But Who Will Vet our Vendetta?

We’ve all heard it a million—nay, millions—of times before. The novel was better than the movie! They totally ruined it! It just didn’t seem necessary to dumb the story down so much!

But really. Do we really think that, or do we think that because that’s what we’re expected to think?

V for Vendetta is a comic, one of the all-time greats, published serially from 1982 to 1989 and later in graphic novel form. Alan Moore wrote and David Lloyd drew, and in 2006 the Wachowskis wrote and produced a movie adaptation. But you probably know all of that already. V for Vendetta occupies one of the most well-traveled and fertile crossroads of our modern Anglo-American zeitgeist: where superhero comics (Superheroes! So hot right now), comic book movie adaptations, sci-fi dystopia, and political commentary intersect[^1]. If you haven’t seen the Guy Fawkes mask… no, you’ve seen it, you just might not recognize the name, because really, Guy Fawkes is the least important element of the whole enterprise.

But that’s only why we’re talking about it, why the porcelain mask looms, ever-smiling, over popular culture. But what does it mean? For that, we need to do some reading.

A Bastard’s Carnival

There’s thrills and chills and girls galore
There’s sing-songs and surprises!
There’s something here for everyone, reserve your seat today!
There’s mischiefs and malarkies
But no queers or yids or darkies
Within this bastard’s carnival—
This Vicious Cabaret!

I’ll go ahead and say something up-front about V for Vendetta, the graphic novel. It is pulpy. In fact, a lot of things floating about our pop culture these days are pulpy. Nobody ever seems to want to give a proper definition for pulp, instead offering the history of the term as an ink cloud before escaping into whatever it is they really wanted to say. I suspect it’s because nobody is confident that they really understand pulp. So allow me to be the first to make the attempt and die trying:

  1. Adj. Pejorative: trashy, superficial, exploitative, sensational. Among the (many) things that Serious Literary Types think is beneath them and Real Grown Ups insist that they’re too sophisticated for.
  2. Adj. Affectionate: sensational, lurid, crass, brutal, over-the-top, crude, unabashed.

You might think the second definition doesn’t sound terribly affectionate. I assure you it is.

Topic sentence: V for Vendetta is a dystopian political commentary structured as a pulp serial that unapologetically observes the conventions of the genre, and that is one of its greatest strengths. This is something that Moore and Lloyd tell us in the very first chapter of the novel. The two main characters, Evey and V, are introduced in the first page. Evey layers on the makeup and slips on a revealing dress in her bedroom while V dons his mask and his wig in a hidden parlor surrounded by bookcases and rousing movie posters. Evey attempts to prostitute herself to a cop, who calls his boys over to join in on the rape before the murder. V quotes Macbeth, literally swoops in, and saves her with tear gas and explosives.

The pulp is strong in the sexual bluntness, the in-your-face parallelism, and the classic heroics. And it doesn’t let up for the rest of the book. One of Alan Moore’s favorite conceits (seen a few times in V and several times again in Watchmen) is to juxtapose speech with action: for example, the bishop Anthony Lilliman gives a sermon about “that wrath which did rain fire from the heavens,” the text of which is overlaid on the illustration of V falling upon the guards out front of Westminster Abbey. The reason I call attention to this particular device is that it’s a helluva blunt instrument. It’s a device that is immediately and extremely obvious to the audience, and a ten-year-old with minimal familiarity with composition could probably explain how and why the author/playwright/director employed it. But we need only embrace the bluntness of the pulp to discover that not only does it successfully convey the obvious message, it also forms part of the novel’s rich thematic texture. To see how, reword what I said before about this particular device: instead of “juxtaposition” and “overlay,” think of it as “saying something while something else is going on underneath.” Put that way, it can be seen as a metacommentary on the novel itself. What Moore and Lloyd are saying, to whoever is listening, is that “things might happen in the comic, but something else is going on underneath. Pay attention!” And the ability to do this is afforded to them by the conventions of the genre and the medium they have chosen. Something that cannot be done just the same in other genres. Get what I’m saying? ¡Viva la Pulp!

And remember, too, drama of the technique. It, and everything else about this book, is striking and dramatic, theatric and vaudeville. All the world’s a stage.

So let’s meet the performers.

