Who Was That Masked Man?
By Pádraig Ó Méalóid
Put simply, V for Vendetta is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Its impact on me when I first saw it was such that I found myself in tears almost continually from beginning to end. On the other hand, I can give you a very good argument as to why the film should never have been made in the first place. More on that later, after a quick synopsis of the film.
The setting for V for Vendetta is Britain in the near future, with a far-right, fascist regime in charge. After a brief piece about Guy Fawkes, presumably for the US audiences, who may not have heard of him, the film starts with Evey Hammond, a young PA for British Television Network, going out to keep an assignation with Gordon Dietrich, one of her superiors at work. Evey knows she will be out after the 11:00 pm curfew, but decides to take a chance anyway. She is soon in trouble with the Fingermen, this government’s version of the secret police, and is about to be raped and probably killed, when a mysterious figure, wearing a cloak, hat, and Fawkesian mask, appears, kills her attackers in spectacular fashion, and introduces himself with a long monologue largely consisting of words beginning with the letter V. This is worth repeating here, not only because it more or less sets out his basic motivations, and because I’ll want to refer to it later, but because is also quite a decent piece of writing:
"In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished; a vital voice once venerated, now vilified. However, this valorous visitation of a bygone vexation now stands vivified, and has vowed to vanquish those venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violent, vicious, and voracious violation of volition. The only verdict is vengeance. A vendetta, held as votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and virtuous. Yet verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that it is my very great honour to meet you, and you may call me V."
V then brings Evey up to the rooftops of London, just in time for him to conduct an imaginary orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which starts playing over the city’s ever-present loudspeaker system, and which climaxes with the explosive destruction of the Old Bailey, complete with fireworks, just as Big Ben strikes midnight. The date is the fifth of November.
Within hours, the government’s various agencies are trying to get to grips with the situation. The Finger, in charge of security services; The Eye, in charge of visual surveillance; and The Ear, in charge of audio surveillance, are all trying to find out what they can. Two further agencies, The Mouth and The Nose, in charge of propaganda and criminal detection respectively, attempt to deal with the situation in their own ways. The Mouth releases a statement about a scheduled nighttime demolition of what was a dangerous old building, with the fireworks put down to high spirits by one of the workers. In the meantime, Eric Finch, once a policeman but now reluctantly in charge of The Nose, is trying to find the culprit using good old-fashioned police work. From this point, the film goes into high gear, and simply never stops until the very last shot. To say more than that would simply be giving away too much. Along the way it has time to be a political thriller, a detective story, a conspiracy theory, and a love story, of sorts. It’s possibly even a SF story, if the fact that it’s set in the near future is enough to allow it to qualify. It seems to be influenced by all sorts of things: obviously the original graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, but also by things like 1984, Beauty and the Beast, The Count of Monte Cristo, and of course the story of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. It’s also, of course, a product of the times in which it was made, in the same way the original story was a product of its own times. And it’s really, truly, absolutely, one of the finest things I’ve ever seen on a cinema screen.
From this point on, I may be revealing more about the film than you wish to know at this point, but I’ll do my best not to ruin any of the actual surprises. None the less, you have been warned!
V for Vendetta is the story of a year in the lives of three characters — V, Evey, and Finch — and the world in which they live. All three will be transformed by the end of it, and the world they live in will be transformed also. V starts by seeking only revenge for his hideous treatment twenty years before, and finds compassion through love. Evey wishes not to live in fear any more, and finds strength through revelation. Finch wants to find the truth, and is illuminated by the truth he finds. All three characters are well realized, and very well acted indeed. Natalie Portman, in spite of her slightly wobbly accent at times, is harrowingly good as Evey and Stephen Rea gives a very solid performance as policeman Eric Finch. Hugo Weaving does astonishing things with his role as V, given that he spends the entire film wearing a mask and dressed in black. Subtle movements of the head and slight changes of body posture, along with clever lighting and direction, serve to give what is a fixed and seemingly immutable Guy Fawkes mask a whole range of emotions.
V is probably the most intriguing character to grace the big screen for many years. He’s part action hero, part political activist. He’s a dangerous anarchist and a champion of democracy. He is, undoubtedly, a demented lunatic, but also a dashing and mysterious romantic male lead. This last aspect — that of an attractive and romantic figure — is certainly one that I would never have imagined, but I have been assured by several ladies of my acquaintance that this is definitely the case. On top of this V’s home, the Shadow Gallery, is simply magnificent. It is full to the brim with books and paintings and various cultural artifacts of all sorts, whether high art or popular culture. Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Marriage shares wall space with a framed copy of The Beezer, and native carvings from all over the world are scattered on tables and desks. Evey’s bedroom is simply stuffed with precariously stacked mountains of books. It’s the kind of place any sane person would want to live, and makes a very attractive and intriguing backdrop for certain scenes in the film.
