In December of 2001 I made a wonderful discovery and a terrible mistake: I read Umberto Eco's brilliant essay "Travels in Hyperreality" just hours before going to see the first Lord of the Rings movie. I've always wondered if my lukewarm reaction to that trilogy is as much Eco's fault as Jackson's, or Tolkien's, or my own, because while I never particularly cared for Tolkien's work I was even less inclined to like Jackson's plodding, unimaginative adaptations after reading Eco's piece, which tabulates the many forms of what he believes is a distinctively American mania for duplicates, copies, simulacra. We derive no greater pleasure, he says, than being fooled into thinking that what we see is real.
I won't pretend to be above that desire; Eco described my own tastes as well as anybody's. How else to explain my fondness for the various DC cartoons, for example? Certainly many of those episodes deliver great stories in their own right, but plenty exist only to translate certain properties or plotlines into animated form. Why should I seek out these retellings of stories I already know, unless it's because the added elements of sound and motion bring them closer to life? Add the elements of live actors and CGI and they come closer still--and the pleasure in those simulacra might have been enough to get me through Jackson's dull realizations, if Eco hadn't ripped down the curtain and exposed the hapless wizard and his one simple trick. After that, all I had left was Tolkien's beloved parable of a multiracial band of white people who form the world's first D&D party to stop the rising tide of easterners and half-breeds. Middle Earth Prevails.
It's less of a problem when I like the source material, and few works have resonated with me as deeply or for as long as Alan Moore and David Lloyd's V for Vendetta. I want to see a faithful virtualization of this work, though that's tempered by the realization that the director and producers have to make certain changes in translating it to a new medium with some very different constraints. I don't object to the rearrangement of certain events or the trimming of key plotlines (even if Ally Harper and Helen Heyer are my favorite supporting characters)--those are brutal necessities. I never expected or wanted the new film version of V for Vendetta to be a scene-by-scene replay of the comic; this may be one of Moore's most cinematic and easily translatable works, but there's just too much good material to do it all justice in anything less than a trilogy or a TV miniseries.
I was more afraid that director James McTeigue and writer/producers Andy and Larry Wachowski would simplify the comic, shying away from the more ardent, unpopular, or downright ugly parts of its philosophy. I didn't really believe the movie was going to embrace the troubling contradictions of its source until I read this New York Times article, which marked the beginning of a nine-month campaign aimed, it seemed, at slowly convincing me that this might finally be the one, the dingus, the black bird, the holiest of grails: a faithful, enjoyable, smart adaptation of an Alan Moore comic.
Let's be honest: there is absolutely no way I can evaluate this movie with any kind of critical distance. This is an adaptation of a story I've loved since I was seventeen. It's faithful enough, close enough to the source material that the virtuality effect took over and all but determined my initial reaction. So long as it didn't completely betray the material, which it does not, I was predisposed to like the movie just because I could finally see Finch and Evey and V moving and talking instead of just imagining them. Which, if you think about it, is actually far less interesting, especially when the comic so adeptly invites the reader to participate by bridging the various juxtapositions and parallels of panel, word/image, plot, and theme.
But virtuality exerts its own attraction. The film may not have a single image as fraught with arrested motion and potential energy as that panel where V is about to leap onto Prothero's train (there is one that comes close, as V closes in on Bishop Lilliman against a pastel twilight sky--maybe the only shot in the movie to duplicate Lloyd's muted palette). But who cares? This V moves. He speaks. He looks real.
So every reaction or judgment I had boils down to Was it like the comic? Or, where the movie was changed, Was it true to the meaning of the comic?
And the short answer, by God, is yes. McTeigue and the Wachowskis earn a lot of good will by preserving the comic's moral and spiritual core: Valerie's letter, and the imprisonment/torture/interrogation sequence that it's part of. That in turn preserves the horrible, unresolvable moral ambiguity that has always been one of the graphic novel's great merits. I don't mean the ambiguity of dithering over which side is right, for both the comic and the movie are admirably straightforward on this point, but of presenting in unflinching detail the horrible means V uses for noble ends. This sequence is an almost literal translation of comic to film, virtualizing the comic's harshest and most uplifting episodes. Wherever the film does so it doesn't go wrong. Well, they kept the pedophile priest. But otherwise.
Nor did I mind the necessary changes to the backstory, which update the 1982 comic's nuclear panic to more contemporary fears of bioterrorism (and, of course, gays). Alan Moore has groused that his story has been "turned into a Bush-era parable by people too timid to set a political satire in their own country" (thanks, Jog), but he's being too harsh; he would rather there be no movie at all, of course, but for those of us who are under the spell of seeing our favorite stories turned animate and concrete the Wachowskis and McTeigue have struck a good balance between making the story contemporary and remaining true to its mood and setting. (Can you imagine the uproar in Northampton if they had set it in America?) In fact, they've done exactly what Moore recommends: "set a risky political narrative sometime in the near future that was obviously talking about the things going on today." It just happens to be his story, or a version thereof.
Other changes are less necessary, and less successful. Much of the dialogue is laughable, which is absurd since this property came readymade with some of the finest dialogue available on this side of the firmament. I'm afraid it actually does require negative talent to come up with some of the lines we were given in its stead.