What An Awesome Segway That Was

V for Vendetta can be thought of as a superhero comic, but I have a feeling that Moore and Lloyd would chuckle at the suggestion. It’s more a politically grounded character drama whose dramatis personae and their relationships are the core of the story.

V, of course, is the masked-and-cloaked avenger whose character arc is the main plot of the novel. We learn a few things early on about him: he is a performer with a flair for the dramatic. He has a deep love for the arts, quoting Macbeth and Faust and even the Rolling Stones as he pursues his foes. He is sensitive to Evey’s thoughts and feelings, and there’s something nurturing about him, even despite his abiding mystique. Frankly, the more I write the more I’m convinced that V is simply the art of performance manifest.

Anyway, V rescues Evey from the fingermen—the cops—the night he blows up Parliament[^2] and takes her into protection in his home, the Shadow Gallery. Throughout Book One (Europe After the Reign), V abducts and assassinates several members of the ruling fascist party, carrying out his titular vendetta. But my favorite moment is his scene with Lady Justice atop the Old Bailey. He strikes up a conversation with her in the dead of night—himself playing both ends—and admits to her that he has been seeing another woman. That woman: anarchy.

Page 40

This scene is the decoder ring for V as a character. It’s easy to underappreciate, seeing as it’s a monologue that doesn’t seem to move the plot anywhere. But it tells us everything about V, it does so in two and a half pages, and that is so cool. First, the obvious: where once he flirted with justice, now he is wholeheartedly devoted to anarchy. Secondly: V flexes his vocabulary, turning what otherwise might be a silent, contemplative moment into a full blown soliloquy, a performance for no one in particular: V would not be V without the drama. Thirdly, the frames in the comic focus tightly on V’s mask and Lady Justice’s stone visage, as if to equate the two. The hint is that V is a symbol just as much as Lady Justice is herself—something that gets made more explicit throughout books two and three. Fourthly: V is talking to himself. Let’s not forget that. He is possessed of a certain weirdness, a madness—the madness of Hamlet and Lady Macbeth, a madness with charisma, a madness that captivates.

Now that we know a little more about V, we can begin to understand his relationship with Evey. He rescues her from the night and shelters her in the Shadow Gallery, where she gratefully accepts his shelter and comfort. He also takes her under his wing as a student, teaching her about the art lost to the censorious Norsefire regime. She is innocence rescued from the brink—the fact that V rescued her before she was able to successfully prostitute herself is not a narrative accident—and taught to live again. Importantly, despite her closeness with V, she maintains her innocence throughout the novel, including three important scenes: the first after she is made accomplice to a murder and expresses her horror at the events (she had offered to help V unaware that murder was his purpose, his only warning being a reference to Faust when she made the deal). Afterward, V lets her go back onto the streets of London, where she falls in with Gordon. Gordon is a good man at heart, but a criminal, and he meets his end at the hands of a worse criminal: Alistair. And here, the second important scene: she takes Gordon’s gun and is about to make an attempt on Alistair’s life when she is snatched from the streets again (by V, although we don’t know this at the time). Her innocence, again, is rescued from oblivion. Her last test comes after her ensuing, ahem, reeducation, where V offers to finish what he had interrupted:

Pages 176-177

What a line, by the way. “It is as easy as it is irrevocable.”

She declines. Why is this all so important? It’s important because despite that V is looking for a protégé, he is also looking for an opposite and a complement. V needs someone to create a new society in the wake of his purposeful destruction, and talks about this more and more as the end of his mission approaches and he prepares to pass on his mantle (one of my favorite lines: “But let us raise a toast to all our bombers, all our bastards, most unlovely and most unforgiveable. Let’s drink their health… then meet them no more.”). He hopes Evey will be this person, and these scenes show that she is. In true literary tradition, there are some other, visual-and-text-level struts to this complementary relationship, the biggest one being the scene of revelation on the rooftop, post-reeducation, where Evey being reborn into the rain echoes the frequently repeated frame where V escapes from his prison into the roaring flames.

