V for Vendetta came out in the comic book world and the film world at two different but interesting points in an artist’s life. When Alan Moore began writing V for Vendetta (penciled by David Lloyd), his career was still fresh. However, it was about to take off with his arrival to DC Comics a few years later.
Meanwhile, Lilly and Lana Wachowski were riding high off The Matrix trilogy (despite mixed reception on the sequels) when they decided to adapt the revered classic. They tapped their assistant director, James McTeigue, for his directorial debut. They declined the chance to direct, despite having written the screenplay and even reportedly doing some second unit directorial work.
The fallout from the Wachowskis’ adaptation was Alan Moore forever removing his name from film adaptations of his projects. But why? Was McTeigue’s and the Wachowski’s film just another bad adaptation in a long line of misfires that includes The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell? Or was there something else to it?
V For Vendetta’s Origin Story
V for Vendetta was a book baked together through classic literature like 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451.
Moore rooted the story in his own Anarchist political beliefs (which is a leftist political philosophy that doesn’t mean “chaos”) and embraced the English tradition of making heroes from criminals like Robin Hood.
All the while, the dread of a Margaret Thatcher era loomed. Conservative Government hung over the creative process, which was a strong return to pre-Civil Rights and Red Scare-era politics.
The book takes place in a near-future after the fallout from a Nuclear War, Britain’s government was taken over by an alliance of corporations and fascists groups transforming the country into a new totalitarian regime called Norsefire.
The story follows a revolutionary anarchist terrorist named V, as he starts a path of Norsefire killings and bombings and taking on a new protégé. The book had a prolonged creation, unlike many comics of that era. The story did not get released in one successive run. In 1985, Warrior magazine shut down before he could finish it.
With Moore’s mounting success later in America after Watchmen and the reinvention of Swamp Thing, DC Comics started to republish the original run. This timeline allowed Moore and artist David Lloyd to finish their story.
Thatcher and Moore’s Politics
The story was allowed to bend around the politics of the 1980s. Moore’s fears were allowed to find itself more prominent within the stories. The book takes a great deal of time to detail the fascist homophobic and racial purity beliefs of the Norsefire party.
He had misgivings about the earlier points in the series, but found himself increasingly frightened by Thatcher’s administration. Writing in the introduction to DC’s new printing of the series in 1988, he wrote:
It’s 1988 now. Margaret Thatcher is entering her third term of office and talking confidently of an unbroken Conservative leadership well into next century. My youngest daughter is seven and the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for persons with AIDS.
The new riot police wear black visors, as do their horses, and their vans have rotating video cameras mounted on top. The government has expressed a desire to eradicate homosexuality, even as an abstract concept, and one can only speculate as to which minority will be the next legislated against. I’m thinking of taking my family and getting out of this country soon, sometime over the next couple of years. It’s cold and it’s mean spirited and I don’t like it here anymore.Alan Moore
Despite these fears, Moore framed his story with a sense of moral ambiguity. In over 250 pages, Moore spends a great deal of time to develop the Norsefire characters. His goal was to show the fascists are human; to linger over the violence that V inflicts on his victims.
Moore wanted to show the extreme sides of both a radical and violent anarchist movement versus fascism. He wants you to think and wonder if V’s actions are justified while also showing the type of violence that this type of resistance would take. Moore leaves a lot of the moral judgment up to the reader.
The Guy Fawkes mask in the book, with its stilted smile and permanently fixed face, lacks humanity. Without an actor providing the voice, Lloyd’s dark and murky voyeuristic framing leaves the reader with a sort of Rorschach test. It’s clear from reading into the author’s personal beliefs where Moore’s sympathies lie, but he doesn’t present any romanticism in V’s actions.
Evey’s radicalization at the hands of V is psychologically manipulative, toxic, and abusive. Evey breaks down, “You tortured me. Oh, you tortured me…Oh god, why?”
V stands tall and without movement in the background. The next panel frames his entire body still against the wall with his permanent smile and replies, “Because I love you…because I want to set you free.” It’s a creepy and cold image.
So often, some filmmakers and writers want to present moral ambiguity but still present a clear moral judgment either for or against their protagonist (i.e. Joker). V for Vendetta is there to make the readers think. How do we fight fascism? Even if it’s a political belief that the author agrees with it?
I actually don’t think it’s right to kill people. So I made it very, very morally ambiguous. And the central question is, is this guy right? Or is he mad? What do you, the reader, think about this? Which struck me as a properly anarchist solution. I didn’t want to tell people what to think, I just wanted to tell people to think, and consider some of these admittedly extreme little elements, which nevertheless do recur fairly regularly throughout human history. I was very pleased with how it came together. And it was a book that was very, very close to my heart.Alan Moore
The book, like a lot of Moore’s works, is intricately plotted, political, and challenging, not only to the reader but to the author himself. It’s an exploration of ideas and one of the best examples of comics as a medium.
It’s one of the many comics of its era that helped further legitimize the art form in the mindset of the general public after decades of degradation. Any sort-of adaptation was going to fight an uphill battle to accomplish what V for Vendetta did.
Enter The Wachowskis
The Wachowski’s relationship with V for Vendetta extended back to the mid-1990s before they had first shocked the world with The Matrix. At that point, the script was a lot more faithful. However in the early 00’s, as they were nearing completion on the Matrix sequels, the two sisters revisited the screenplay and this time developed a newly found point of view because of a new global environment.
