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So long, and thanks for all the fish!
I caught the Wachowskis’ film adaptation of David Lloyd and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta during a lazy Saturday HBO binge several years ago. Though I was loosely familiar with the iconography associated with the tale (what denizen of the internet hasn’t seen a Guy Fawkes mask here or there?), I was ignorant of the actual source material. The movie is a solid action piece, one which culminates in a knife-throwing, explosion-packed climax revealing to those damn fascists that they can’t stop a legion of V’s. Cool, but also disappointingly simple. The ruthless, antagonistic government is so dehumanized they might as well be zombies or robots (or even robot zombies). V is so crafty and cool he might as well be Batman. In a society that bent out of shape, who wouldn’t root for an enigmatic anti-hero? Especially one with Huge Weaving’s voice. Bottom line, I’d seen that story before.
So, thinking I’d somehow completed my V for Vendetta experience, I turned off the TV and promptly forgot it even existed. That is, until I got ahold of the compiled version of the comic a few weeks ago thanks to Rob.
In 1988, Moore wrote a forward that’s now included in most published versions of Vendetta. He begins by describing it as his first effort and a continuing series, one which spanned over half a decade in the early days of his career. Intriguingly enough, he effectively apologizes for the inconsistent nature of the quality of the storytelling, specifically in the earlier segments. Ironically, these earlier segments, in which V exacts his vengeance on those who tortured and experimented on him at Larkhill, are effectively the centerpiece of the movie. Moore is well known for his displeasure with Hollywood-style adaptations, and though he was writing more than 15 years prior to the creation of the movie, it was almost like he was foreshadowing its expected flaws.
V for Vendetta begins much like the movie, where straightforward evildoers (power-corrupted fingermen, pedophilic bishops, Nazi-reminiscent propagandists) are punished for their wickedness by a knife wielding badass. Beyond that point things start to get interesting. Moore’s writing and Lloyd’s artwork reaches up and pulls the high and mighty fascists down into the human world. Though still glamorized, they become real people with real problems, no longer existing as mere foils for V.
Instead of a cruel, polished leader, we’re shown a man so socially detached that he’s hopelessly in love with a machine. We see a widow burdened by an abusive relationship, unable to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. A gangster with his hand forced into too many pies. A social diva with delusions of grandeur and a husband ensnared in her web. A detective so focused on his job that he’s in denial about the wider circumstances of his nation. Does this humanity make any of them good people? Not really, but it sure as hell makes their fate a lot more interesting, especially when they turn their malice away from V and toward each other. It also lends a sort of plausibility to the dystopia.
What V ultimately achieves is destruction of England’s fascism from both without and within. His actions are no longer driven by the direct confrontation of the earlier chapters. Instead, they simply send his enemies spiraling towards self-destruction. Their individual flaws build like cracks in a wall. Once V pulls the carpet out from under their legs by quashing the illusion of their power, they devour each other while wider England tumbles into a chaotic revolution. It may not have the wiz-bang-pow of a subway brawl in which V takes out a dozen well armed fascists with some knives and body armor, but it’s very cool in its own way. Maybe even cooler.
Outside of the fascists, our protagonist and his young counterpart are also more deeply explored in the comics. V is far more aloof, making his final proclamation that he exists as an idea, not flesh and blood, seem to resonate with more accuracy. Evey is younger and more impressionable. Portman plays her part well in the movie, but the decision to have her character begin well-read and in her 20′s instead of a doe-eyed 16 year old streetwalker creates a pretty thick line in the sand. While both movie and comic Evey share her most climatic moment, the surrounding circumstances of her story, as well as Llyod’s treatment of her facial features, make her arc seem much more drastic in the original work.
The book also explores the idea of anarchy, aftermath, and society with more depth. With the movie’s decision to make all those who stand against tyranny into V is appealing, it’s also intellectually dishonest. A society filled with V’s doesn’t work. Moore seems to address this in discussions between V and Evey regarding the roses, the distinction between chaos and anarchy, and creators and destroyers. While V plucks a rose for his victims, Evey chooses instead to let it grow.
When she takes up the mantle of V, she does so as an individual progeny. She speaks to London about the finality of the previous regimes destruction, but also about what can come next, “…new life, hope re-instated.” V is not society, V is a catalyst for societal change. Ultimately, it’s the regular people who choose what happens next. To borrow a quote from another Wachowski movie, V can “…only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.”
Ultimately I prefer the comic to the movie, though I can understand why some may disagree. The movie is more streamlined, exciting, and digestible. Still, I would recommend even the most impatient reader give the original the benefit of a thorough look. The characters are deeper, the world is wider, and most importantly the ideas are given the more thorough treatment that they deserve.