As this is going on and V becomes more and more sure of Evey, his efforts to educate her intensify. He begins simply, by drawing her story from her and assuring her that the fascist thugs of the world are unable to harm her. He offers her his library, an endless stream of quotes from the timeless classics, and even bedtime stories about the Land of Do-As-You-Please. He teaches her about drama and magic. And then he does one of the most famously anti-heroic deeds in all of fiction: he imprisons Evey in a fake concentration camp. You see, V himself was forged in the crucible of atrocities that was a concentration camp, and he believes that the only way for Evey to truly learn what it means to be free is to experience what he experienced. He tortures her, starves her, locks her in a rat-infested cell, and fully convinces her that she has been captured by the fingermen and is going to be executed unless she divulges information about V[^3]. He introduces to her, through a rathole in her cell wall, a letter from a lesbian actress, Valerie, imploring her to hold on to her principles—the same letter V himself received through a rathole in a cell wall all of those years ago.

Page 160

At the end of this, Evey is faced with a test, not of her innocence, but of her resolve. She is given a damning confession to sign that will end the torture and may result in her finding work with the fingermen, or else she will be taken out back and shot. Her response? “Thank you… but I’d rather die behind the chemical sheds.”

The most horrifying part is that it has worked, and after Evey recovers, she thanks V for putting her through the harrowing ordeal. The ethical argument of whether it was the right thing to do—to deceive and subject a human being against their will to intense pain and psychological horror in order to better them as a person—is fairly well-traveled, and until we can all agree on the matters of ethical philosophy, it’s fundamentally unanswerable. But as Evey furiously struggles to understand what’s been done to her before her moment of revelation, she does have another criticism to offer V’s approach: “You’re wrong! It’s just life, that’s all! It’s how life is. It’s what we’ve got to put up with. It’s all we’ve got. What gives you the right to decide it’s not good enough?” Now, given the context of the rest of the book, I’d conclude that Moore and Lloyd deeply believe that even the most painful, ugly steps toward freedom are better than meekly accepting the comfortable evils of a fascist society. But this line is an acknowledgement that the epistemological foundation of that belief is fraught, at the least. Who are we to decide, really? V does anticipate that question, in a way—he’s bringing Evey face-to-face with the other side of the comfortable evils, so she herself can decide. But that doesn’t make what he does before she decides any less horrible[^4].

In the end, the man who goes by V dies, and Evey takes up the mantle. She dons the cloak and the mask, and she begins the great enterprise of sculpting the chaos of post-Norsefire England into the anarchy V hoped for. And in that way, V will never truly die.

To Think the Way He Thinks, and That Scares Me

This brings me to the other important relationship I want to briefly explore, and that is the relationship between V and Eric Finch. Where sixteen-year-old Evey possesses goodness and strength of spirit, Finch is much older and much more pragmatically-oriented. He’s a good man who’s been molded by the fascist society to accept the idea that order is preferable to chaos. We’re introduced very early, however, to the idea that Finch doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the ruling order. His first real conversation with Adam Susan, the Leader, in the novel goes like this:

Page 30

Finch is the investigator (“The Nose”) who is tasked with bringing V to justice after he bombs parliament. He is, narratively, in the best position (besides Evey) to learn about what V really stands for. And he indirectly admits this much, even: “Because if I’m going to crack this case… and I am… I’m going to have to get right inside his head. To think the way he thinks. And that scares me.” As befitting a person tasked to highly cerebral work, Finch is a learned man. In investigating the bishop’s murder, he demonstrates a remarkably full understanding of V’s dramatic devices. He notes that V employs a famous quote related to Charles Manson (“I am the devil, and I come to do the devil’s work”), he recognizes his reading of the twenty-third Psalm, he sees how V makes a mockery of the old doctrine of Transubstantiation, and he identifies Beethoven’s Fifth being played over the recording.

So if Evey is V’s counterpart, Finch is Evey’s counterpart, in a way. Finch represents experience, opposite of youthfulness; he represents understanding of the arts and of society; opposite to receptiveness and new encounters. And while Evey’s transformation is at the forefront of the novel’s conclusion, Finch is more the model of what it would take and what it would mean for a person who lives under fascism to turn on it and pursue freedom. So how does it happen for Finch? Slowly.

Finch’s development is set in motion late in book one when we learn that he had a romantic relationship with Delia, the medical scientist who experimented on V in the camps and who became the last victim of his vendetta. In taking the first murderous steps toward freedom, V hurt someone close to Finch and enraged him. And yet when Finch discovers and reads her journal of the ghastly things she was involved with in Britain’s holocaust, he is possessed by it. He acknowledges that it could well be a forgery, but he cannot shake the ring of truth.

