Sunday 21 April 2013

Book and Film: V for Vendetta

Remember, Remember, the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

V for Vendetta is a rare example of a story that I encountered the film adaptation before the original book. I watched the movie last November 5th, texting my sister in London who was watching it at the same time. It is a tale of oppression and anarchy, set in a dystopian England comparable with that of Nineteen Eighty Four. (I wish I'd read V for Vendetta in sixth form, to compare with the Orwell, though I have my doubts about whether a graphic novel would have been considered an acceptable literary work.) Both film and book focus on a young girl called Evey, whose life is saved one night by a masked figure called V, revealed to be a terrorist intent upon bringing down the fascist government and establishing a state of anarchy.

Though I greatly enjoyed the film, it did not escape my criticism. The setting was shown to be a twisted, nightmare version of England, both familiar and unfamiliar, but though the film shows hints, I felt that it was not made clear how the world came to this, or even quite what "this" was. The book clarifies this, showing how the England of V for Vendetta is built up from the ashes of a nuclear war that has wiped out most of the world, and while the population was still struggling to its feet amid the chaos, the Fascist group Norsefire marched in and took control. This England is a cheerless place, devoid of art, music, culture, or anything that does not further the government's totalitarian regime. The government is depicted as an all-powerful being, its departments named after different body parts: the Nose (police force), the Eye and the Ear (surveillance), the Mouth (propaganda broadcasts) and so forth.

The key to understanding the world of V for Vendetta lies in context. When I watched the film, viewing it as a work of the mid-2000s, I found it fascinating but could not identify this nation with my Britain. I hope my American readers won't take this the wrong way, but the movie felt like an American dystopia with an English setting, rather than a home-grown English story (though Alan Moore is in fact English.) Some elements of Norsefire's England struck a chord, while others felt alien. I couldn't see the progression of my country from a relatively liberal, increasingly secular, live-and-let-live nation, to a Fascist state, a place of persecution where it is dangerous enough to be white, heterosexual, meek and law-abiding - and a death sentence to be anything else. (But then, who could have seen in the 1920s and early '30s what would happen in Europe a few years later?)

Reading the novel in the wake of Margaret Thatcher's death, it all clicked into place. Suddenly the media was full of memories of Thatcher's policies and Britain's political situation in the 1980s, and I understood how Moore saw his present and projected a possible future. It's strange how much my country has changed during my lifetime, even looking back to my teenage years. Is it a better place now, or worse? Certainly I'd rather live here in this reality, even with its innumerable problems, than in the V for Vendetta version.

Against the oppressive gloom of this England, V's personal universe is refreshing, rich in the collected culture that has vanished from the world above. His "Shadow Gallery" is packed with books, paintings, records - treasures that have no place in the utilitarian world after the nuclear apocalypse. V is well-spoken, well-read, musically gifted as well as a criminal genius and deadly fighter. His cultural references range from Shakespeare to the Rolling Stones to Enid Blyton. One can't help rooting for him, if somewhat uncomfortably, considering that he is indisputably a terrorist. But if he's the bad guy, his enemies are no better, and they lack V's charm and appeal. Hugo Weaving, in the film, plays the part to perfection, capturing the character's charisma and intelligence, his almost superhuman strength, but also giving V a touch more humanity and pathos than in the comic - quite an achievement when the actor's face is hidden beneath a smirking Guy Fawkes mask the entire time.

Evey's character, however, didn't make sense to me until I read the book. Natalie Portman's Evey is a different person: older, smarter, stronger-minded; but sometimes she has to behave like the naive teenager of the book in order to keep the plot on track. As such, the character doesn't always quite ring true, and I found myself rather confused. I didn't believe in her first scenes as a desperate first-time prostitute trying to scrape enough money to survive - instead, I felt that she had an ulterior motive for being out on the streets after curfew, but this was never satisfactorily resolved. And even if V did save her life, I felt that her gratitude would not be enough for her to throw in her lot with him, help him escape arrest after committing acts of terrorism, live in his "shadow gallery" as a barely protesting prisoner, and then fall in love with him. These decisions fitted the younger, more innocent character of the novel, but not the strong-minded young woman of the film. (And I'm still not sure where her loyalties lie in the scene with the priest - who is she double-crossing there?)

