David Boaz praises “V for Vendetta” on his blog (March 29, 2006), say- ing, “the movie deals with”some classic libertarian themes: the rapaciousness of the state; the state’s hijacking of religion and use of scapegoats to justify its actions; its hostility to both high and popular culture; the willingness of most people to endure much loss of liberty; and the need for courageous individuals to stand up to tyranny.”
A New Yorker review (March 20, 2006) pans it, calling it “a dunderheaded pop fantasia that celebrates terrorism and destruction.”
Who’s right? My take: both the conservative critics and libertarian lovers of “V for Vendetta” are a little off. It’s a good movie, worth seeing. But it could easily have been a great movie, worth relishing and discussing, pondering and considering; a topic for debate, a classic. It wasn’t that, but it could have been with only a few minor changes – changes to make it more true to Alan Moore’s dystopian fantas~ on which the movie is based.
I read “V for Vendetta” when it was first released by DC Comics in 1988. I had been previously introduced to Moore’s brilliant novelistic abilities (and quasi-cinematographic skills in panel layout) in the graphic novel “Watchmen” which, in its own way, is also a libertarian novel. Both stories deal with the danger of unlimited power, even (in the case of “Watchmen,” especially) when wielded by those who think they know how to remake the world for the better.
I was blown away by “V,” and recommended it to every libertarian I knew. I urged, successfull~ that Laissez-Faire Books carry it, and wrote a review of it for their catalog.
So when I heard a movie was coming out, I was both eager to see it, and concerned, especially post-9/11, that the novel’s theme would be watered down or lost. Having now seen the movie, I can confirm that it does not pay full tribute to the novel.
• The movie is an attack on fascism. The book is a defense of liberty.
• The movie is a call to revolt against criminal governments. The book is a call to revolt against power.
• The movie is a paean to democracy. The book is a cry for anarchy.
Hard to believe? Consider an introductory scene in both movie and book. V blows up the statue of Justice on top of the Old Bailey, England’s iconic equivalent of the Supreme Court. In the movie, the “1812 Overture” plays on public loudspeakers, and V sets off fireworks to accompany the explosion. The fireworks occur in the novel as well, but the moviemakers leave out V’s soliloquy as he speaks to, and for, Justice:
“Hello dear lady. I thought that it was time we had a little chat, you and I…. I’ve been a fan of yours for quite some time…. I loved you … as an ideal.
“That was a long time ago. I’m afraid there’s someone else now…. [and it was] your infidelity that drove me to her arms! …
“Her name is Anarchy. And she has taught me more as a mistress than you ever did! She has taught me that justice is meaningless without freedom. She is honest. She makes no promises and breaks none. Unlike you, Jezebel. I used to wonder why you could never look me in the eye [this, to a blindfolded statue!]. Now I know.
“So goodbye, dear lady. I would be saddened by our parting even now, save that you are no longer the woman that I once loved. Here is a final gift. I leave it at your feet.” (Book 1, Chapter 5, “Versions”)
With that, V leaves at the feet of Lady Justice a heart-shaped, red-rib- boned box, which explodes and destroys both the statue and Old Bailey.
V adds: “The flames of freedom. How lovely. How just. Ahh, my precious anarchy. 1’0 beauty, ’til now I never knew thee.'” [from Henry VIII, 1.4]
I am not suggesting that a soliloquy with a statue is necessarily proper movie fare, nor do I think Galt-like explana-
Moore, who divorced himself from the movie, said the plot had contradictions one could drive a truck through.
tory speeches are what bring movie fans into the theaters. But I wanted to show the explicitness of this novel of ideas. Ask yourself in what follows how much or how little of these ideas makes it to the big screen.
Though one who has not read the novel doesn’t know what he’s missed, the movie takes several liberties with the plot that dampen the libertarian theme, none of which (granted, I’m not a movie producer) seem necessary to successfully convert the book into a movie.
Let me mention a few:
1. The movie creates an unrequited love story between V and Evey. Although in the novel Evey feels love developing for V, her mentor, there is only evidence of reciprocation on V’s part as he dies. The book, instead, is a Pygmalion story, with V educating Evey in the ways of the state. The V of the novel would never, as the movie’s V did near the end, confess to Evey that because of her he had reconsidered whether what he was doing was right.