Months later, after a removal from the case thanks to his inability to get along with the new, thuggish head of the state’s law enforcement (Peter Creedy), Finch procures some LSD and sets out to the remains of the Larkhill concentration camp, seeking answers. I’ll admit, my first impression of the LSD sequence was that it was a tropey self-insertion common to people who have taken hallucinogens and feel the need to evangelize their perspective-altering properties, but I now think that’s an overly cynical reading. The LSD didn’t give Finch any information he didn’t already know—this scene isn’t totally a plot convenience—but it did allow him to absorb and experience the camp, his mind already soaking with the awful knowledge contained in the journal. It also functions as a bit of a symbol for our model citizen-turned-away-from-fascism: in order to understand V and to understand the prison he lives in, he needs to partake in forbidden experiences.

Finally, now that he can think like V does, he is able to follow in V’s footsteps to Victory Station.

V, however, has already set his dominoes in motion. The final nudge was to bomb and destroy the tower that contained the state’s surveillance machinery, giving the people of London just enough wiggle room to get outside and meet each other, to begin little acts of rebellion, to come into contact with the forces of order… and for that contact to plunge London into riotous chaos. So by the time Finch arrives at Victory Station, V’s mission is nearly complete, and that is why V allows Finch to shoot him before he limps back to the Shadow Gallery to speak one last time to Evey.

What follows is one of the most ambiguous events of the whole novel. Finch genuinely celebrates that he was able to bring down V and returns to the offices of the ruling party, proclaiming his victory. He didn’t stick around to watch V die, but judging by the amount of blood left by the retreating masked man, Finch figured he wouldn’t have long to live (and he would be right). But when his assistant, Dominic, presses for details, Finch declines. Where did this happen? “I don’t remember. Must be the drugs, eh?” A frame of the Victory Station sign suggests that Finch remembers perfectly well where it happened; why doesn’t he speak? Does he not know that V has more planned, more going on beneath the station? He saw the subway car, but did he not see the explosives beneath the flowers? Does he believe in V’s purpose, but if so, why did he shoot V? Or maybe he simply doesn’t appreciate that the location is important?

I think the most likely reading is that Finch sought to punish V for his spree of murders (and conversely, V knew that he deserved it) but, beyond that, did not believe that the Norsefire regime should know more about V’s plans. Now, why Finch doesn’t believe the regime should discover the station is perfectly inscrutable, and given that I’ve been reading Finch as “the model for a citizen who turns against fascism” it might suggest that there might not be a single, easily identified motivation at play. It might be a gut distrust of authority, it might be a decision arrived at after painstaking consideration, or it might be somewhere in between. Whatever the case is: Finch, knowingly or unknowingly, allows Evey to finish V’s work pushing England over the brink and into a new era.

By Any Other Name

While all this is going on, there are two other threads I want to touch on. The first is the story of Rose Almond, Derek Almond’s wife who becomes a widow halfway through Book One. Her story is a window into the lives of the disempowered: she endures a crumbling relationship with the abusive Derek until he is cut down by V, after which she is courted by the media mogul Roger Dascombe. She finds him revolting and his advances skeezy, but in the end, she is faced with the question: what other choice does she have? She, like much of London, is dependent on the oppressive, abusive regime to survive.

Unfortunately for her, Dascombe is V’s very next victim, and soon we find out that her only recourse is to become a burlesque showgirl at the Kitty Kat Keller club, demeaning work that she hates. Again, we catch a glimpse of the novel’s thematic fabric: she’s an honest woman whose work is a performance. It’s a lurid, sullying sort of performance, but it is a performance nonetheless, and as we’ve seen, the performers and the “liars” of the novel are the ones with the purest of intentions.

Rose’s story comes to a close after her desperation pushes her over the brink and, as part of the mounting turmoil in London, she pulls a gun on Adam Susan’s motorcade and kills him.

The other thread is that of Alistair “Ally” Harper, a Scottish gangster attempting to expand operations in England. Alistair is the worst sort of criminal: brutal and impeccably mercenary. He provides an important counterpoint to the novel’s anti-establishment protagonists we aspire to, as he is the kind of anti-establishment that we hope to never meet. Ally’s thugs are roped in by Peter Creedy to help law enforcement keep its head above the rising tide of chaos in the city, making him a sort of stand-in for the idea that authoritarian governments will stoop so low. But he’s willing to betray Creedy for a raise, and he is hired by Helen Heyer (wealthy socialite and wife of the state’s chief of surveillance) to aid her bid to usurp power from Susan. When Helen’s husband, Conrad, finds out, he and Ally kill each other, completing the parable of the scheming and self-destruction of power.

