V for Variation
Alan Moore's Work Gets Another Big Screen Drubbing

For all you movie fans, there’s some spoilerific stuff ahead regarding V for Vendetta and Match Point. Just to warn you, if you haven’t seen these movies and want to be surprised. I would also direct your attention to the archive, where you’ll find a second column this week. Thanks. – A.S.

When I reviewed Woody Allen’s Match Point, I compared it to his 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors, with which it shares a plot skeleton. In both films, we follow men of privilege as they engage in dangerous affairs, and we watch as the relationships crumble. In both films, the men turn, in desperation, to murder in order to keep their affair quiet. And in both movies, it works – the mistress lies dead, the adulterer (pulling the strings in one film, and pulling the trigger in the other) is free from suspicion, and no one is the wiser.

They’re very similar works, but Allen, in his inimitable way, uses the parallel structures to say two very different things. Crimes and Misdemeanors is about the cruelty of God, the indifference of the almighty to what we do down here. Match Point, on the other hand, is about luck, and about how random our lives really are. The films are both about bad people getting away with bad things, but they are very different at the core – Crimes is theological, probing the question of God’s fairness, while Match Point is nihilistic, beginning with the premise that there is no God, and everything is down to chance.

I get much the same impression from the book and film versions of V for Vendetta. The big screen treatment of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s gripping graphic novel opens this weekend, and while it shares a basic plot structure and characters with the book, it uses that skeleton to say something utterly different from Moore and Lloyd’s original intent. And it raises the question – if an adaptation revises the point of the source material, so much so that the message is altered completely, is it still an adaptation?

Not that Alan Moore has had any luck in this arena. He’s revered among lovers of comic books (like me) as one of the most thoughtful, skilled, and downright magical writers currently working. In the 1980s, he helped kick open the door to What Comics Can Be with work like Watchmen, Swamp Thing (really), and of course, V for Vendetta. In the 1990s, he focused on deep artistic statements, including his masterpiece, From Hell. And in this decade, he’s worked overtime to return the joy to comics through sweet undertakings like Tom Strong and Top 10, while literally bringing the magic to Promethea, a major, major work.

Comics love Alan Moore. Movies, not so much. The celluloid versions of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell were godawful, and what the producers, writers and director of Constantine did to Moore’s bastardly mage (John Constantine is British, nearly 50 and blond, for one) should be a crime. Constantine is a good example, actually – if you’re going to change something so much that it becomes unrecognizable, then why pay good money for the source material?

Moore has never seen Constantine, nor the League movie, nor From Hell. And I think he’s probably a better person for it. He has a standing policy of asking that his name be removed from movies made of his works, and all money due him for such adaptations be distributed among his collaborators, like Lloyd. That’s why, when you see V for Vendetta, you will notice the credit which reads, “Based on the graphic novel illustrated by David Lloyd.”

Moore says he’s not going to watch this one, either, and for the first time, I think that might be a shame. V is the best translation of Moore’s work to the screen thus far, even though it still misses the mark by several miles, and I’d be interested in his take on it, considering that the revisions this time are not plot related, but thematic. In its original form, V for Vendetta was a violent reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, a call for anarchy in the face of totalitarianism. The book’s assertion was that oppression of the depth and power depicted in its pages could only be dealt with from the top down – remove the boot, and the people can breathe.

The film, however, dispenses with anarchy as a solution, and concentrates much of its efforts on mobilizing the people of its fictional future Britain into toppling the government themselves. This new V is a defense of terrorism against tyranny, like the book, but it is also a rallying cry, a call for the people to unite in revolution. In the book, unity is the last thing on V’s mind – he’s about disorder, disunity, about bringing everything crashing down so it could rise up again.

V is an uncomfortable book – its hero is a masked man who demolishes buildings and kills people for a political ideal, the dictionary definition of a terrorist. V is a faceless icon, anarchy personified, driven by single-minded resolve, and yet his motives are clouded by personal vengeance. It’s never clear whether Moore takes V’s side. He merely presents him, a character that sees himself as the only alternative. The book ends before we see the fruits of the new world V creates, one he himself does not live to experience.