At the novel’s climax, Eve shouts at V’s dead body that he had never explained to her just what he has been educating her for, what he’s been training her to do. In the movie, it is not clear that V is training Evey to do anything: instead, a real question exists as to what Evey’s role is. V saves her from being raped by government Fingermen, and subsequently tortures her himself to somehow teach her about freedom. Then he asks her to drop by his hideout next Guy Fawkes Day. She does, and when he dies she puts his body in a subway car filled with explosives and starts it off, as he had asked her to do.
Why? In the book, he’s been training and educating her for a year. In the movie she’s been on her own most of that time and just drops by to keep her promise to him. The book’s motivations are clear and compelling; the movie’s are cryptic at best.
2. In the novel, V is never seen. He hides not only his face, but his hands and body. In the Larkhill scene, when he escapes from a concentration camp building he has left in flames, the book shows him only in shadows.
The book and movie each have a scene in which V talks with Larkhill doctor Delia Surridge while she lies in bed dying, V having poisoned her in her sleep. But one part was cut in the movie: in the novel she asks to once more see his face, and he removes the mask – but the reader cannot see him. “You’re so beautiful” she says as she dies. But in the movie it is clear that he is deformed, horribly burned.
This provides the viewer with a revenge motive. But one of the central themes of the book is that V is fighting, not against people, but against a principle: the belief that an imposed order is preferable to liberty. The movie makes his fight less pure, for no particular reason that I can see. One could easily argue that not seeing V at all is more suspenseful than seeing him horribly scarred.
3. The movie handles the death of Bishop Tony Lilliman in a subtly different way. In the movie’s present, Lilli- man is a respected figure in the church, working to keep his flock obedient to the government’s creed, a collusion between church and state which anarchy cannot accept.
In his past, LilHman had been the preacher looking after the prisoners at Larkhill, including V, keeping them in line while the state experimented on them. In killing Lilliman, V is enacting justice for the padre’s actions at Larkh- ill, and also eliminating·one of the few witnesses to know who V is. On another level, killing the preacher by feeding him a cyanide host speaks to the ritualized lies of the church. (In the book, the point could not be more explicit. V asks Lilliman to explain the Eucharist. Lilli- man confirms the teaching that when the host is ingested, it literally becomes the body of Christ. V then commands him to eat the specially-prepared host. At the autopsy, Finch, the policeman, says, “And do you know what? When it reached his abdomen, it was still cyanide.”)
All of this is captured in both book and movie, but there is one strange difference. In both, V asks Evey to help
One of the central themes ofthebookisthatVisfighting not against people, but against the belief that an imposed order is preferable to liberty.
him, and Evey agrees. In the book, she does in fact help him, but is upset to find that V kills LilHman and tells V that she will never help him kill again. This sets up the distinction between anarchy as destroyer and anarchy as builder, which peaks at the novel’s climax. But
The V of the novel would never confess to Evey that because of her he had reconsidered whether what he was doing was right.
in the movie, Evey betrays her mentor by telling Lilliman V is coming. Why?
The movie, in effect, has Evey agree to help V and then turn around and betray the man who had just saved her from rape and murder. No explanation is given. Why didn’t she just tell V “no” if she didn’t want to help him?
I can only surmise the producers thought that in modern America one can’t have the heroine acting as if she thought it OK to off priests, even pedophile priests who lie to their flock about the state and its crimes. Instead, they simply choose to have Evey act incomprehensibly and have V ignore her selling him out. This is likely the sort of thing Moore, who divorced himself from the movie, meant when he said the movie plot had contradictions one could drive a truck through.
4. There is an apparently minor character not in the movie: Rosemary Almond. She was the wife of a government functionary – the head of the Finger, the government’s enforcement arm
…:- who was killed early in the novel by V. Her life then goes downhill through a series of events largely the result of government actions not directly aimed. at her but nonetheless hurting her. When Evey dances with V in his Shadow Gallery hideout after he has shown her his rose garden (in both book and movie he leaves a large Violet Carson rose on his victims), she asks him: “Is there a rose here for the leader, Mr. Susan [the name of the dictator in the book, changed to Sutler in the movie]?”
“Oh, no. Not here,” V replies. “For him, I have cultivated a most special Rose.”
This clever pun, a Moore leitmotif, leads to the book’s climax where Mr. Susan is shot to death by Rose Almond, a lone citizen who had simply had too much, who had seen her life destroyed by the government. In the movie, of course, Mr. Sutler is killed by corrupt government officials, his own underlings.
