Though today is not the fifth of November, one still would be well served to remember the importance of the nursery rhyme which bears this date. Remember, remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot; the sentiment of these simple lines is pushed to its utmost in Alan Moore’s and David Lloyd’s incendiary agitprop anarchistic graphic novelism in the form of the anarchistic terrorist-cum-ideologue V.
Though published in the internecine political warfare between the Labour and Conservative parties from 1982 to 1989, it was not until the equally fraught period of British society in 2005 that the material was eventually adapted into a film starring Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving, directed by James McTeigue. Or rather, 2005 would have been the release year of the film, on the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Treason Plot no less, had WB Studios decided not to delay the release in the wake of London’s horrific 7/7 bombings.
Though the missed opportunity to have the film premiere on this precipitous and propitious date is regrettable, more regrettable still is that the film does little to engage with the very brand of ideological violence which provoked the bombings and which the graphic novel examines (hereafter referred to by the less pretentious designation of “book”). Had it done so, perhaps the film might have retained its original date, or at least the filmmakers and studio could have embarked on a much needed and undoubtedly valuable discourse on the politics of this century. Instead, those involved squandered their chance, as the film squandered its full potential. Though perhaps my criticism is unwarranted, since the book answers questions the film doesn’t dare to ask: What is the measure of villainy? Of heroism? The depths of compassion and the heights of our capacity for cruelty? But then, ought any text dealing with the political strive to grapple with just this dimension of our humanity?
Don’t misunderstand my criticisms for an attack on the film’s merit. I think it remains the best adaptation of Alan Moore’s work thus far (so small an accomplish as to be no praise at all, I realize), and the issues it does grapple with–xenophobia and discrimination–are handled without the overbearing pedantry of most blockbuster movies. And the film nonetheless remains the pith of the book: the police state makes the cut, as does mass-surveillance, indoctrination and complacency of the populace; but the film fails in the unwillingness or inability of the filmmakers to engage with the political dimension of these problems. In its place, the film seems to gleefully and paradoxically champion mindless jingoism just as it strives to disabuse the audience of it. V is no less of a demagogue than the tyrant he seeks to overthrow, the debates which populated the book are here substituted by exchanges of flashy knife-play and gunfire.
Though the film doesn’t shy from the politics of fascism, it takes the system at face value. The film treats fascism as the necessary dichotomy between democracy that it is, but in so doing vindicates the contrary without question. Unlike the book, which includes many monologues by the ostensible villain, the party leader, in which he lays out the methodology and even the psychology of fascism, the movie cauterizes this dimension with its frequent recourse to gunfire and explosions. While all the major action beats of the film are nonetheless present in the book, Moore and Lloyd used the action to punctuate the discourse, whereas the opposite is true of the film.
Ironically then, the film doesn’t need to bother explaining just how a society would descend into fascism (which the book does), as indeed it almost entirely sidesteps, since the binary is taken at face value as superior. Anything is better than fascism, the film declares, almost quite rightly, except that without a thorough examination of the politic of the problem any society is doomed to an equally insuperable state. When the film treats V’s declaration that “people shouldn’t be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people” as an aperçu rather than an uncomfortable mistranslation and misappropriation of the social contract, one can’t help but feel the film is instilling a very weak rhetorical framework indeed. Without rationale and debate, which the book supplies but which the film frequently elides in favour of action, no system can be claimed better than any other; all are instead mere echoes of one another.
The film’s stance of politics is reduced to the realm of tautologies: Fascism is bad because it does bad things, democracy is good because it does good things; or absurd platitudes: Liberty through Anarchy, Anarchy through Assembly. To understand that the issues which the film neglects are the real problems that must be addressed, one need only look with horror to the extent to which many fervent Tea-Partiers, wholly ignorant of the historical and political conditions of their movement, espouse a dogmatic belief in the virtue of a republican democracy (with the founding fathers anointed as its prophets). The film and its legions of fans alike seem to have mistaken the book’s claim central claim to be the virtue of anarchism (it’s not, and, more importantly, the book made certain to clarify the state of anarchy as society without rulers, not society without rules). Instead, the book stressed the value of reason and the necessity for debate.
That the film misconstrues the significance of V’s torture and confinement of Evey (the sentiment of which is contained in but one crucial line needed for the film: “I didn’t put you in a prison, I just showed you the bars”), that this revised confrontation scrubs any notion of the meaning of principles, that the psychopathic actions of V throughout the work are rewritten as noble heroics or necessary concessions to combat evil, none of these events in themselves damn the film, but they do reduce its meaning to pop-culture jingoism. The film turns anarchism into entertainment, and while the film is certainly entertaining, it nonetheless bears little ideological connection to the work it adapts. The title of the book was a ruse; the film treats it literally.
What was needed from the film was a treatment of ideology as a virus and as a virtue that could be shown fearlessly in cinemas on the fifth of November just a scant five months after the bombings perpetrated by an equally fascistic legion of zealots. Instead we have, as the character Creedy sneers in both book and film, “nothing but [V’s] bloody knives and [his] fancy karate gimmicks”.
Still, this reflection has so far neglected to mention so much of what the film gets right: V’s fiendish persona, the sensitivity of the film to discrimination, and especially Evey’s emotional reconciliation with her humanity while reading the final testament of a cleansed undesirable, made all the more powerful by Natalie Portman’s generous performance. The film is by no means a failure, but it should nonetheless be entertained with the acknowledgement that the book is where the real pith of the politic is to be found.
If you like where these words are going, keep up to date with them on Twitter @BinaryBastard
Might I suggest:
For you Canadians: