V for Vendetta and Anarchy
September 5, 2010 1 Comment
Gave this talk at the UP Samahan sa Agham Pampulitika ACLE a couple weeks back, but have been so busy that I only had a chance to upload it now. I was writing it in a kind of white heat, blazing through words at 2 in the morning trying to finish the paper, so not sure how much sense it really makes. In any case, feel free to argue:
Alan Moore, writer of V for Vendetta, has become notorious for, among other things, disowning the film adaptations of his work. There was the travesty that was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen being turned into the nonsensical extravaganza that was LXG, and all the other liberal departures that Hollywood has made, often extracting the powerful vision that Moore has used to craft his groundbreaking work. Arguably one of the greatest, if not the greatest, comic book writer of all time, a pioneer who elevated the comic book to the level of art, Moore’s dissociating himself from the film adaptations of his work leads us to examine, in the context of V for Vendetta, how narratively similar, and yet how fundamentally different the comic book and the film are.
The film takes a number of departures, and this is to be expected in adaptations where you take the story of one art form and transplant it to another. Of course each art form has its own conventions, tools, and limitations, and when making an adaptation there will necessarily be changes.
The serialized comic book art form is one of the most popular, and yet one of the most easily misunderstood of forms. This is because it is often treated as a child’s form, as something that does not deserve study. And yet with each work that Moore has produced he has pushed the narrative boundaries of the comic book, and shown what, as an art form, the comic book is capable of. From these aesthetic considerations, where each of Moore’s books is a masterpiece, any sort of adaptation is doomed to failure as the stories and the way that they are told are meant truly for the panels and gutters.
We account for and accept the changes that must be made. The limitations of the feature film coming to around two hours (these limitations, mind you, are defined not merely by aesthetic concerns, but also by business concerns, as movies that are too long limit the number of screenings per day, lessening ticket sales) and the sweeping story of V taking up a number of issues over a years-long publishing period, there were things that had to be cut out. There were changes made to character. A considerable amount of nuance was lost. And there is the dreadful sexual tension between V and Evey which was handled differently and much better in the comic book.
And viewing the film version, and even allowing that the film is enjoyable and in itself is quite a good film, there is something that is definitely lost. I do believe that this film is worth watching, but it removes one of the central tenets of the book, that of anarchy. What’s unusual is what radicalizes V, what makes him what he is, is essentially the same in both versions, and yet they lead to decidedly different convictions: the V of the film believes in democracy while the V of the comic book is an anarchist. I believe that given the context of the events portrayed in both versions, and the way that the character develops according to Moore’s vision, then the true outcome should be that of V as an anarchist.
I’ll first discuss V’s push for democracy in the film, citing examples of lines and scenes, and then I will contrast them with the concepts of anarchy as presented in Moore’s book, while also introducing some ideas about anarchy, the übermensch, superheroes, and the anti-hero. All of these will lead to the conclusion that working from the text’s framework, with the author’s vision, and within the conventions of the comic book, that V must necessarily be an anarchist.
The democratic V begins by destroying the Old Bailey, the symbol for justice. In the comic book, he begins by destroying Parliament.
Further different are his motivations for destroying the Old Bailey. What is omitted from the film is V’s tirade against Justice. He says that he loved her, but that she was an unfaithful lover who allowed herself to be used by the powerful to oppress the people. And then V tells Lady Justice that he has found a new lover, Anarchy. “She has taught me that justice is meaningless without freedom. She is honest. She makes no promises and breaks none.”
After destroying the Old Bailey in the film, V makes a news broadcast, where he speaks of the power of words. He enlists the populace, giving them a one year timetable. He encourages discourse and it seems very clear that he is a believer in collective action. In fact, later in the film, he says, “With enough people, blowing up a building can change the world.”
By the end of the film Evey tells us that V’s is a message of hope, that “He was all of us.” In essence, and we see this represented visually as various characters who were killed by the oppressive regime appear onscreen as the Guy Fawkes-mask wearing protesters unmask themselves, the spirit of V resides in every one of us. We need only to stand up for ourselves, to take charge, and we too can be V.