One can see how the producers might be concerned about sending the “wrong message.” It’s one thing to have a corrupt dictator killed by his own henchmen. It’s another to suggest that a mere citizen can justifiably kill a head of state – even, it seems, a dictator – simply for destroying her life. Shame, that.
5. The novel’s end – hauntingly lyrical in its writing, none of which is used as movie dialogue – is crucial to the book’s theme. To calm growing public unrest and demonstrate they have maintained control, the government sends out word that V has been killed. In fact, he has been mortally wounded. He makes his way back to the Shadow Gallery and finds Evey waiting. (In the novel, she never left him.) Hours earlier, he had given her a tour of the entire gallery, much of which she had not seen before – tell- ing her it was his will that she know all this. She now realizes he meant “will” in the legal, not psychological, sense – that he has left all this for her.
As he dies he tells her: “You must never look under the mask, but you must know who V is.”
Then: “Give me a Viking Funeral. The tracks are closed ‘twixt Whitehall and St. James.” “Ave atque vale,” he says with his last breath.
Evey, in a very moving scene in the novel, finally realizes what V’s dying riddle means: she is not to look under the mask because V is more than a human being, and knowing whichever human being he actually is will diminish what V stands for. V is an idea, a principle, which cannot die. The principle, as it happens, is one libertarians endorse: liberty is our birthright, and worth fighting for.
“And at last I know. I know who V must be,” she says. She then wanders up to V’s changing room, and sits in front of his vanity mirror. And looking into the mirror, you see Eve smile, a big smile, reminiscent of a Guy Fawkes mask …
Eve realizes at last what V trained and educated her for.
That night, a crowd has gathered in front of Parliament: if V doesn’t make his promised appearance, they will know that the government is right, that Vis dead.
Suddenly, on the rooftop, V’s silhouette appears. “He” speaks to the crowd about their government:
“Since mankind’s dawn, a handful of oppressors have accepted the responsibility over our lives that we should have accepted for ourselves. By doing so, they took our power. By doing nothing, we gave it away.
“We’ve seen where their way leads, through camps and wars, to the slaughterhouse. In anarch~ there is another way. With anarchy, from rubble comes new life. Hope reinstated. They say anarchy’s dead, but see … reports of my death were … exaggerated.
“Tomorrow, Downing Street will be destroyed . . . Tonight you must choose what comes next: lives of our own, or a return to chains. Choose carefully. And so, adieu.”
The angry crowd turns on the police trying to keep order.
Eve then fulfills V’s dying wish. She sends him out in a subway car, loaded with gelignite and lilies, and watches from the roof of the Shadow Gallery:
1 0 Give me a Viking Funeral,’ you said. That isn’t much. That isn’t much at all. Not after what you did. You came out of an abattoir unharmed, but not unchanged, and saw freedom’s necessity: not just for you, but for us all. You saw, and seeing, dared to do. ilYou’re almost there now, speeding on your funeral barge along dry subterranean canals. Down through the dark towards your destination, where the line is blocked ‘twixt Whitehall and St. James … Right under Downing Street.” (Book 3, Chapter 10, “Volcano”)
Eve takes off her mask as she says this, and one can detect in her facial features a resemblance to Joan of Arc, or a look without pain or fear or guilt. Off in the distance, there is a large explosion.
“Ave atque vale, V. I looked it up. Hail and farewell.”
The movie handles this differently. I can understand blowing up Parliament rather than Downing Street (as the movie’s climax; in the book V blows up Parliament as one of his first acts). Most Americans don’t know that the Prime Minister of England lives at #10 Downing St. But in the movie Evey does not dress up as V. Eve as V does not affirm to the public that V’s campaign, and ideas, live on. V simply dies and, when asked who he was, Eve says “my father, and my mother, my brother …” and all the others harmed by the government’s actions.
In other words, the theme of the book, that liberty is a meme which lives beyond the individual, is transformed by the movie into the theme of V as Everyman. His actions in the book are justified by the importance of liberty; his actions in the movie are justified by the claim that he speaks for all of us – democracy. Given that Eve donning the V mask is visually compelling, I can see no reason to change this aspect of the plot beyond concern that liberty is less appealing than democracy to moviegoers in America’s 3rd century.