One scene in particular stands out as representative of Ally’s ethic: following his betrayal of Peter Creedy, Creedy begs Ally to shoot him and put a quick end to it. Ally refuses: why waste the ammunition when his razor will do?


But the rest of us here at Culture Conquistadors are talking about Jupiter Ascendant and the Wachowskis. It’s about time I get there, too, isn’t it?

Any time a novel, graphic or otherwise, is adapted to the Big Screen, the received wisdom is that the movie is going to be shallower and in some way a disappointment to the novel’s die-hard fans. I’m not going to pretend that this received wisdom is entirely false. On the most basic level: the novel took me about seven hours to read cover-to-cover, and the movie runs a bit north of two hours. This sort of time disparity is common for adaptations, and unless there is a lot of bloat on the page or a truly unrealistic density of ideas on the screen, it’s safe to bet that the movie is shallower or is at least missing some of the threads that the original author saw fit to include.

But that doesn’t need to mean that the movie is bad or even that it’s any worse.

Accusations on that level, I believe, are often (usually?) motivated by a particular mix of childish signaling games. “Criticizing this thing shows that it is beneath my tastes and therefore that I am to be respected” is a painfully common conversational trope. In college dorm rooms, over dinner, at the water cooler, in line at the store, on internet message boards, everywhere you see empty criticisms offered by people consciously or subconsciously hoping it’ll make them look better. The other element to this is that, since books occupy a higher spot on the intelligentsia’s “culture totem pole” than movies, criticizing the movie in favor of the book also offers a convenient way to signal that one is sophisticated, a world apart from the hoi polloi at the cinema.

In case it isn’t yet clear: I find these kinds of empty criticisms detestable. If you want to engage with our twenty-first century culture/art/entertainment/pop-art by making claims about the relative merits of a novel and its movie adaptation, you’d best be able to explain how you came to that opinion or else face the towering menace that is my literary nerd rage.

So, with all that said? Yeah, the movie isn’t quite as good as the book. But! The Wachowskis went into it with their eyes wide open, and I want to argue that the decisions they made in the adaptation reveal a deep love for the original text, great care taken to preserve (some of) its messages, and great intelligence applied to the enterprise of including as much of the novel’s themes as possible.

Some quick notes on things I liked:

And some quick notes on things I didn’t like:

But, as I said before, the body of the novel is contained in its characters’ relationships. So the surest way to see how seven hours becomes two hours is to follow the characters and see how they change.

Let’s start with Evey. Evey is played by Natalie Portman, who gives, I think, a pretty great performance and a serviceable English accent in its pursuit (but what do I know; I’m hardly a movie critic or a Brit). But Evey is markedly different from the word go. Evey is no sixteen-year-old would-be prostitute with little worldly experience; instead, she is a capable young woman with a job in the media office, who is “out to visit her uncle” (later, we learn it was to pay a visit to Gordon, who later, we learn is in need of a beard. But I’m getting ahead of myself!) when she is caught past curfew by the fingermen. She is, same as before, rescued by V, but the dynamic between them is radically altered: she is not content to merely learn from him. She stands up to him more strongly than book!Evey[^5], abandoning V of her own volition after V murders the bishop rather than returning with him to the Shadow Gallery and being dropped off in London later. Movie!Evey is has a much more solid cultural footing than her comic counterpart, being able to engage and recognize V’s classic quotations rather than having to ask where each one originated.

But why is Evey so different? This kind of thing doesn’t happen on a whim. Millions of dollars and tens of thousands of man-hours went into turning that screenplay into a film; it’s unlikely that such a drastic and consistent change in characterization happened by accident. I can think of two main reasons: first of all, there is less time to make Evey’s transformation happen. In the novel, it takes Evey a full year and lots of “screen time” to transform from a scared teenager to an anarchist symbol and creative force for the world. The movie simply did not have time to do the same thing and for it to be convincing. It’s not as simple as sticking in a montage halfway through and calling it a metamorphosis; establishing elapsed time and experience like that requires tens of minutes of screen time to work. That’s a lot of minutes.