The movie is touchier, mostly because of the current political climate it works so hard to relate itself to. The film’s V, played by Hugo Weaving, still kills people and blows up buildings, but he does so to stir the populace. This V is the self-styled leader of a revolution, mailing out Guy Fawkes masks like the one he wears, encouraging people to follow him. There is a scene in which V takes over the state-controlled airwaves, and in the book, the point was disruption and chaos, but in the movie, the point is to issue a challenge to the citizens – rise up and meet me. And wear your mask.

The film, then, is less explosive, yet somehow more relevant. The book’s solution is a difficult one to grapple with, and those who still believe in the system will find it defeatist and irresponsible. The film’s message, on the other hand, is ever-so-slightly more palatable – give the people a reason to revolt and a symbol to unite behind, and they will replace tyranny with democracy. In the book, the people of Britain are too far gone to revolt, and they must have change thrust upon them if they are to be free. In the movie, all it takes is a couple of explosions and some masks to organize a revolution. It seems too easy.

The problem is, the framework of V for Vendetta, the novel, is predicated on that original premise. Pieces of it now sit uncomfortably on screen with the new agenda, and some elements now tie in a little too neatly. Nowhere is the clash more evident than in the relationship between V and Evey, the heart of both the book and the movie. The film is pretty pat – V finds a young, strong, capable woman and opens her eyes to the world, all the while (gag reflex imminent) falling in love with her.

But in the book, the relationship is deeper and trickier, and ultimately more satisfying. Evey, at the start, is a 16-year-old girl, lost and alone. V finds her, and rescues her, but the trust she develops for him is all a product of manipulation. Evey is a microcosm of the people, trusting and helpless, and V of the government, controlling her with a smile. V then puts Evey through the most unimaginable torture, and teaches her self-reliance, and it’s the microcosm all over again. V plans to put the people of Britain through the wringer, upending their lives, and when they emerge, they will be individually strong and responsible, so much so that government will be unnecessary.

None of this is in the film, and yet the methods remain the same, so now the prison torture sequences and the incredibly well-filmed Valerie scenes ring somewhat hollow. Evey, as played by Natalie Portman, didn’t need such extreme measures – she was three-quarters of the way there on her own, before even meeting V. And the end result is not a thorough reinvention of what she is, as it was in the book, but merely a shift in her political thinking.

All well and good, for what it is. The film also takes more steps than the book does to humanize V, sometimes to the point of silliness, and spends a lot of time justifying his actions. For those seeking good guys winning out over bad guys, these little revisions should help. But the book does no such things – V is iconic, not human, and his actions are justified because he says so. It’s a more difficult work to pin down and simply enjoy, and it cuts deeper and hits harder. The film has the skin of an Alan Moore work, but not the soul of one.

So the question, then: is this a genuine adaptation of V for Vendetta? It’s certainly more of one than League of Extraordinary Stupidity, but in the end, I have to say no. Alan Moore is a master of theme, of spinning a statement through story, and if that statement is changed, even though the story (by and large) isn’t, then the work has not been captured.

My bet is that Moore’s work never will be adapted fairly – he’s such a complex writer, and his comics utilize the medium so perfectly that even a faithful translation would lose the spirit of them. V for Vendetta is a step in the right direction – at least this one’s set in the proper country – but it still sidesteps Moore’s intent, and mischaracterizes his story. It’s smarter than the average popcorn movie, but its ambitions end there, whereas Moore’s are limitless.

There’s a legend about Raymond Chandler – when someone asked how he could stand what Hollywood has done to his books, the author pointed at his collection of his own works and said, “Hollywood hasn’t done anything to my books. They’re right there on the shelf.” I think that’s a healthy attitude. If you catch V for Vendetta at your local multiplex, and see within it a glimmer of something deeper and more interesting, I’d urge you to seek out Moore and Lloyd’s book. It’s always in print from DC/Vertigo, and should be at your local bookstore.

One more thing, because I’m sure I’ll get emails about this if I don’t mention it – my recommendation of Alan Moore’s books does not equate to an endorsement of their messages, whatever you may find them to be. That’s especially true if you read V for Vendetta as an argument in defense of terrorism, which is easy to do. I’m only advocating reading a book that will challenge your ideas and make you think. I’m not advocating dressing up in a mask and blowing up the houses of Parliament. Dig?

All right, then.

See you in line Tuesday morning.