What’s this? Another review of V for Vendetta? Has The Pop Culture Studio run out of ideas already, less than a month since the site first launched? Fear not, gentle reader, for rather than being a retread of the original review, this post concerns itself with the 2006 film adaptation of the classic 1980s comic by Alan Moore and David Lloyd.
Ordinarily, I’d be disinclined to post back-to-back reviews based around the same source material. However whilst I was in the process of writing about the comic, I found myself constantly comparing it to its movie counterpart. Before I knew it, I had already drafted the outline for this review, so I figured I might as well finish the thing and upload it, and here we are!
What fascinates me about V for Vendetta the movie is the same thing that attracts me to most cross-media adaptations of existing works: I love seeing a story translated from one medium to another, analysing what choices have been made in order to do so, and evaluating how successful the end product is at capturing the spirit of original story. To me, that last point is the key factor in determining whether or not an adaptation “works”.
I like to describe this concept using a bizarre (and no doubt wildly inaccurate) cooking metaphor: you can change up many of the ingredients of the recipe (within reason), but provided that you make sure to include the most important components (namely the themes and tone) of the original dish in the pot, you’ll still get something that resembles the original and tastes both acceptably familiar yet enjoyably unique.
Despite reservations I have regarding certain facets of the film, I think director James McTeigue’s big screen version of V for Vendetta fits this description.
(At this point, I would also like to point out that all my real-life cooking is done according to the instructions provided and using the prescribed produce)
What’s it about?
But enough of my waffle; let’s talk about the film itself. As you might expect, V for Vendetta follows the same basic storyline as its source material: in a dystopian future where Great Britain is ruled by a fascistic government, an impressionable young woman named Evey (Natalie Portman) finds herself 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 his schemes, she begins to question his true motives.
What does it get right?
Before addressing my quibbles with the film, I’d like to focus on the positives.
A solid cast
The cast is generally quite good, especially Weaving, who puts in a decent turn as V despite keeping his face hidden for the duration of the film.
Instead, he uses restrained yet effective body language as his means of expression (his subtle head tilts often speak volumes about his character’s emotions), along with an excellent vocal performance that elicits inspiration, chills or laughter as required (his reading of the line “yes” when asked if he intends to continue his murder spree is priceless).
Portman offers up a more serviceable performance by comparison, hampered as she is by an underwritten character arc (the Evey of the screenplay undergoes less of an emotional transformation than her comic book counterpart) and a wobbly British accent, but she manages to nail her character’s major scenes.
Of the remaining players, Stephen Rea does a good job of being likeable as Eric Finch (the conflicted inspector charged with capturing V), Stephen Fry brings warmth and integrity to the small but important role of media personality Gordon Deitrich and Tim Pigott-Smith is suitably menacing as head of secret police, Peter Creedy.
Smart scripting and decent direction
From a technical standpoint, screenwriters The Wachowskis (of The Matrix fame) do an impressive job of pairing down the comic book’s sprawling narrative and complex network of characters to a movie-friendly size.
There are instances where events have been either reshuffled, combined or flat-out changed (including large portions of the third act) that are indicative of smart screenwriting.
Similarly, McTeigue’s direction is solid overall, and he handles the action-packed scenes and the emotional beats equally well.
An audio/visual delight
The film also has some visually impressive moments thanks to cinematographer Adrian Biddle, particularly in the scenes which bring to life a letter integral to development of the film on both a plot and emotional level.
The most notable of these is the pivotal sequence at the end of the second act comparing and contrasting the emotional and spiritual awakenings of V and Evey (not surprisingly, these were among the most cinematic parts of the comic book, and are also the sections of the film that adhere to the source material most closely).
These moments are all enhanced by Dario Marianelli’s understated score, which supports rather than overpowers what is happening on screen.
V for Vendetta also manages to convey many of the main themes of its comic book inspiration, particularly with regards to the dual nature of anarchy (although the film is decidedly lax when it comes to actually using this word) as both a creative and destructive force, and the inherent power of ideas and symbols, and is able to bring this all together in order to deliver a rousing conclusion.
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
With all this praise, it almost sounds like I consider V for Vendetta a perfect adaptation, but the truth is that I do actually have several pretty big objections with the choices made by the filmmakers.