There’s a second important reason, I suspect, for Evey’s altered character: Rose and Helen. Rose Almond, unfortunately, is completely missing from the movie, as is Helen Heyer. Their absences do have the effect of changing how Adam Susan must die and how we experience the plight of the oppressed, but they also remove the only other sympathetic, living woman from the story as well as the only powerful woman. Yeah. Without Rose’s voice, the story is being told entirely by men, at least until Evey matures. Without Helen, no women in the story have any control over their own destiny, save possibly Evey. The question is, even if the movie were able to capably convey Evey’s journey as it was present in the novel, would her resolve at the end of the story make up for the first hour and a half of the movie where all of the women are either bit characters, dead, or dying? I suspect the Wachowskis chose to empower Evey early on specifically to ensure that women were not depicted merely as helpless creatures for most of the movie, and I contend that it was an intelligent, heads-up decision.

Moving on: I don’t have a ton to say about it, but I want to note that the fake concentration camp scene is lovingly preserved from the moment Evey is thrown into the cell to the moment she embraces the rain on the rooftops. It is terrible and powerful on film, and that is a great victory for the movie.

But if the earliest parts of Evey’s arc are clipped, so too is the end. In the movie, Evey never dons V’s mask. In fact, the entire end of the movie is quite a bit different. Whereas in the novel, V destroys the state’s surveillance apparatus, in the movie, V mails Guy Fawkes masks and cloaks to tens of thousands of Londoners, thereby allowing them to escape the Eye a different way. The primary motivation for that change seems to have been to allow for the visuals in the movie’s climax, where the people march on Parliament as a horde of black-cloaked Fawkeses and, as it explodes, remove their masks to reveal people of all walks of life, including a great diversity of characters who had actually died at the hands of the regime. It’s a striking sequence, but it means that Evey herself doesn’t fully inherit V. Movie!Evey speaks to Finch at the end to convey the idea that V is more than a man, he is a symbol, and he stands for everyone who has felt the weight of oppression and the call of freedom. Book!Evey understands it differently: V stands for anarchy and his work isn’t over. The people still need a V to make something of the chaos. This statement is a bit lost in the movie, where it seems more like V’s ultimate victory is sealed as Parliament comes crashing down and the people of London commemorate his brave fight by honoring the symbol of his mask.

The entire arc of the movie is foreshortened in this respect. The novel actually dabbles in a bit of revolutionary philosophy, including a frame where a woman is shown holding a copy of The Confessions of a Revolutionary, and more on the next page where V discusses the unfolding events with Evey:

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This subtlety is missing in the movie, and that is its greatest weakness. The movie retains its anti-fascist message, but it loses completely its anarchic message. All that remains is the Guy Fawkes mask, a celebration of a man who dared to blow up the government. And while that’s a fine thing to retain, it’s a damn shame that the rest is lost.

Finch’s role is largely the same in the novel and the movie, so I’ll pass on over him for now, except to note that Stephen Rea portrays a powerfully sour man. It’s a different look than in the novel, where Finch is more reminiscent of the hardboiled pulp detective, but it’s certainly not a bad one.

Gordon, however, got quite the makeover. In the novel he was an underground booze dealer that Evey fell in with, and in love with, with nowhere in particular to go. In the movie, Gordon is a comedian who runs a slapstick act for the state-run broadcasting company, acquainted with Evey through their mutual place of employment. Book!Evey accidentally finds Gordon after V drops her off on the streets of London, whereas Movie!Evey actively seeks him out after abandoning V with the bishop (neatly fitting in with her adjusted character). After a brief stay with Gordon, Evey learns that: 1) he is an art collector and possesses a Quran that would be his death if it was discovered, 2) he is gay, which would be his death if it was discovered, and 3) he has just produced a bitingly sarcastic act portraying Sutler (the Movie!Leader) as being cartoonishly unable to apprehend V. This goes on to get him thrown in prison, and as it turns out, the discovery of his Quran does get him executed.

