Earlier this month, I reviewed Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s celebrated 1980s comic book series V for Vendetta – and inevitably, my thoughts turned to its 2006 big screen adaptation. Before too long, I was revisiting the film, and what struck me was how director James McTeigue and screenwriters the Wachowskis perfectly captured certain aspects of the comic, and completely fumbled others. The result is an uneven dystopian thriller that amps up the action and dumbs down the themes of its source material – and somehow it works.
What is V for Vendetta about?
As you might expect, V for Vendetta follows the same basic storyline as the comic book: in a world where the UK is ruled by a fascistic government, impressionable young woman Evey (Natalie Portman) is taken in by a mysterious revolutionary dressed as Guy Fawkes and known only as V (Hugo Weaving).
The sole survivor of an unspeakable concentration camp, V plots the downfall of the totalitarian regime for the supposed good of society. But as Evey is drawn deeper into V’s schemes, she begins to question his true motives…
Sacrificing ambiguity for a rousing finale
If V for Vendetta hit the same overall beats as Moore and Lloyd’s original story, that’s because McTeigue and the Wachowskis have stripped it down to these essential plot points. Now, on one level, that’s a smart choice: paring down the comic book’s sprawling narrative and complex network of characters was the only way to make it fit the film’s 2+ hour runtime.
But there’s a downside to streamlining V for Vendetta, and that’s oversimplification. By reducing the story to good guys vs bad guys, McTeigue and the Wachowskis also remove the ambiguity that was central to the V for Vendetta comics’ characters and themes, and which made it so interesting.
The source material’s key concept – anarchy – is pretty much absent from the movie, as are challenging ideas like a stable, fascist society being potentially preferable to the chaotic alternative presented by V. Instead, we get a simplistic, hit-and-miss satire of modern US domestic and foreign policy, complete with one-dimensional villains who represent a system so irredeemably awful that we don’t hesitate to cheer on V as he fights to bring them down. It’s easier to digest and rationalise – and so much less compelling as a result.
Then there’s the V/Evey dynamic/ Unlike the comic – which left the precise nature of this relationship undefined – the V for Vendetta film introduces a clunky romance between the duo, further chipping away at the story’s overall ambiguity levels.
If you then toss in some clumsy added allusions to The Count of Monte Cristo and an inexplicable “bullet time”-inspired sequence lifted straight from the Wachowksis’ Matrix trilogy and really, you should have a mess on your hands. So why is V for Vendetta so undeniably entertaining?
A strong cast – an even stronger emotional connection with the audience
For starters, there’s the cast. Admittedly, nobody is turning in career best work here, but the performances are decent across the board, especially Weaving who – despite being behind a mask or other prosthetics the entire time – brings V to life effectively through strong vocals and deft body language. By comparison, Portman offers up a more serviceable performance that’s hampered by a wobbly British accent, but she manages to nail her character’s major scenes and proves a likeable lead.
It also doesn’t hurt that V for Vendetta also looks and sounds great. Cinematographer Adrian Biddle uses colour and lighting effectively – particularly during two of the film’s standout flashback sequences – while composer Dario Marianelli’s understated score strikes just the right note, enhancing rather than overwhelming the movie’s big moments.
But really, what V for Vendetta‘s success boils down to is the raw emotional connection it forges with its audience. McTeigue and the Wachowskis may have stripped out a lot of the comic’s more weighty themes, but what’s left – the creative and destructive forces that drive change, the power of symbols and ideas to change the world – is dynamite stuff. What’s more, it’s the kind of material that’s easy to connect with on an emotional level, so much so that only the most hard-hearted viewer won’t be punching the air when the V for Vendetta adaptation’s decidedly more upbeat conclusion rolls around,
An adaptation that succeeds on its own merits
V for Vendetta is far from the perfect comic book movie adaptation – indeed, in many ways, it misses the point of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s comics entirely. However, thanks to its strong cast, impressive visuals and score, and (most importantly) sheer emotional heft, this James McTeigue film still manages to succeed, taken on its own terms.