her training or education under V, and not her final role, which is truncated to one gesture and a mere intimation of what the book carries through. As far as the case for blaming direction, note also that dictator John Hurt (who starred in the fine movie version of 1984), certainly an old hand at a sophisticated performance, was apparently directed to blather venomously into the camera (with visibly nasty teeth) and nothing besides. "The Voice" too, was reduced to a talking head too egomaniacal and racist for Fox News. The book had the subtlety to portray unappealing characters as faulty but genuine people. We also lost the inspired "body politic" Leviathan-style metaphor from the book somewhere there, in which the Leader is just part of the system of various "body" parts, who just happens to be its head.

To replace all these losses, we got a number of changes. Some of these were not unwelcome. The attempt to contemporize the narrative, while pursued with excessive zest perhaps, wasn't a terrible idea by any means. It's undeniable that certain elements of the graphic novel, which was created in the Thatcher 1980s, seem a bit out of date today. All in all, I prefer the original setting with its various anachronisms intact (plus a few elements of science fiction ahead of their time). But this is a matter of taste which those not as accustomed to drawing out the essentials from an analogy may not share. It's quite possible that the insertion of biological terrorism as a lever for fascism (rather than nuclear war, fallout, and poverty) makes the film that much more accessible to present-day moviegoers. On the other hand, the movie makes it sound as though a fascist order requires such a flamboyant conspiracy as a faked terrorist plague in order to emerge after the strain of a war; in reality, a building falling down goes a long way in either New York or Berlin, showing just how precariously some sort of liberal balance totters in any State.

In fact the screenwriters rather seriously confounded other matters as they carelessly altered the Larkhill concentration camp portrayed in the book to add biological terror to the plot:

u2022 Biological weapons development isn't likely to be done at internal concentration camps, for the simple reason that they are not outfitted for mass containment of organisms smaller than a person. When the Imperial Japanese Unit 731 did use Chinese, Koreans, and prisoners of war for (now relatively primitive) testing in Manchuria, they saved the most virulent experiments in biological warfare for the field, as contagious diseases tend to escape control. They did not care about this the way the British would on British soil, but the pathogens still put personnel at risk at the time and seeded localities with deadly biological contamination to this day. In any case, there's no indication of such dangers in the movie, or suitable containment of the mysterious pathogens in use.

u2022 There's no chance of accidentally augmenting someone during bioweapons testing. This bizarre revision of the book's original plot point insults common sense and runs contrary to the point of biological testing being monstrous. (Apparently, it can make a superhero?!) Deadly diseases such as rabies, anthrax and hemorrhagic fevers do their work very efficiently, and certainly intentionally-engineered plagues must be even more deadly to test subjects (as was the case with Unit 731's anthrax strains). They do not randomly produce eugenic effects. As a matter of fact there would be only a slight chance of survival from the worst diseases without serious damage.

u2022 It makes little sense that V would have burned himself while setting the destruction of the camp (a scene more clearly depicted in the book). He's trying to escape, and he's a genius, not clumsy. Like rendering V emotionally vulnerable, this is probably another occasion of Hollywood's concept of humanizing characters — by making them faultier.

So, some of the changes dumbed down or hobbled V for Vendetta, and some were just unwise, incompetent or ridiculous. But for those who want something more meaningful from a film than entertainment, it gets worse.

I find it ironic that this movie receives such praise from anarchist and libertarian circles. I attribute this to how few glowing reviewers have read the original, and to their desire to "read into" the movie, if you will, their entire education in freedom philosophy. The fact is that the movie considerably alters and waters down the unapologetic anarchism and individuality in the book. The Wachowskis, too poorly versed in anarchistic theory to handle it in their screenplay or unwilling to preserve it, made V into a circumstantial oppression fighter instead of a universal anarchist. The distinction is important. The book's V understands that government's attempts to stabilize and control tend towards fascism and oppression, and promotes the generation of spontaneous order instead. The movie's V seems to be fighting because a particular party perpetrated a heinous conspiracy, thereby corrupting the nation's government.

The screenplay excises the vast majority of references to anarchism besides the "blow things up" definition. The book has pages and pages of delightful, quotable, well-written, thought-provoking dialogue on subjects such as voluntary order versus chaos, the poverty of justice without freedom, society as creative collaboration, prisons of mind as well as body, and most of all, uncompromising self-expression. We don't often see such a happy union of unadulterated liberating philosophy and persuasive artistic talent. Much of it could have fit rather neatly into a faithful movie version. The filmmakers wouldn't touch it without a ten-foot pole — a trace here, a hint there — and a great opportunity was lost.

As far as individuality — the message of the story was not supposed to be something like "we're all V" as the movie's end suggests; V is not just the vanguard of a "mass uprising" of impersonal forces. The original V for Vendetta is clearly an individualistic story, about the importance of differences in various senses — intellectual, behavioral, personal, psychological, physical, racial — as opposed to enforced uniformity or conformity. The realistic need for singular individuals in the revolution is clear as day in the book. (That's why some socialists have sniffed at the "elitism" in the movie; some of this ethic has survived.) This is V's rebellion, picked up by the populace only by following his example. The future will be significantly guided by Evey, et al. What happens will be the result of voluntary order generated by individual acts, a condition of supposed "chaos" if order means regimentation. Therefore, the movie's end which has thousands of Londoners dress in V masks (and robes and hats — where did those come from?), and march en masse as though in uniform is a presentation contrary to the theme. To avoid spoiling the ending of the original any more than the movie has, I will simply say that what would have been more fitting happens in the end, instead of a mass-regeneration of V.

V should have been treated better, and in better hands, could have been. V boldly serves just ideals, but this doesn't mean any treatment of the story is just fine, because we sympathize. It should mean that even more than other stories, those not so bold or so just, V deserved a just treatment. Judging from the reactions to, and tempered popularity of the film thus far (a moderate, transient box office success coming from such massively famous filmmakers), its compromises did not succeed in furthering the cause of freedom by capturing imaginations. For in terms of both substance and sensation, this movie pulled its punches, just like a hundred film adaptations of forceful and profound works in years past. Two examples which come to mind at the moment are Steven Spielberg's neutered version of J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, and the dull film of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, neither of which had much left to impart, or much impact. V for Vendetta will likely join the forgotten pile in time. As a counterexample the vastly popular Lord of the Rings films were exceptionally true to the source, and hardly suffered for having some brave ideas and ideals.

Instead of being impressed by halfway efforts that we tell ourselves had to be done that way to be popular, perhaps we should remember that we do indeed want to rise or fall on the strength of our ideas. Let's encourage creative work to communicate the full substance and passion of our principles, in ever more capable presentations. Even in these dark times, let's not be so desperate for popular culture to communicate liberating ideas to the public that we're willing to cheer a work that reached not half of its potential impact, nor maintained its artistic integrity. Even in the cause of liberty, especially in a cause so important, the muse should have her standards and keep her honor intact.

April 11, 2006

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