When I heard that V for Vendetta was being filmed, I was very, very nervous indeed. It has long been one of my favourite graphic novels, second only to Watchmen. The film industry hasn’t traditionally done a very good job of transferring graphic novels to celluloid.
When I saw a trailer for the film, my fears were not allayed. It all looked so slick, a million miles away from Alan Moore’s grim vision. I heard about the climax of the film featuring a gathering of people in V masks… that was most certainly not in the book.
I decided not to see the film in the cinema. I figured I’d just be as disappointed as Paul. I mentally filed the film away in the “watch it on DVD” category.
This week, I did just that. Even as the disc was sliding into the DVD player, I was still hoping that I could enjoy it, although I imagined I would probably spend most of the time nitpicking, comparing it to the graphic novel and finding it wanting.
Sure enough, it’s very different indeed. The story has been condensed. Characters have been changed. Everything looks cleaner and more up-to-date.
I should have hated it. But I didn’t. I liked it. A lot.
The graphic novel was a reflection of Thatcher’s Britain. It remains a product of its time. If the film were to stay absolutely true to the book’s look and feel, it would feel dated. Instead, the film is more in synch with the mood of Britain in the 21st century.
Most dystopian visions rely heavily on a sort of pathetic fallacy to show a world that looks dark, depressing and downtrodden. It’s easy, in such circumstances, to sympathise with any protagonist bent on tearing down the system. But what about a totalitarian society where everyone’s doing more or less okay? In a society where people are doing comfortably, with clean clothes and respectable jobs, would you still feel the same righteous desire to rip the fabric of society apart?
It’s this more ambiguous stance that made the film of V for Vendetta such a pleasure for me. In some ways, and this is a somewhat heretical thing to say, the film is superior to the book. Of course, it isn’t nearly as densely packed, but it does flow quicker, with a more cohesive structure than the episodic nature of the book.
I even liked the climax. I was afraid of some kind of Deus Ex Machina scenario, but instead the film builds towards the gathering at Westminster as an inevitable culmination of everything that has come before. It sounds like such a Hollywood ending, but it’s actually a reflection of our own world. Remember, when Alan Moore and David Lloyd wrote V for Vendetta in the ’80s, none of us had seen the embodiment of the human spirit in the gatherings of Eastern Europe or witnessed the sight of the citizens of Moscow facing down the tanks of a military coup.
But, plot changes aside, this film was always going to stand or fall based on one thing: the character of V. I was impressed with how the film depicted this man, and not just because they kept the mask on the whole time — something that’s almost unheard of for a leading actor. He is a hero and a villain. He is a murderer and a terrorist, yet he is charming and sympathetic. V was a complex character in the book, and he is equally complex in the film, thanks to Hugo Weaving’s great performance and the decision to keep V’s dense, lyrical dialogue intact.
I found myself enjoying V for Vendetta immensely. It was thrilling to see scenes from the graphic novel brought to life. And where the film veered away from the book, it always made sense in the context of the modern setting.
I was reminded of The Lord of the Rings. Watching that film, it became clear very early on that it was made by someone who has an equal love for the original material and the medium of cinema. The real art is reconciling those visions.
V for Vendetta certainly split the critics. Much of the negative criticism is aimed at the perceived politics of the film, as is much of the praise. In truth, the film is a cipher. It’s impossible not to bring in your own political opinions and belief system. Far from being a watered-down, wishy-washy Hollywood adaptation, this film turns on its audience, confronting them with uncomfortable juxtapositions and questions… much like the book. The film does the best possible job with the thankless task of transferring a much-loved cult work to a mainstream audience without compromising the integrity of the piece or insulting the intelligence of the viewers.
This isn’t a frame for frame, word for word adaptation of the the graphic novel. But it is faithful to the spirit of the book. Had the film-makers slavishly transferred the story from book to film, the result would have been a curious historical document. Instead, this is one of the most topical, engaging and well-crafted films I’ve seen this year.
V for Vendetta is available on DVD now.