Needless to say this ease at which we can become revolutionaries fits that democratic framework, but it falls well outside of the demands of anarchy, and it falls far from the spirit of Alan Moore’s artistic vision.
Thus when we look at the adaptation on an aesthetic level, which is to say, is it a good movie to watch, we can say that it is successful. But on the other level of adaptation, which is does it capture the spirit of the original work in a new art form, we can see that it fails to bring the brave, non-conformist, anti-authority stance that defined Moore and Lloyd’s book.
When we look at the anarchist V we see that he was created within the context of ultra-conservative Thatcherism. The film deals with a Pax Americana gone wrong and biological attacks on the populace. The comic book envisions a world post-nuclear winter. Though now we know that the world would not survive such an event, Moore wrote V imagining how Britain might handle one. This nuclear war outcome was meant to hint that the world of both democracy and socialism had failed, resulting in war. And what rose from that was a government composed of fascist groups, right wingers, and big corporations.
In any case, while V calls on the populace to join him in the film, he makes a judgment of them in the comic book, a judgment which shows that he sees next to no difference between democracy, socialism, or fascism, as what defines all is the presence of leaders and rulers: “We’ve had a string of embezzlers, frauds, liars, and lunatics making a string of catastrophic decisions. But who elected them? It was you! You who appointed these people! You who gave them the power to make your decisions for you!”
While the world around V is different, the immediate circumstances that created him were no different. He was a prisoner, one of the outcasts of society who was chosen for experimentation. In both cases, V becomes something of a superhuman, physically, intellectually, and most significantly culturally.
The movie never identifies V as being more than a human being. After all, it hints at democracy, that we can all become V by merely becoming aware of the prison around us. In the comic book though, there are clear instances when V is referred to as more than human. In the comic book Finch says, “What we’re up against is someone who isn’t normal people.” And Dr. Surridge says of V when he blows up Larkhill and walks away from the facility: “He looked at me as if I were an insect…as if I were something mounted on a slide.”
Indeed V has transcended whatever it is that we normal humans are. Here it’s interesting to bring up the torture scenes where Evey discovers her freedom. They are mostly identical in book and film, and yet in the film there seems to be a logical discrepancy. If V does reside in every one of us, if all it takes is to join collective social action to become a part of the revolution, then why must Evey be subjected to such torture? In the book it is clear, he is creating a new V, indeed it’s rather explicit that she is the new V for the new world, one who won’t kill, who won’t destroy, but one who will help build. But she has to undergo that process so that she too may transcend the prisons which she has been raised to accept.
So what is V then? If V and then Evey have transcended, what have they become? I believe that V comes to represent an iteration of the übermensch. Unlike the Nazi version or other oppressive interpretations of the übermensch I believe that V is a human who has overcome the limitations of humanity, someone who has become an intellectual, a fighter, a revolutionary, a theatrical performer, a philosopher, an artist, and quite literally a superhero.
Ubermensch translates roughly to over-man or super-man. Superman we all know. And he will come into play here as we begin to look at the moral questions that are brought about by such a being. What happens, when among the people, there is someone clearly above and beyond them, their abilities, their capacities? In the case of Superman, we know that due to his birthright and his upbringing, he lives by a moral code of helping and trying to do right. But obviously with V we have someone whose morals, because of the torture and oppression that have come to define him, are in stark contrast to our tights-wearing heroes.
That is one of the clear appeals of V, one of the first anti-heroes. He is a hero, he is our protagonist, and we root for him. And yet, while we understand his quest to topple an oppressive regime, we witness morally questionable, often sadistic acts. He is cutthroat, literally. He is more brutal in the book, and does not give a second thought to taking lives, merely because he is taking the lives of those who are part of the system he is trying to destroy. He is theatrical, and in this way he toys with his prey. And this makes us question, are we ready to do similar things? Would we be willing to go to these lengths? And we cannot forget that underlying all of this is, of course, a vendetta, a carrying out of revenge in blood which to many of us would seem morally reprehensible.