It seems that Gordon’s character was transformed thusly to better highlight the regime’s oppression and to account for Alistair’s absence[^6]. Since this is a movie, after all, characterizing the regime needs to be done expediently and with a minimum of awkward exposition, as compared to the comic, which has the time to weave in flashbacks and recollections that won’t seem contrived. I really dig that Gordon was made into a performer for these purposes: he fits right in with the rest of our cast of performers, it was a perfectly natural role for Stephen Fry, and the Charlie Chaplin-esque satire was spot-on. On the other hand, this means that the movie completely excises the criminal element of the novel, and dadgummit, that criminal element was an important part of the greater whole! Ah, but it was less important than much of the other stuff that was going on, and so it was, sensibly, cut.

Aside from the missing themes of anarchy, V is mostly unchanged (“besides the fact that it’s about a hundredth of the weight of a lion and hunts mice and lizards instead of wildebeest, yeah, a housecat is mostly the same thing”). Hugo Weaving is given the most technically difficult role in the movie, to depict a flesh-and-blood man whose face cannot be seen for the duration of the story. He’s convincing, for sure, and his body language, stage presence, and dreamy baritone carry the role perfectly. However: the Wachowskis made some further tweaks to the character. In the novel, V is relentless, even mystical, and he hardly seems human. So far as I can remember, he shows no regret nor any signs of stopping. But in the movie, V has some moments of doubt. Evey leaves, and V angrily tosses his mask against a mirror. Evey emerges from her fake prison, and a slight yet emotive tilt of the head shows that V knows that he has done something vile. Why choose to humanize V in this way? This is the one decision in the entire adaptation that just doesn’t make sense to me. It could be as simple as that he was the male lead and the Wachowskis thought he needed a nudge in the “more likeable” direction for the mass market. Or maybe, with fewer characters and a shorter timeframe to work with, they thought that an easy way to draw attention to V’s darker side would be for him to express doubts over it. In either case, I don’t think it was necessary. The entire point of V’s character is that he’s hardly a man, he’s an idea. And they already went in full-bore on that concept with the scene where V kills Sutler and Creedy (a beautiful bit of pulp, by the way. “Beneath this mask, there is an idea, Mr. Creedy. And ideas are bulletproof!”) Why back off of it, even a little bit? We have Evey to sympathize with, especially now that she has some verve from the beginning. The audiences themselves can decide what to think of V.

In the end, what the Wachowskis accomplished capably what they set out to give us. Well, better than capably. The movie has flair. It’s arresting and inspiring, and it was executed with great technical skill and a clear reverence for the source material. I do wish they would’ve more fully explored V’s anarchist side, but maybe it wouldn’t have worked in a two hour movie or even a two-and-a-half hour movie. I don’t really know; I’m just a nerd on the internet.

In summary: Pulp genius, translated by people with a gift for it to a medium in a way that awkwardly clips its main arc.

England Prevails.

[^1] Producing some truly horrific YouTube comment sections.

[^2] In case you’ve seen the movie and not the novel: yes, you heard that right; Parliament blows up first.

[^3] One of the most disgusting details of this sequence is that, as part of her “in-processing,” Evey is subjected to what is implied to be a virginity examination. This comic does not flinch or shirk.

[^4] Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four also approaches this question. In the end of the book, Winston is reeducated, and he is happy to be ruled by Big Brother, and it is horrible. Like Moore and Lloyd, Orwell despised fascism. But I believe their works all admit that, if one’s foundation for morality is basic “happiness” (as might be suggested, for example, by utilitarianism), these appalling authoritarian governments might satisfy that. I think that idea repulses them, and they would contend that there is—there has to be—a meaning to life that runs much deeper than just “happiness.” In my opinion, they’d be right, and that pushes me toward the conclusion that what V did was justifiable. It’s a truly uncomfortable conclusion to reach. But that is the beauty of literature, that we engage these ugly questions and admit difficult things about ourselves.

[^5] My usage of Exclamation Mark Notation may or may not be primarily tongue-in-cheek. I’ll never tell!

[^6] ALISTAIR IS MISSING. UGH. Possible motives for the Wachowskis writing him out include: they didn’t have enough time to address his criminal themes (which is probably more true than I’m willing to admit); they wanted to avoid the only Scottish guy in the whole story being a murderous crook (the kind of thing that gets heavily scrutinized in big-budget movies; I don’t know whether to give the comic a pass on it or not); they didn’t have enough things for him to do in the story since he mostly interacts with other supporting characters that got cut. Ugh. Ugh! It was almost definitely the right decision, but he was such a great character. Ugh.