Poor Reflection

In class last week I made several disparaging comments about the film version ofV for Vendetta. Upon reflection it it clear to me that I ought to have been more careful -- I can't speak ill of the film as a film, simply because I can't (in the sense of "am incapable of") see that film as just a film. For me it will always, always be a poor reflection of the graphic novel -- and since the novel came first in my experience, the film is basically doomed from the start.

I was actually quite excited when I first heard that the Wachowskis were planning to direct the film version. I was pretty sure that the guys who'd made the Matrix trilogy -- and especially, the guys who had made the second and third films of that trilogy, going for philosophical consistency over populist appeal -- would really grok what Moore and Lloyd had been up to. And I thought that Amidala, er, Natalie Portman would make a good Evey, even if she was a little older than the character had been in the novel -- she had the right blend of innocence and determination. Instead, I was bitterly disappointed at the way that the Wachowskis changed the central themes of the story, and basically only retained some of the design elements and the names of characters. Everything else was either re-plotted or just modified beyond recognition.

Now, let me say again that I am not capable of giving an opinion on whether V for Vendetta was a good film or not. I can't watch it without thinking of the novel, so I have no idea whether what the Wachowskis produced is even decent. I do know that it's a very different product, and having basically memorized the novel from many, many years of close reading, seeing their changes was just uncomfortable. Let me just flag three:

1) the movie's tagline was something like "Freedom! Forever!" That's a very un-V-like statement, at least going by the novel. V believes that individuals are free when they are willing to sacrifice themselves for their ideals; the core of his insight is that the only one holding an individual in prison or bondage is, in the end, the individual her- or himself. [This is not a Marxist novel about oppressive structures.] That being said, freedom can't be given, and it's no one else's fault that freedom isn't presently much in evidence in England. V is many things, but he's not a conventional revolutionary, seeking to liberate by removing obstacles. Instead, V is a conductor or a director, and what he's interested in is less freedom defined as the removal of governmental constraints, and more freedom defined as existential selfhood. So the tagline is misleading.

2) along those lines, one of the most egregious modifications in the film -- spoiler alert -- is the provision of multiple "V" masks for the citizens of England. The idea that "we are all V" venerates mass democracy and populist control of government rather than existential selfhood; it places liberation in the hands of the masses, not in the hands of individuals. This seems an odd move for V, since history has shown time and again how easy it is to mobilize the masses behind the idea of abandoning their individual responsibilities and turning them over to some kind of leader who represents the people as a whole . . . unless one is very careful, the idea and even the physical presence of "the people" can underwrite all kinds of deprivations of liberty, especially when "national security" gets involved. But the film doesn't even broach that possibility, and instead we get a straightforward opposition of democracy and dictatorship.

3) but the really disappointing thing about the film, in my opinion, was how it ended the ambiguity about V's goals that animates the novel. Is V just out for revenge, or is he doing something else and using revenge as a means to get there? In the novel, that remains an open question, exemplified by Evey's final goodbye to V when on one page (p. 260) she gives both rationales together. The film, on the other hand, makes V entirely out for revenge, except for his odd and largely unexplained dalliance with Evey -- a dalliance which is also far less ambiguous, since the film makes it clear that their relationship is more of a Phantom of the Opera unrequited love kind of thing (only a bit less psychotic -- only a bit). In the film V is obsessed with Evey, clearly in love with her, and seems to want nothing more than for her to love him. This strikes me as a belittling of V, who in the novel clearly cares for Evey but is not simply trying to pursue a relationship with her! So the V of the film is the Phantom, out for revenge and out to claim his Angel of Music.

I was not at all surprised when I saw that Moore had taken his name off of the film. To these three issues, we could add the removal of the supercomputer Fate, the absence of Rosemary, the fact that V kills the Leader himself, and on, and on . . .

As I said at the outset, I can't say whether the resulting film was any good. But I can say that it is a thinner product than the novel. There have been good, faithful adaptations of complex novels, but thus wasn't one of them. I really hope that the Watchmen film is better -- we'll know in a year, apparently.

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