Lots of other actors give great performances. John Hurt as High Chancellor Adam Sutler is suitably angry throughout, only addressing his underlings through a huge television screen, much like Big Brother in 1984. It makes an interesting contrast to Hurt’s own role in the film version of that book. He played Winston Smith, whose torture and transformation finds an echo in Evey’s own transformation. Tim Piggott-Smith is superbly menacing as Creedy, the head of The Finger and a thoroughly nasty piece of work. Stephen Fry, essentially playing himself, gives a very touching and very moving performance as Gordon Deitrich, a performance that would make the film worth seeing all on its own.
On the other hand. . .
Much has been made of the fact that Alan Moore is not a supporter of the movie of V for Vendetta. There are good and strong reasons for this, as I hope I can show. To do this, I’ll have to delve a little into the history of Moore’s work.
I read the first installment of V for Vendetta in the first issue of Warrior in 1982, where it shared space with another of Moore’s finest works, Marvelman. I have a long interest in all the works of Alan Moore, more or less stemming from the time I read that first issue of Warrior. Moore is undoubtedly the finest and most important comics writer in the world now, and possibly ever. Despite this, he has suffered from very shabby treatment at the hands of most of the comics companies he worked for. The back-story of V, particularly, needs to be understood.
The UK comics magazine Warrior, in which V first appeared, lasted for twenty six issues, ending in 1984, by which point the story was a little over halfway through. At the time there was a lot of interest in comics in the media. The idea that comics were actually a legitimate form of literary expression, and that they could actually be read by adults, was starting to be felt. The way the comics companies were dealing with the creative people behind comics was also changing. That process would eventually lead to big companies — such as DC and Marvel — publishing comics that were still copyrighted to the original creators, rather than automatically becoming the property of the company as had always been the case in the past. Moore was at the very spearhead of this, along with Frank Miller and others. However, at the time that Moore went to negotiate a deal with DC, along with co-creator and V artist David Lloyd, and Warrior editor Dez Skinn, those kinds of contracts were still a while away.
The contract that Moore and co ended up with was this: DC would publish V as a ten-issue mini-series, beginning in 1988, and subsequently as a graphic novel, which appeared in 1990, and would own the right to the series, and the character, and in general could do as they wished with it, as long as they kept it in print. However, if the graphic novel went out of print, the rights would then revert to Moore and Lloyd. This all seemed fair enough, except that no-one could have foreseen that the graphic novel would be continuously in print from then until now, therefore, by it’s very success, forever keeping his creation out of Moore’s reach. When DC sold the movie rights for V to parent company Warner Bros, they didn’t need Moore’s permission to do so, and went ahead regardless of his opinions on the subject. Certainly movies had been made of DC properties before, but these were generally of characters that were part of the DC pantheon, and had been written by numerous people over many years, and could certainly not be seen as being the product of a single creative team.
Even at that point, Moore was prepared to allow things to simply proceed as they were. True, two previous movie versions of his works, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (LoEG), were less than wonderful, but at least he more or less knew that was going to be the case and, having sold the rights, was content to leave the moviemakers to it, as long as they left him alone. Unfortunately, two things happened that finally finished Moore’s desire to have any involvement with Hollywood, the second of which specifically caused him to take an adversarial position on the movie of V.
First of all he was drawn into a court case involving LoEG, claiming that that movie was substantially stolen from a screenplay called A Cast of Characters. There was, apparently, quite an amount of similarity between the two screenplays, but these similarities only came about in that version, and were entirely absent from Moore’s original work. None the less, he found himself giving a ten-hour deposition for the case. It was at this point that he decided that he wanted his name taken off all movies based on his works, and that, if he owned the rights to something, he simply wouldn’t sell those rights to Hollywood in the first place.
The final straw for Moore began in 2005 with a phone call from Larry Wachowski, V’s writer/producer. Moore politely told him that he didn’t want anything to do with films and simply wished to get on with his writing. And that should have been that. But it wasn’t… Moore was soon made aware of a press release about a press conference given by Joel Silver, the film’s producer, and its cast. In this, Silver said that Moore was, "very excited about what Larry [Wachowski] had to say and Larry sent the script . . ." Moore felt, quite rightly, that his name was being used to endorse the film against his explicit instructions. Indeed that they’d managed to quote pretty much the exact opposite of his actual feelings about the project, and about the film industry in general. He requested, through his Wildstorm editor, Scott Dunbier, that DC/Warner Brothers should issue a retraction of what he described as "blatant lies — that’s the phrase I’m groping for." What he wanted, he said, was a retraction, a clarification, and a modest apology, released in a similar manner to the original press release. Silver’s words were removed from the movie’s website, but there was no retraction, although DC’s president, Paul Levitz tried to get Silver to make one. When Moore’s two-week deadline passed, and there was no apology forthcoming, Moore was true to his word. He finished his contracted work for ABC/Wildstorm/DC, which consists of finishing a hardback LoEG book, and a story for Tom Strong, and will now never work for DC again.
And that’s why Alan Moore wants to have nothing to do with the movie version of V for Vendetta.