But quibbles aside, the film complements the graphic novel, taking different detours from the main story of Evey and V, and focusing on different supporting characters. As is often the case, there is a lot more room for details, subplots and minor characters in the book than in the film, but in its turn, I missed some scenes and characters that were unique to the film. Stephen Fry's Gordon, for example, is a completely different (very Stephen Fryish) character than the Gordon of the book.

The graphic novel's artwork is incredible, in some places more cinematic than the film itself. I would be interested to see a closer film adaptation of the book - but even that would never live up to the movie in my mind. But film as a medium can do things that even the best of books can't - such as the exhilarating musical accompaniment to the destruction of the Old Bailey at the beginning of the film. The movie ends with an emotional (as well as literal) explosion, heartbreaking and uplifting and strangely cathartic.


  1. Great review! Ive never read the book but would love to. I live in saudi arabia at the moment, so ive seen a little of what that life could be like! Ironic really that at the zoo here they were selling V for vendetta masks so there were a load of small revolutionaries running around!


  2. Really interesting post. I'm also a fan of the film but have not yet read the book - though it is on my (ever-growing) to-read list. I'm not sure of my opinion of Alan Moore, overall, though I've read some of his other works, like Watchmen. What do you think of him?

  3. This is such an amazing review Katie! And I wholeheartedly agree with ALL of it. I enjoyed the deeper clarification of the book, and the striking visuals of David Lloyd's art, but I also thought that Hugo Weaving was AMAZING in the film (there's one scene where you almost HEAR him blushing behind the mask) and I appreciated the slightly narrower focus, reining in some of the many peripheral characters. I think the image of V with a towel over his shoulder cooking breakfast is one of my favourite movie moments ever! :)

  4. Rachel - I would be curious to see what you thought of V for Vendetta reading it with your experiences in Saudi Arabia. I've been reading your blog - really eye-opening stuff!

    Ellie - Thank you. :) The book was, of course, better, but the film works well alongside it. (And I too love V cooking breakfast - don't forget his pretty flowery apron! :D)

  5. i love the background you cover in this review, with thatcher and all.

    i havent seen the movie or read the book. for some reason i was frightened it would be horrifically violent or something (not sure where i got that idea from?)

    i really need to rectify the situation

  6. Um, well there are some scenes that are pretty violent or gruesome/disturbing, but it's not Game of Thrones or Tarantino. The violence didn't trouble me so much as some of the underlying themes, although it could be a problem for others - what do other people think?

    It is pretty dark, but makes you think. It's very 1984-ish. Interestingly, John Hurt was in a film of 1984 as Winston Smith, and is also in the movie of V for Vendetta as the leader.

  7. Really interesting post! I'm sad to say I also haven't read the novel but very much liked the film. Totally agree with all your points; particularly how great Hugo Weaving is considering he is hidden behind a mask. And I also love how John Hurt is effectively playing Big Brother.
    Have you read any other Alan Moore? I'm not sure what I think of him as I like Watchmen but was a little underwhelmed by the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

  8. If you liked the film, you'll love the book! :) I'm a bit of a comics/graphic novel newbie, and V for Vendetta was my first by Alan Moore, but I've got Watchmen out of the library and it's one of the next books on my to-read shelf. I've only seen the film of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, long before I realised it was originally a comic. I don't know how it compares with the book, but the film struck me as gothic fiction crossover fanfiction gone crazy. Fun, but a bit silly.

  9. Good to hear! Yes, same here, though I'm getting through a few. I've just read your Watchmen review, actually, and agree with your points. From what I've heard, the LOEG comic is better than the film - it is fun and silly and not bad at all, I just preferred Watchmen.


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