Bye, bye ambiguity
My main beef revolves around the decision to remove any real ambiguity surrounding the characters and themes. This is most evident in the portrayal of V as a heroic character, completely justified in his actions.
Sure, McTeigue flirts with the idea of V being dangerous and unhinged, but he is ultimately exonerated and beatified at the end, and society is shown in no uncertain terms to be better off thanks to his actions.
This ties into the fact that the concept of anarchy is pretty much absent from the script (V is described as a terrorist, rather than an anarchist), and the comic book’s sophisticated anarchy versus facism/chaos versus order discourse is replaced with a simplistic satire of modern US politics.
This means that, in the end, the government’s nasty scary form of order is overthrown by the happy, sunny order of a stable, free society – V can’t be wrong, because he’s replacing an evil social order with a benign social order; as there is no negative consequence of doing so, his ends clearly justify his means.
As a result, V for Vendetta‘s inspiring finale is absorbed by the audience without the bitter pill of uncertainty that made the ending of the comic book so intriguing, and which was so central to the spirit of the story.
If the V of the film is presented in a more positive light than his literary counterpart, the same cannot be said for his opponents.
With the exception of Finch (who serves as more of a secondary protagonist than a true antagonist anyway), the antagonists of the piece have all been reduced to either cartoonish villains or barely fleshed out bit characters, completely devoid of the complex characterisation of their comic book twins. This again dilutes the ambiguity of the narrative: these guys are clearly wicked and we want them all to go down without reservation.
While the filmmakers might have excised the ambiguity of the tale, they also added additional elements to the movie that seem a bit out of place. The most glaring of these is a clunky romantic subplot between V and Evey; this relationship was less clearly defined in the comic book, which again goes to show how much less enigmatic the film is, and as a result, how much less interesting it can be at times.
Just as clumsy is the addition of references to The Count of Monte Cristo (which seems a little too on the nose for a film centered around a revenge plot), as well as the attempts to update the story for a mid-2000s context, which end up a bit hit and miss (turning radio broadcaster Prothero into a Bill O’Reilly-style pundit works fine, but other things, like references to “America’s war”, tend to feel awkward and forced).
My other qualms with the film tend to be more on the technical side of things. For starters, while I said earlier that some of the visuals in the film are quite striking, very often the production design and cinematography can feel a bit bland and almost low-budget.
But my biggest issue in this department really comes down to the final fight sequence, because basically, it makes no sense.
Don’t get me wrong: I like crazy, slow-motion displays of balletic knifeplay more than the next guy, but the way this is presented just does not jibe with the quasi-realistic vibe of the film up to that point.
Until this scene, the world V inhabits has been shot in a pretty much real-world fashion. Yes, the audience has been witness to V’s superhuman speed and strength, but this is presented in a more or less grounded fashion, and the film functions on aesthetic level as a comic book adaptation, rather than as a comic book come to life, devoid of the surreal elements you’d expect to see in Sin City or Scott Pilgrim vs The World, for instance.
And then V begins his last stand against Creedy’s men, and as he brandishes his knives (our eyes gazing at him through a window of intense slow-motion), the blades begin to leave artistic, swirling streaks in their wake.
As soon as this abrupt creative flourish appears, the aesthetic established for the previous 100+ minutes of film is completely thrown on its ear, and, given the attempts by McTeigue to anchor the movie with a sense of realism (well, hyper-realism, really), the accepted reality of the fictional world goes out the window entirely, forcing me to consider the sort of literal-minded, nitpicky questions I usually criticise others for asking, such as “Why would knives seen at slow-motion not simply blur like normal?” and “Can V really be moving so fast that, even when holding his knives in a stationary grip, he causes them to leave the kind of light trail you’d expect to see from a sports car taking a sharp turn?”
I’m not saying I don’t enjoy the scene (the action movie fan in me thinks it’s very cool). I’m just saying that it always takes me out of the movie, and I think that if the filmmakers had pulled back ever so slightly with this scene, the film would have been better as a result.
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
In the end, the 2006 film adaptation of V for Vendetta will probably go down in the annals of movie making as an admirable yet flawed attempt at bringing the classic comic book to the screen. It gets more right than it gets wrong, and, like its charismatic protagonist, is able to reach its audience on both an intellectual and emotional level.