Adapting a beloved text into a film or television series is a daunting task. In addition to pleasing die-hard fans, producers must also take into consideration those who have never encountered the property before. Some adaptations are good, some are better than the source material, and some are so god-awful that fans try to forget they ever existed. (Looking at you there, Tank Girl.) Let’s take a look at what works, what doesn’t, and just how one adaptation made it from page to screen. (Last time: Macbeth)
The Source Material
Alan Moore, author of Watchmen, Swamp Thing, and the Batman miniseries The Killing Joke, published V for Vendetta beginning in 1982, with art by David Lloyd. Initially published in black and white in a British anthology collection called Warrior, the series was later released in the United States and worldwide under the DC Comics Vertigo imprint, this time with watercolors added to make the images pop. Separated into three “books”, V for Vendetta details the rise of a vigilante wearing a Guy Fawkes mask during the dystopian alternate history of the 1990s.
In Moore’s alternate vision of British history, a nuclear war left most of the world destroyed in the 1980s, allowing the fascist Norsefire party to rise and exterminate anyone who might oppose them. The country is ruled as a police state, with enforced curfews and a strong central government with secret police known as “Fingermen”. The first book begins with a desperate 16-year-old girl, Evey Hammond, trying to prostitute herself in order to make ends meet. She is stopped by Fingermen for being out past curfew and they intend to rape and kill her. Enter V, a man dressed all in black with a Guy Fawkes mask and a black brimmed hat. V rescues Evey and whisks her away to his lair, “The Shadow Gallery”, meanwhile remote detonating explosives at the House of Parliament.
The main thread of the story is the relationship between V and Evey as he tries to teach her about the world before and the work he is trying to do. She leaves and begins an affair with a man named Gordon. Gordon is later killed and Evey put into prison, where she is tortured and questioned repeatedly about the whereabouts of V. She finds a letter in her cell detailing the sad story of a film actress named Valerie Page who was executed for being a lesbian. When Evey is eventually freed, she discovers that she was being held prisoner by V himself, who used the torture and letter to open her mind. Evey becomes his disciple and does what she can to help him overthrow the corrupt government. When V dies in a fight with the Fingermen, Evey loads him onto a subway train and blows up 10 Downing Street (home of the Prime Minister’s office) in an explosive Viking funeral.
The people revolt, chaos reigns in the streets, and the comic comes to an ambiguous close.
The 2006 film adaptation was directed by James McTeigue (who assistant-directed the Matrix trilogy and the dystopian noir Dark City). Written by the Wachowski siblings, the film was well-received by critics and audiences alike, though Moore repeatedly (and vocally) distanced himself from the film, stating that it had been over-Americanized and that the Wachowskis had turned the film into a protest of then-president George W. Bush. Lloyd, for his part, was impressed with the film and had no problem with the changes made.
The film stars Natalie Portman as a much older and less-prostitutey Evey Hammond, who is assaulted by Fingermen while walking home past curfew. Hugo Weaving‘s V rescues her and takes her to the roof of an old building, where they watch as the Old Bailey court building explodes and fireworks shoot into the sky. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture plays, a recurrent theme within the film. He then takes Evey to his home, where he tells her she must remain for a year. She offers to help V and uses the opportunity to escape to Gordon’s house. Gordon, a former co-worker, reveals that he has many items that have been banned in the new UK. He is later killed for this (as well as his closeted homosexuality) and Evey is taken to prison. The film then follows the same course as the comic series, with V’s death and explosive exit, though Evey blows up Parliament instead of the Prime Minister’s office, and the massive explosions are set to the same Tchaikovsky tune.
While the general plot of both versions is the same, there are a number of differences between the comics and the movie adaptation. In particular, Evey’s character is less naive and better fleshed-out in the film version. She is not relegated to a sex object, as the teenage comic version is, but is instead a primary protagonist who may even end the film stronger than her tutor in vigilante justice. Instead of a young prostitute, she is a television station worker. Instead of having a sexual affair with Gordon, the two are close friends (and Gordon is gay, another nice character touch). Moore has been accused of misogyny in his work on more than one occasion, and the differences between Evey’s characterization in the film version and the comic version might be evidence of his inability to write female characters well.
The film makes great use of sound and movement, bringing the two-dimensional world of dystopian England to life. 1812 Overture forever becomes embedded in the viewer’s brain along with explosions and fireworks – a brilliant display of the power of movie-making. Many of the comic’s subplots are removed or given less importance, with a handful of characters removed completely. They are not particularly missed, as the comic tends to ramble on in places and can be nearly unreadable in others. While the story of V for Vendetta is an incredible one, it gets bogged down with Moore’s need to wax philosophic about the state of Britain. The Wachowski’s version does have undeniably American touches, but it maintains the spirit of the original comic. Perhaps the most important thing in either work is one line that V says to Evey – “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
What’s great about the film adaptation is that it works on a number of levels. It’s entertaining, with great performances by everyone involved (Weaving’s speech where he only uses words that begin with the letter “v” is amazing. The story is simplified enough that almost anyone can grasp it and begin thinking about the larger themes at work, while those who have already opened their minds to ideas of anarchism, fascism, and identity can find kindred spirits in the characters on-screen. The movie is gorgeous to look at, with some of the best lighting ever used in a comic book adaptation. One scene uses shadows to reveal V hiding in a sick woman’s room, furthering his mysterious appearance and also the fine line he walks between being righteous and unnecessarily violent.
V for Vendetta works as both a comic and a film, though the comic is definitely for those with a better understanding of philosophy, literature, and politics. It can be meandering in places and none of the characters are likable, which certainly works against it. Either way, the story is important and eternally relevant, whether in 1982, 2006, or today.