Evey is a more adult character now, and her class standing has been bumped up as well; she's working in TV production, not a match factory, and she doesn't have to whore herself out to make ends meet. Was this an attempt to clean up the character by wiping away any troublesome improprieties, or to pitch the character at an American audience generally more affluent than Warrior readers back in Thatcher's England? In either case, Evey is more mature, less vulnerable, and not especially looking for a father figure anymore; she never quite helps V in any premeditated way (until the very end), even working against him at one point in a vain attempt to pry herself out of his clutches.
That greater confidence means Evey can reject V in no uncertain terms after his worst crimes are revealed. This is more morally palatable for us and better for Evey, but it's worse for the plot as it means she never sticks around to learn the tricks of V's trade, or to denounce his methods once she does. The change truncates her moral development--she begins the film more capable than her comics counterpart but ends it somehow less so--and raises the question of why V needs to remold her in the first place. Worse still, I get the feeling that Evey was aged not to offer a clearer renunciation of V's actions, but to set up an utterly conventional love story between the two of them, their conflicted, moving father/daughter relationship scrapped because Hollywood can imagine no kind of relationship other than enemy or lover.
The Gordon Dietrich character works well, though, much better than I had initially feared. He is a reworking of the Gordon character from the graphic novel, classed up just like Evey from a small-time gangster to a late-night talk show host, and he's got his own personal Shadow Gallery, which makes him an even more explicit failed V surrogate. His lampoon of the government (which fulfills the same role as the illicit revue in the Kitty Kat Keller) is a one-time deal, and it has exactly the consequences we'd expect it would have in Adam Susan's England, which makes the departure from Moore's and Lloyd's vision much more acceptable. It also makes Dietrich somebody who tries to criticize the government from within the channels of respectable civil discourse; his utter failure within those channels is even better anarchist propaganda than the original.
Except V isn't an anarchist anymore. On this point Moore, Greg Morrow (providing quality film commentary over at Les Bourrus Hurlants) and I are in full agreement: the film timidly erases any hint of anarchy to promote democracy instead. It still advocates the blowing up of buildings, mind you, although V doesn't rack up nearly as much of a body count. (Except for his personal vendetta. That's still okay.) I don't object to the politics of this change, for the net results are much closer to my own, so much as the general whitewashing. The film doesn't change V's methods, it just tries to paint a friendlier smile on them.
And there are a few things to be said for the anarchist V, honesty foremost among them. The film V is just as monstrous but less explicit about acknowledging that he's become a monster; the script has none of the discussions about anarchy and order that make Eve's future role, or the dangers of V's present one, so clear. But I knew this movie wouldn't be as clever as the comic. I even knew that, despite its admirable willingness to criticize our imperial presidency and the unfortunate timeliness of its depictions of detainment and torture, it wouldn't be as outspoken as the comic.
But it looks so real.
Really, I never should have written this post. I never should have thought about the movie at all. I kept my expectations realistic until the last week or so before the release, when the reviews got so ecstatic and the defenders of torture got so outraged, and by the time I was sitting in the theater and the previews started I was fired up to love it. I was still fired up when I left the theater and started the car and practically the first line I heard over the stereo, by earlier design, was "Alan Moore knows the score." This was the dingus, or as close as we are ever going to get.
In this comment thread (scroll down), Dave Intermittent called V for Vendetta, the original one, "a young man's book, inasmuch as anarchism is a philosophy for naive young men." That might be true for Book 1, with its cool Shakespeare-quoting knife-throwing building-demolishing hero and its poisoning by communion host and its detective who actually says, without any trace of irony, "I'm going to have to get right inside his head, to think the way he thinks. And that scares me."
But Moore had already outgrown all that by Book 2, which is itself a story of growing maturity as Evey is pulled away from her childish dependency on V and forced, through the most horrific ordeals, to become Eve, who by Book 3 will not have much patience for the kind of simplistic allegories V spouts back in Book 1. Even V's platitudes become more complex: compare his tale of anarchy and justice just before he blows up the Old Bailey in Book 1, Chapter 5, "Versions" with his distinction between anarchy and chaos in Book 3, Chapter 2, "Verwirrung." Compare his absolute certainty that he's done right by Evey at the end of Book 2 with his recognition in Book 3 that his enemies aren't the only ones who have to be disposed of to build a new England.
The book continues to grow still. It's shed the circumstances of its creation, outlasted Thatcher and crossed the Atlantic to take on conservatism's newer, even uglier face. Maybe V for Vendetta has endured because the comic grows up with its readers. As I wrote last year, the seventeen-year-old can latch onto the cool slogans like "Ideas are bulletproof" and the adult can linger over Valerie's letter.
And that is the movie's most unfortunate absence. I had been afraid the Wachowskis, those purveyors of shlock gnosticism and bullet time, would produce a movie of adolescent simplicity. I was wrong: they produced a movie of adult simplicity, of revenge fantasies and revolutions made palatable for responsible citizens. They picked up after the book's moral ambiguities without really confronting them and stripped it of some vital transgressive energy in the process. They gave us Valerie's letter, and it was beautiful; but I wanted some big, bold, bulletproof ideas to go with it.