6. The movie has a subplot not found in the book: government leaders,
V is more than a human being, and knowing which human being he actually is will diminish what V stands for.
including some at Larkhill, are extremely wealthy as a result of ownership of stock in a company that made millions by protecting the citizens against a bio-chemical attack a decade earlier. Scan- dal! Turns out the government itself was responsible for the biochemical at-
V’s actions in the book are justified by the importance of liberty; his actions in the movie are justified by the claim that he speaks for all of us – democracy.
tack on its citizens. What is the point of this plot deviation?
First, it hits a typical anticapitalist chord: you only get rich by harming innocents. For all his sentiment for leftish politics, nothing like this is in Moore’s novel.
Second, it tries to justify the terrorist actions of V by pointing out that this is a corrupt government, which kills its own citizens. Some think of graphic novels as “cartoons,” but ironically it is the movie’s depiction of the Leader as a poor man’s Hitler, screaming and barking orders without any sense of humani1:)r, which is cartoonish. In the novel, the Leader’s party, Norsefire, rose to power because of a real crisis. Britain had escaped the worst of a limited nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, but the panic and partial societal collapse, the food shortages and criminal gangs, “required” harsh measures. The Leader, Mr. Susan, is well aware of how he has limited his subjects’ freedom- and his own as well. Order is more important than liberty. The battle between V and the Leader is a battle between liberty and power. Though Moore clearly favors liberty overpower, neither side is made, in the novel, to look foolish. Con- sider Mr. Susan, alone in his thoughts:
“I believe in strength. I believe in unity. And if that strength, that unity of purpose, demands a uniformity of thought, word, and deed, then so be it. I will not hear talk of freedom…. The war put paid to freedom. The only freedom left to my people is the freedom to starve. The freedom to die. The freedom to live in a world of chaos. Should I allow them that freedom? I think not. I think not. Do I reserve to myself the freedom I deny to others? I do not. I sit here within my cage and I am but a servant. I, who am master of all I see … ” (Book 1, Chapter 5)
Compared to this, a brief paragraph, the movie version is one-dimensional. It is said by some libertarians the movie speaks to freedom. But the movie speaks only of the right to fight back if you’re oppressed by a Hitlerian lunatic. The book speaks of the right to take back your freedom even from those who sincerely believe what they do is correct. Which is the more daring claim in George Bush’s America?
Are V’s actions justified? In the book they are justified by the natural right of individuals to fight to preserve their liberty. The movie producers clearly felt this alone was insufficient. Forcibly opposing government coercion might be viewed as antisocial in a post-9/ll age. Best let the government be run by a cabal of poisoners; then committing terrorism becomes perfectly reasonable.
Furthermore, the producers, like Mr. Susan in the novel, perhaps felt all those restrictions on liberty were perfectly understandable if they arose as a reaction to outside forces; but in the movie version, V knows the outside forces were fabricated by the government. The screenwriters are saying, in this case all these restrictions on freedom were unnecessary. Again, this is simply an effort to “justify” V’s actions for the audience because, goodness knows, one can’t justify violent acts against the government simply on the grounds of individual liberty. Who does V think he is, anyway? Sam Adams?
Granted, a movie that argues one can take up arms against a corrupt government is better than most movies with political themes, but that is not the explicitly anarchistic theme of the book.
7. Another scene created for the movie is .the mailing to thousands of Englishmen Guy Fawkes costumes and masks. This was a silly addition. For one thing, it’s absurd to think the government in so regimented a society could not track down the source of such a major mailing.
Again, it seems like an effort to water down the view that one is entitled to fight for one’s liberty. V’s actions are not justified by the fact the government is crushing freedom, but by the fact that thousands of citizens demonstrate their agreement with that message by dressing up like him. Democracy: good; lib-
The movie speaks only of government would simply send out the right to fight back if you’re oppressed by a Hitlerian lunatic.
erty: well, it depends. This conversion of V from a John Galt who claimed he would change the world and did, to a Robin Hood protecting the little man is thematically unsatisfying.
“V for Vendetta” is packed with action, and offers a gripping plot and an unusual hero. I look forward to seeing it again. Unfortunately, it is not quite the statement of liberty I had hoped it would be, and in the case of changing the ending, inexplicably so. I need only close my eyes to see Natalie Port- man puzzling over V’s dying words, realizing what she must do, putting on her own Guy Fawkes mask, and telling the people that word of V’s
death was exaggerated. I believe a movie with that ending would have conveyed a more disturbing, yet more exciting message, and been a greater cinematic success.