Film * James McTeigue * British Dystopia, Revised * 2006
Stories are templates. Once released into the world, stories are open to interpretation and become the property of those who read, hear, watch, or play them. A good story provides a setting, characters, and plot and then does some kind of crazy alchemy with those ingredients (turns out the secret ingredient is a lot of hard work) and then bingo-bango: a new template is born unto the world. V for Vendetta was a graphic novel published in the late 1980’s and dealt with the authors’ discomfort with their country under Margaret Thatcher and the omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation. However, time passes. I know, it’s terrible, but it happens. Fifteen years later, the world situation was in a much different place. The Cold War had ended, and the likes of Thatcher and Reagan went away and took a good deal of their hyper-conservative nationalist zeal with them. Many of the themes in the original V didn’t seem to be very relevant any more, and throughout the 1990’s must have been seen as something of a period piece. Then along came George W. Bush, and Tony Blair, and even then things might have been okay if not for that whole 9/11 thing. Immediately the tone of life in America and (presumably, I don’t live there) Britain. A few years later, London was targeted in the 7/7 attacks. That, in conjunction with the massive presence in government surveillance in the capitol (and I’m guessing a bunch of stuff that I don’t know about, again, because I don’t live in the U.K.), suddenly made a story like V for Vendetta relevant again.
Since stories are templates, reimagining a fifteen year old graphic novel about a dystopia arisen from a nuclear disaster was not much of a stretch. Obviously the danger of a nuclear cataclysm caused by warring nation-states has largely passed, but one doesn’t have to look very far for reasons to cede freedom for order. In the case of the film, the basis for the rise of Norsefire (the dystopian Nazi-esque government in charge) is a plague. So that’s different. Most of the changes made by the filmmakers are along those lines, which is to say, making the story make sense for 2006. Terrorism and the security clampdown that occurred shortly thereafter are the major concern of the story, which is an interesting conversation the film is willing to have considering that the main character, V, is essentially a terrorist. Possibly the most vital change, along with that within the character of Evey, is the humanization of V. The graphic novel depicts V as a force of nature who acts unilaterally within his own personal morality, which is to say freedom at any cost, by any means. However, this change allows the film to have the conversation it needed to have. V may be a terrorist, but he’s not the kind of psychotic monster that blows himself up in an underground station in the name of questionable theology. So that’s different.
As it happens, the major story beats are all here. If, like me, you saw the film before you realized it was an adaptation, it might be strange to go back to read the original once you know how the movie plays out. There are differences in sequence, and some conspicuous absences. That said, as far as adaptations go, I think that V for Vendetta succeeds in its aims. Using the template of the original work, the filmmakers were able to channel the spirit of the work and create something more in tune with the times.
At its heart, V for Vendetta is the tale of a traumatized individual who uses violence and propaganda as a means to achieve his goals. You know, like a terrorist. 2006 was a bad year to appear to be glorifying such individuals. Honestly, any year is probably a bad year to attempt such things as terrorists are rarely sympathetic. However, regardless of the world events that happened prior to the making of the film and the refusal of global terrorism to just fucking go away already, there is a conversation worth having here. As I’ve mentioned before, V’s morality prioritizes one thing above all else: freedom. He has no wish to subjugate anyone any more than he wishes to be subjugated by anyone else. V is not interested in order of any kind: not from your government, not from your religion, not from your so-called “casual” hipster kickball league. This purity of purpose sets V apart from the religion-motivated terrorism that had so shifted policy and behavior in world governments. Intent is important. Extremist terrorists would eradicate governments and replace them with theological oppression. V would eradicate governments and replace them with nothing.
Of course our situation is somewhat different. Real-life terrorism isn’t aimed at a dystopian authoritarian state. Quite the contrary, it seems that these buttholes are fighting very hard in order to institute a dystopian authoritarian state of their own. And fuck them anyway, because V isn’t about them. Not really. It’s about the government’s reaction to those threats. It’s order versus freedom. In the film it is a plague that spurs the dystopia to take control, but it may as well have been external terrorism, although I suppose that would have been a little on the nose. Although, I say that and it turns out the aforementioned plague was released on purpose as a means for Norsefire to overthrow society and implement their regime, which of course parallels various truther theories about 9/11. Suspicion in the wake of traumatic events are natural and is something that V for Vendetta extrapolates its story from. Conspiracy theories are dumb, but when they become plausible to a seemingly large amount of people, it certainly indicates something is amiss. Do we need a V of our own? No. Not yet, but the path is there, which is why these kind of stories are important.
Yet if V was presented as he is shown in the books, the overall message of unity and freedom might be lost. I mean, here’s a dude in a mask who bombs a bunch of stuff and murders a bunch of people, and doesn’t seem to lose much sleep over it. That’s alarming, but the reasoning for keeping V as much of a blank slate as possible is that the idea is more important than the man. This is true in the film as well, however there is an effort made to make him human that isn’t present in the book.
This humanity is wrapped up in the character of Evey, who is also a different person. The book version of Evey is kinda dumb, but very brave with a strong moral center. Movie Evey is smarter, but is a coward. Whether or not she has the same aversion to killing is unclear. In both versions, V sets up an elaborate capture-and-torture stage for Evey to go through to learn valuable V-lessons in morality. Book-Evey needs to smarten up, but more importantly needs to be reminded of her own moral center. Before she was captured by V, Evey had been ready to violate her own anti-killing code to avenge her lover. Since V needs her to be a smarter version of herself for his plan to work, he did what he thought he had to do. Meanwhile, movie-Evey holds down a decent job and doesn’t have to resort to awkward attempts at prostitution to get by, but like I said, is a coward. She tries to give V up to the authorities in exchange for promises of safety, which is both cowardly and dumb, whereas book-Evey just takes off when things become too intense for her. Book-Evey never tries to sell V out. In the film, V forgives her this transgression but still feels the need to impart the same harsh lesson as his book counterpart. After all, movie-Evey needs to smarten up as well, because no dystopian state worth its salt would hesitate at extracting relevant information and then killing its source. I mean, come on.
The final difference, when all is said and done, is V’s overall plan, and this is where V’s humanity (or lack thereof) comes to be important. In the book, V has been working an elaborate plan the entire time. It would make sense that he had to improvise in order to work Evey into those plans, but it is not explicitly stated. Book V is very mysterious, and it is constantly implied that the entire story is moving along a timeline set forth by V himself. In the book, V sets up his own elaborate death in order to hand power over to Evey, so that she can lead the people to true freedom in a non-violent manner. Even at the very end he speaks in riddles. If Evey can figure it out, she’s worthy of succeeding him. If not, fuck everyone, V’s out. In the film, V sets up his own elaborate death in order to hand power over to the people. That’s when you get that super cool final shot of all the V’s marching across Trafalgar Square and daring soldiers to massacre them. V’s final message to Evey is also very different. Instead of speaking in riddles, V is quite blunt. He loves her, please do the right thing. The difference, for me at least, is that movie-V is a human capable of emotion and error. He is also less condescending (both to society in general and Evey specifically), and is therefore more sympathetic. If the idea is the most important thing, sometimes the most effective way of transmitting it is by letting it be spoken by a relatable human being.