V For Vendetta is the best ever film adaptation of an Alan Moore work, though I concede that this is a dismally easy target to hit. Actually, I shouldn’t be so quick with the categorical statements, because I never saw From Hell. Still, even if it was three times as good as Swamp Thing, or especially the utterly wretched League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I think I’m on safe ground. I read the graphic novel several years ago, and I’m not terribly gifted with a strong memory for things I’ve read, so I went into the movie with only faint remaining impressions of the plot and characters. I think this circumstance served me well — looking back at the book, I’m reminded that it’s much tougher and edgier than the movie, though I suppose the movie is fairly edgy for a mainstream studio picture. Also, the movie is a radical rearrangement of the book, with characters altered, subplots added and removed. I didn’t remember this when I watched the film — I just recalled pieces of the book as they cropped up in the movie’s plot. I’m glad the graphic novel wasn’t fresh in my mind, because my sketchy memory allowed me to enjoy the movie on its own terms.
There’s lots to enjoy, too. The visuals are as arresting as you might predict from a Wachowski-influenced production, and all the principal actors are excellent. Hugo Weaving is certainly the most technically impressive for delivering an emotional performance with his face entirely obscured throughout the whole movie, but Natalie Portman really sells Evey’s emerging core of strength, and Stephen Rea’s lived-in decency felt spot on for the movie’s version of Finch. Most importantly, though the film smooths out many of the book’s edges and drains some of its ambiguities, delineating heroes and villians much more sharply than Moore does, I think it largely keeps true to the tone of the original comic. In particular, the fact that the film retains V’s elaborate deception and torture of Evey, along with the Valerie story, means to me that the core of the original story is intact. Moreover, some of the changes that the film does make are excellent choices — for instance, trading out the Voice of Fate for an O’Reillyish talk-show demagogue gave the story a fine modern-media sheen. Also, changing “purity” to “unity” in Moore’s dystopian motto (“Strength through purity, purity through faith”) provided a nice echo to the “United We Stand” stickers that are on every third vehicle out here.
In fact, the movie demonstrates a deep consciousness of 9/11 and its implications, which the book obviously couldn’t have, published as it was in the late Eighties. Most blatantly, the screenplay injects a conspiracy-story wherein the British government leapfrogged to tyranny by causing a horrific outbreak of disease and blaming the casualties on terrorists. Riding the resultant wave of fear, and conveniently having in hand the plague’s cure, the film’s main villain acquires both absolute power and immense wealth. The new subplot dovetails ingeniously into the story, as the disease is a direct result of the experiments that created V himself. The message is quite clear that massive catastrophes are terribly fertile ground for exploitation by those who seek to gain power through manipulation of fear, so much so that if such people were extremely unscrupulous, they might seek to cause the catastrophe themselves. In the case of the movie’s plot, the outbreak itself was accidental (though it was the result of horrifically abusive government experimentation on marginalized people such as gays and lesbians), but its exploitation was quite calculated. The parallels to 9/11 and its aftershocks suggest themselves rather insistently. Now, I should make clear that I do not believe the September 11th attacks were instigated by the U.S. government. However, it’s hard to avoid the fact that those attacks were just about the best thing to ever happen to George W. Bush, and that the Republican party in general has gained enormous traction by exploiting the fears those events revealed. V For Vendetta is largely about fear and its relationship to freedom; that analysis is more timely than ever. Despite its dilution for consumption by the masses, its message remains potent and welcome.
One thing did bother me, though, which is that the movie seems far too in love with its own violence. Again, this is a Wachowski trait — the third act of The Matrix is basically straight-up gun porn, in my opinion. I was okay with the big explosions of empty buildings in V For Vendetta, but I could really have done without V’s final stand. In this scene, V suddenly reveals himself as a badass knife fighter, and the points of his whirling blades leave sparkling traces in the air as they arc magnificently towards people’s heads. Blood geysers into the air, lovingly photographed in slow motion as victim after victim falls to a gruesome end. It is repellent, but the film tries very hard to make us feel like it’s cool. I suppose that there’s an argument to be made that the reason this fight scene is so gory is to remind us of the ugly visceral results of the violence that V advocates, but I don’t think so. The knife-trails are too reverent, the close-ups too breathless. No, the film has just fallen into the deep rut of Hollywood-actionese as V wades through minion after minion to get to the level boss, whom he strangles cathartically. After all the time the movie spends making him a complex character, one in love with art and culture, it reduces him to just another action figure superhero at its end.
By the way, the book’s version of that last stand? Finch shoots V four times, and V throws one knife back, hitting his target in the shoulder. Then V bleeds to death as he walks home.