April 2006

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

V for Vendetta

Warning: The following contains major spoilers for the graphic novel and the film.

So, two months ago, I really wanted to like the film adaptation of V for Vendetta. I really did. I'd had high hopes forever, I was in love with the poster art, and (a necessary requirement for someone who writes this column) I don't hate movie adaptations on principle. Far from it. I really enjoy the interplay as a plot is transferred from one medium to the next, the way a story can evolve to a new level when brought to life in a new way. After all, there is no such thing as a sacred text. Not all books are perfect, not all movies are worthless. There's value to be found in a new point of view.

I'm not Alan Moore, is what I'm saying.

However, when I finally saw the movie, I came away disappointed, which was odd given that many of my more picky fan-brothers and sisters liked it quite a bit. But the mistake I made, the critical act of sabotage in my initial plan to see and enjoy this movie, wasn't reading V last summer, knowing full well that Natalie Portman had been cast as Evey and that the story would be Wachowskied to the max -- but reading Heidi MacDonald's interviews with Alan Moore the week before the film premiered. Alan Moore was, as always, totally brilliant but a bit hard to parse, a torrent of ideas that required sifting. But through the haze of bitterness, one thing was clear: a man saying, "I made this, and it's not mine anymore." That leads to any number of thoughts about authorship and ownership, but also one particularly cold realization about this major motion picture made by a major studio based on a graphic novel written by an anarchist:

This is the story of a false revolution.

V for Vendetta, the comic, is a story about complacency and complicity -- a tale of a madman whose madness frees a nation. It is dark, gritty, harsh and totally awesome, challenging us all to step up and take responsibility for our lives and our political system. The harsh palette of David Lloyd's art is pretty mired in the '80s, but it adds to the macabre nature of V's revenge, playing nicely for the mad carnival of the story's climax. And the story manages to transcend its anti-Thatcher inspiration and take on a timeless quality; perhaps not as original as 1984, but just as ever-relevant.

The film works hard to update Alan Moore's dystopia for the aughts -- keeping now-commonplace elements like security cameras on street corners and adding the easy parallel of color-coded security levels. It's also possibly the most expensive anti-Bush Administration film made yet, barely masking its rhetoric with sci-fi viruses and a British setting. (Of course, some might argue that the relative difference between the current British and American governments is minimal, but I digress.) I wouldn't normally bring up the political angle in an analysis like this, except that to discuss V without mentioning its politics is silly, especially since, for me, that's where it truly fails.

I mean, the movie has more than a few problems. The Wachowskis might have written out Fate, the all-seeing computer mainframe, but that doesn't keep the cinematography's stark greys cut with sharp reds from stirring up unwelcome comparisons to The Matrix. And slow-mo knives were not nearly as interesting as anyone wanted them to be.

As a narrative, though, it does work fairly well; many of the things they chose to simplify, especially much of the internal politics of the dominant party, didn't detract from the main storyline all that much. I also really liked the shift of Inspector Finch from obsessed maniac to reasonably-minded investigator -- his faithfulness to the Party in conflict with his investigation of how it came to power showed us the humanity still lurking within this totalitarian world. (I was also pretty glad to not have to watch Stephen Fry trip on LSD -- which would have been silly beyond compare in a motion picturesetting.)

Really, the biggest failure lies in V's fear to really embrace the message of this story -- to rise up, to take arms. The problem, essentially, lies with Evey.

Evey in both the book and film is an audience stand-in -- starting out skeptical of V's methods before eventually accepting them and him. Whereas V's use of extreme violence makes him less than a sympathetic hero, Evey is able to be the voice of our doubts and problems, until she comes to champion his cause. But while in the book Evey takes on V's quest literally -- putting on his mask, blowing up 10 Downing Street, and leading the people of London to rebel against the authorities, in the film Evey is passive, a girl Friday whose only major decision is to pull the lever that V left for her. This lever does send a subway car of dynamite to destroy Parliament, but it's a decision that's been made for her, and one that she nearly dismisses as the destruction of "a bunch of empty buildings." It's a symbolic act, not an active one. It's the act of an audience surrogate being written by people who don't want their audience surrogate to actively endorse acts of terrorism and rebellion.

Meanwhile, outside, hundreds of people have donned V masks and cloaks, and are preparing to storm the barricades. In the film's most chilling moment, someone asks what will happen to the people in masks, and another answers, "The same thing that always happens to people without guns who stand up to those with them." Sounds like a profound and powerful scene, right? But the power behind the government has just been shut down, and when the people storm the barricades the police just let them come, not mounting any resistance. They watch Parliament explode, passive viewers of the violence, not doing anything in the face of this new world order. Their problems have been solved for them. There is no reason to act. The government crumbles, and no one really cares, and there's no sense of what will happen next, what solutions will result from the lives lost and the choices made. "Go out on the streets," the movie tells us. "Someone else will handle the rest."

The moral of the graphic novel isn't just that we must all put on the mask, but that we must all put on the mask and take action. It's a leap that Alan Moore isn't afraid to make, but the Wachowski Brothers are. And that only hurts the film in the end, which is a shame. Because in this day and age, a film unafraid to make people want to stand up could have truly made inroads with a complacent public. Instead, we get a half-decent studio picture released in March, forgotten in April, and sold on DVD in June. Nothing that'll change the world.

What it should come down to is a pretty girl wearing a cold mask, ensuring that ideas will never die. Not a pretty girl, pining for the lover she lost, claiming that he is all of us. When in reality, he is none of us. After all, he died for the cause, showed a bravery that few others do. He stood up, tall.