• V for Vendetta Redux

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    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
    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
    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

    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

    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

    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
    , 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

    were exceptionally true to the
    , and hardly suffered for having some brave ideas and

    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.

    11, 2006

    Patrick Barth [send him mail]
    is a writer in Philadelphia.

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