One way to approach it is that the ubermensch, or supermen, fall outside of the rules of normal society. Normal society cannot contain V, what more this oppressive totalitarian regime. When dealing with a superman, can we expect him or her to play by the rules of normal society?
This is what we find often in comic books that are willing to question the existence of beings that are, quite literally, superhuman. Moore did this definitively with Watchmen, and many have followed in his footsteps. We think of all the comic book villains whose claim to subjugating people, to exploiting and taking advantage of them is their clear physical or mental superiority over normal people, and we also witness in these books individuals who, endowed with superpowers, super strength and strong moral fiber, become heroes and protectors.
And we see V falling somewhere in between. While he is shown to be physically superior to other human beings, we must pay attention to his being cultured, his artistry, flair for dramatics, and his being a connoisseur of art. This may seem like a gimmick to make him cool, or just a quirky superhero trait, but aside from the torture that he endured which define his motives and fuel his vengeance, his identity is also defined by the great works of art which he has immersed himself in, and which he has come to live by.
The arts which we often refer to as the humanities, and the concept of art as that which humanizes us, connects us with all of culture across time and space. It is essential that we refer to them if we are to understand the beliefs of V, and what drives him. The arts make him human, breathe life into his burned body. But the movie deprives V of this when, as he is dying, he says that Evey helped to make him feel alive. In the comic book it is the art that makes him live, the art which he has collected and that he appreciates that make life worth living. There’s the vendetta, yes, but there is also the idea that he must celebrate the great music, film, literature, sculpture, and painting.
This I believe is what causes him to be better than the oppressors. While the oppressors wield power and influence against V’s subversion, what makes him more of a human, more compassionate and caring of people in general, despite being terribly brutal to the oppressors in particular, is that he believes in art and man’s ability to be great through the creation of art. He believes in humanity, because he believes in the humanities. He knows how people can become great, can become everlasting, immortal, and transcendent. It is not through the machinations and control of the state, but rather through individual accomplishment that we transcend ourselves and connect with the whole of humanity.
And really, that is what is demanded in V’s anarchy. Unlike the film which shows a toppled state and a collective action taking over, the comic book ends with Britain in chaos. V’s job was to free them from their prison, as he freed Evey, and it was up to humanity to do what they would with it, whether they would revert to faulty systems, or would rise up to the idealized anarchy of V. V, knowing that he has no place in the new world, allows himself to be shot in both versions, though the passing of the Shadow Gallery to Evey is more pointed and meaningful in the comic book, as she becomes protector of the ideals. Among V’s last words he says, “Anarchy wears two faces, both creator and destroyer. Thus destroyers topple empires; make a canvas of clean rubble where creators can then build a better world.
V’s anarchy is not the one that we most commonly think of when the word is thrown about, where there is chaos and disorder. It is clear to V what anarchy is and what his revolution is for: “Anarchy means ‘without leaders’ not ‘without order.’ With anarchy comes an age of…true order which is to say voluntary order.”
To be able to attain such an anarchy would then require of all of us a desire to become ubermensch, to transcend the pettiness of our lives, to live beyond the prison of limitations, and to hold ourselves to a much more demanding, exacting code. We see in V a commitment to right, to truth, and to art. And we see that he is uncompromising in that. We also see that Evey, through what she has endured, will be similarly uncompromising. For V’s anarchy to work, and for us to belong to such an anarchy, it is clear that it’s not easy as joining in social action.
We must be idealists. V, after all, is an idealist, as any revolutionary must be. And within the moral code that he has set for himself, he has created a kind of framework for what he believes people should be. They should be intelligent, cultured free thinkers who are willing to do what it takes for good to triumph over evil, even if that means that the good must, at times, commit evil. These ambiguities are where revolutions and revolutionaries get frightening and muddled. And that is where V offers some of his best advice:
“’Midst insurrection’s clamor, we may forget just what it is for which we strive…isn’t it dancing? Scented shoulders? Pupils widened by desire or wine? Anarchy must embrace the din of bombs and cannon-fire…yet always must it love sweet music much more.”