It is for that reason that I’m so personally torn about the fact that I like the film so much. I absolutely agree that Moore and David Lloyd deserve to have their intellectual property returned to them. On the same line of reasoning, I can see that Moore wouldn’t have wanted the film made, and have no choice but to agree. However, the film did get made, and we can only judge it on what it is, and not what it might have been, or indeed might not have been.
One person who occasionally gets forgotten in all this is David Lloyd, who was the artist and co-creator on V for Vendetta. Unlike Alan Moore, Lloyd was fully in favor of the film, and the point could be argued that the film more closely resembles the story drawn by Lloyd that it does the story written by Moore. Lloyd’s role in creating V was not just following art direction given by Moore either. The character of V was largely designed by him and the ways in which the story was told, like foregoing thought bubbles and sound effects, were at his suggestion. These ideas had far-reaching consequences as Moore and Lloyd were, unknown to themselves, rewriting the grammar of comics as they went along. I sometimes have difficulties with the story of V, which is not without flaws. Even Moore himself acknowledges this in the introduction he wrote for the series. But it is undeniably one of the milestones in the development of comics for a more mature audience, and one of the books on which the current popularity of graphic novels is based.
There are any number of differences between the film and the original graphic novel. If you are going to go see it hoping that it is a direct translation onto the screen of the original then you are bound to be disappointed. The book was originally written in the Britain of the 1980’s, and reflects it’s time. The film was made in the US in the early years of the twenty-first century, and obviously reflects its time, too. Characters are changed, and whole chunks of the book are missing, but none the less the filmmakers obviously had a lot of love for the original work, and manage to drop references to it throughout the film. V’s soliloquy, which I quoted earlier, references many of the titles of the installments of V from the comics, all of which began with the letter V. There were titles like Vaudeville, Vox Populi, Verdict, and so on. Lewis Prothero, although he’s not identified as a doll collector in the film, as he is in the book, still has a few shelves of dolls in his bathroom. The little girl who says ‘Bollocks’ to the cameras still gets to say it, just in a different context. And much else.
On the other hand, the film is riddled with inaccuracies and plot holes. For instance the Jan Van Eyck painting in the Shadow Gallery, The Arnolfini Marriage, is much larger than it should be. We are told at one point that Bishop Lillian, in his earlier days, was paid some ridiculously large sum of money while working at Larkhill, without ever being told why this is the case. Considering that they’re meant to be living in an oppressive fascist regime, the people we see in their homes seem to be in no way actually oppressed. Although a lot is made of the fact that Evey hasn’t had butter in years, wide-screen TVs, tobacco, and beer seem to be in plentiful supply. Numerous other instances could be pointed out, and no doubt will be. However, as far as I’m concerned, they don’t really matter. I loved the film the first time I saw it, and the second time, when I was considerably less emotionally affected and could simply enjoy it for what it was. It’s a well-made film, and an important film, especially for the times we live in. It is even a reasonably good adaptation of the original work, at least in some respects. Certainly the film seems to gather oddness and controversy to itself as it goes along. One of the people working on the film during the destruction of Westminster, as part of a work placement scheme, was Ewan Blair, son of the British prime minister. I even managed to walk into my local comic shop just in time to hear a discussion on whether or not Larry Wachowski’s alleged forthcoming gender realignment surgery would adversely affect the film.
There is one last aspect of the film that I found fascinating. There is a novelization of the movie, which has been written by Steve Moore. Steve Moore is a very old friend of Alan Moore, and is said to be the person who first taught Alan to write comics. He’s also Alan’s magical partner, and in general the pair have worked together in various ways for quite a number of years. I got the opportunity to get a few words from Steve Moore about the writing of the novelization, which are fascinating in themselves:
"Basically, I saw the job as a professional one, where my task was to adapt the screenplay I’d been given as well as I could under the circumstances; while at the same time doing the best that I could (given that I had to follow the screenplay) to make the novel worthy of the original graphic novel, which I obviously admire. That meant that I couldn’t deviate from the screenplay, and felt obliged to use the dialogue it contained, although I was given freedom to provide additional material to flesh out the background. For this extra material I tried to draw as much as possible on the original graphic novel (though obviously I had to make sure there was no clash between the two).
"After discussions with my editor at DC, I did make some changes to the script: removing a historical prologue about the original Guy Fawkes; retaining the "Violet Carson" rose name, rather than the non-existent "Scarlet Carson" of the film; failing to mention any of the specific dates given in the screenplay so that the actual time-period of the story became more nebulous (and possibly closer to the present day). Obviously, there were a number of other areas in the screenplay where I had to smooth things over or make minor changes, just to make the story work as a novel rather than a film."
Certainly Steve Moore’s novelization makes an intriguing third version of the story of V, and I urge you to read it, just as soon as you’ve been to the cinema to see the film a few times. It goes without saying that you should already own a copy of the graphic novel. I’ll leave you with perhaps the most succinct comment I heard on the film, as a crowd of us gathered in the foyer of the cinema after the preview screening here in Dublin. A friend of mine came up to me with a shine in his eyes and said, "let’s go blow shit up!"