Now coming up at the end of George W. Bush’s first term in office, The Wachowskis saw an opportunity to update the material, move it away from Thatcher-era politics and recontextualize it for a modern post-9/11 era. The setting remained in England, but the targets of the film undoubtedly were Bush and 21st-century conservative fear-mongering.
Of course, the plot was always going to be a flux in the transition from comic to film. The book is expansive with as many side plots as Watchmen. But, unlike Watchmen, V for Vendetta‘s plotting tended to focus on the side characters, that developed the Norsefire and got more into the nitty-gritty of the political backstabbing that is part of the movie but not one of the central plot points. In adapting the book, much of the plot that didn’t focus on V or Evey was easy to trim.
But the plot isn’t really what separates the two works. The main overarching plot isn’t that different (although they have radically different endings) but the change of settings and politics show why there is such a difference between the two works and why Moore has an issue with this film.
There wasn’t a mention of anarchy as far as I could see. The fascism had been completely defanged. I mean, I think that any references to racial purity had been excised, whereas actually, fascists are quite big on racial purityAlan Moore
Alan Moore charged that the film was about American Liberalism vs Neoconservatism (which should be noted is a statement based off one of the version’s of the script and not the final film which, no, he didn’t see it).
Typically when authors have problems with their adaptations it is not the plot that they have a problem with but with the ideas and characters. Moore’s V for Vendetta is rooted in a morally ambiguous battle of Anarchy and Facism (which is filtered through his own Anarchist beliefs). While the Wachowskis and James McTiegue’s adaptation has it’s own political anxieties it is a bit unclear on what political position they are taking.
It seems that the film is far broader, with its sympathies lying in many platitudes and general attitudes surrounding freedom. V’s politics are a little difficult to grasp and can be interpreted in many different ways by anarchists, liberals, or even American libertarians.
Because of this muddling, it does make the film feel not quite as hard-hitting as it could be despite such provocative imagery. There does seem to be some reluctance to name exactly what V and Evy stand for outside of opposition to totalitarianism and Dick Cheney’s neoconservatism.
The Norsefire characters are more caricatures of the Fox News variety, which makes them more satirical but less well rounded. Adding some humanity to fascist characters might seem ill-advised at first glance but it does illustrate that even fascists are people too. It is worth being reminded that even ordinary people can be driven to fascism.
It also means that some of the film didn’t age well. Lines like “ideas are bulletproof” sound well and good until you look around the Dave Rubin and the Intellectual Dark Web “marketplace of ideas” nonsense that we’re in now (some ideas are not bulletproof and shouldn’t be treated as such).
Moore’s book directly frames his ideological battle in tangible political philosophies whereas V in the movie is very amorphous and too often falls back on “muh-freedom” platitudes.
The movie also leans into ideas that Moore resisted. V is more of a classical romanticized freedom fighter. The film directly evokes classic works like The Count of Monte Crisco to draw parallels. Even at his most violent V’s actions are framed as heroic with Hugo Weaving‘s performance being utterly charismatic (which isn’t a knock on Weaving as an actor because you can’t take your eyes off the screen when he is on it).
And yet despite all of this, I still return to the film. Perhaps it’s because I saw this at a formative age, becoming more globally and politically aware during the Bush-era. Therefore V for Vendetta’s imagery and targets seeped into me.
As a film, V for Vendetta is well constructed. It starts to run out of steam by the third act, where its political pronouncements feel the most constrained, but the build-up to that is, at times, masterful. The transformation and radicalization of Evey somehow manage to remove the creepy abusive subtext from it while remaining emotionally complex, which is definitely the film’s high point.
In this scene, Natalie Portman’s performance shines at its brightest with McTeigue’s best work as a director (plus the cross-cutting parallels of Evey and V’s journey while the rain pours down on them is stirring).
The Wachowskis don’t even attempt to maintain Moore’s original voice on moral ambiguity. They shift V away from being a Rorschach test for the audience to a romantic freedom fighter doesn’t ever feel at odds with the film. This is undoubtedly filtered through a different perspective, and wholesale attempts to examine distinct topics than Moore. The film succeeds in many spots, illustrating government official’s’ relationships to the media and corporations (including the Pharmaceutical industry).
The film also simplifies some of fascism’s targets, but it does illustrate the targeting of minorities and the banning of non-white dominated European centric religions.
I also do admire that the film deliberately invokes images of Bush’s administration such as human rights abuse with clear parallels drawn between the events depicted in the film and the disturbing images of Guantanamo Bay detention center or the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. And, let’s be honest, releasing a movie just five years after 9/11 where the hero is described as a terrorist was a risky thing to do.
The Wachowskis know by changing the plotting and era that it changes the entire framing of the story so rather than fight that they embrace it.
You can view the changing of V’s character as an issue (and I sure have criticisms of the depth of the characterization) or you can view it as a necessary change; one that works better with the version of the story that Wachowskis are trying to tell.
I tend to take the latter. I prefer the book’s ideas and execution, but that characterization and ideological battle just wouldn’t work here. That difference definitely makes for a more cohesive film.
Remember Remember The Fifth of November
So while Alan Moore isn’t happy with the film and I also have my reservations about the film, it’s targets are clear and defined. It features memorable imagery (that Domino scene is always going to be awesome) and even has a few ideas that are worth remembering.
Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman do a lot of heavy lifting, and it truly is amazing to see the Guy Fawkes mask used at protests today.
Moore’s work still stands on its own as one of the great comics of all time and I do understand why he didn’t want to be associated with the film.
Despite both being very much products of their respective eras, either medium is worth reading or watching at least once, especially in times of increasing unrest and right-wing authoritarian clampdown of protestors from the United States government.