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TV/Film “V for Vendetta” and the perils of adaptation

Oct. 11, 2021

Adaptations are a tricky thing.

They work to be two things simultaneously: an on-screen adaptation of a (usually) beloved form of media that will satisfy fans of the source material, and a financially successful film that appeases audiences unfamiliar with the original. It's almost always a death wish.

On rare occasions, film adaptations have proven to be more successful than their book counterparts. Recently, The Hunger Games was applauded for fleshing out its world through costuming, makeup, and setting. In 1997, Paul Verhoeven's adaptation of Starship Troopers took the propaganda and xenophobic tones of the original novel and twisted them on their head to create a satire of American nationalism. Its action-movie visuals and campy tone would be impossible to achieve in written format. But certain mediums such as comics and graphic novels can suffer in adaptation. When visuals are inherently tied to the narrative already, losing or changing them alters the story itself.

This week marks the 15-year anniversary of V for Vendetta, a film acclaimed upon its release and all the more poignant today. Alan Moore’s original graphic novel takes place in 1997 following worldwide nuclear warfare, while the film takes place in 2020 following a pandemic, which we later learn was an act of biological warfare conducted to install a totalitarian government (nobody tell the COVID conspiracy theorists). Despite being set in the UK and written by a British icon, its Hollywood adaptation lacks the strong national identity of its source material. The casting of an American A-lister (Natalie Portman) in a gritty exploration of British politics, penned for adaptation by iconic Hollywood action movie directors (the Wachowskis), immediately leaves the film in an identity crisis. The film replaces the graphic novel's protagonist Evey, a scared 16-year-old prostitute, with a smart and willful woman with more agency. From its opening minutes, the film distances itself from the source material while extrapolating its most basic messaging. It erases the more striking political content of the graphic novel while including its eye-catching superficial aspects such as V’s character design.

Films containing political commentary, such as 1984 and Dr Strangelove, had been released prior to V for Vendetta, but in 2006 international audiences were desperate for escapism. The decade saw an influx of genre films released in a clamor to escape the realities of terrorism and foreign warfare in a post-9/11 world. Nobody wanted to see another 1984—they wanted Reese Witherspoon rom-coms. To be fair, escapist media isn’t a bad thing. It serves a purpose and it serves it well: I’m a huge advocate for Legally Blonde. It’s understandable that more escapism would be created in eras of social duress. Releasing a Vendetta adaptation in such a time was a poor move, and the producers knew it.

The Wachowski sisters (of The Matrix fame) were selected as the adaptation’s writing team, and their influence on Vendetta is unquestionable. The gritty visuals of Moore's graphic novel were replaced with a Hollywood veneer: the film’s world is filled with action scenes that are unmistakably Hollywood, the impact of The Matrix and bullet-time slapping you across the face every ten minutes. The Wachowskis’ script does its best at balancing what they are famous for with the heavy content of the source material. At numerous points, oddly placed high action scenes cause obvious tonal issues. While the action sequences are sometimes justified in the narrative, their placement causes some more relevant and poignant moments to be forgotten.

Action sequences don’t have to exist separately from political content. In fact, when done well it can be used to great effect, as seen in Kinji Fukasku's 1999 adaptation of Battle Royale. Often referred to as a predecessor to The Hunger Games, the film shows a world in which intergenerational tensions and high unemployment rates have led the Japanese government to systematically kill off their youth in an annual program. The children selected for each year’s game have no knowledge of the practice and are planted in a remote space to murder off their classmates until only one survives. Seeing children slaughter their peers is more than enough to demonstrate the barbarism and desperation of Battle Royale’s Japan. Amongst the violence however, the film deftly comments on the state of Japan’s contemporary social issues, including a growing older population dependent on a much smaller demographic of teens and young adults holding different values.

Moore's original Vendetta focuses heavily on British politics, particularly Thatcherism, anarchism, and fascism. The graphic novel’s commentary was more obvious upon its release at the tail end of Margaret Thatcher's administration, but today its content reads as a critique of fascism, surveillance states, and big government at large. Hollywood took the basic themes of the novel and removed much of their national identityopting instead to include allusions to and critiques of the Bush administration. This erases the source material's influences and makes the film more digestible to an international audience more familiar with recent American presidents that dominated televised media rather than British politicians from two decades prior. Instead of exploring anarchism and fascism, the film trades them in for neoconservatism and liberalism. In doing so, the film deems American politics more important than the British social issues which inspired the original graphic novel.

Vendetta makes use of various iconic visuals to (admirably) make its politics accessible to the widest possible audience, but they are heavy-handed at best. A government rally bears striking resemblance to those held in Nazi Germany and higher-ranking villains are shown from low angles, similar to Hitler’s portrayal in Triumph of the Will. The film’s chief antagonist, Chancellor Sutler, is primarily seen via a giant screen in a nod to George Orwell’s 1984—all the more interesting considering Sutler is played by John Hurt, who portrayed Winston Smith in Michael Radford’s 1984 adaptation. Hollywood's Vendetta goes to great lengths to erase any moral gray area and places its characters firmly on one political side or the other. One of Evey's seedy clients from the novel is portrayed as a closeted gay man and television host who puts his safety at risk by harboring artifacts of a past world. Instead of being yet another repugnant character to question, he is redeemed and shown to preserve banned items such as a copy of the Qu’ran and gay artwork in his basement. He isn’t a morally reprehensible person, but someone who the audience should root for. In contrast, the government's mouthpiece and puppet television host, Gordon Deitrich, lives in a home filled with screens, narcissistically surrounding himself with his image much like I imagine Piers Morgan does. Originally a radio show host in the graphic novel, his change to a TV host aligns him with American newscasters and their penchant for controversy and vitriol. 

This idolization and vilification of characters in Vendetta goes against the novel’s messaging, and Moore himself has elaborated on his distaste for such characterization: "I wanted to present some of the fascists as being ordinary and in some instances even likeable human beings. They weren't just Nazi cartoons with monocles and...dueling scars. They were people who made their choices for a reason." This filtering of Vendetta’s content has remained a point of frustration for both fans of the original and its writer for years. Being notoriously critical of adaptations of his work, and perceiving the script to be a toning down of his novel, Moore went so far as to request his name be removed from all credits without ever having viewed the film.

Since the release of Vendetta, there has been a rise of interest in politically minded media. HBO's The Handmaid’s Tale received critical acclaim due to its realistic portrayal of our own world slipping into a totalitarian society in which women are reduced to gender roles. More recently, Amazon Prime's The Boys, a show about the consequences of morally questionable people possessing superpowers, was released to great acclaim. These are rare examples of adaptations released at perfect times: The Handmaid’s Tale in the face of Trump’s conservative government, and The Boys at the height of superhero dominance at the box office. These shows are notable for exploring the humanity and complexity of their characters, something that V for Vendetta failed to explore deeply in 2006. Audiences today expect more than a binary of protagonists and villains.

It might be wish fulfillment, but I dream of what a V for Vendetta adaptation would look like today. Morally ambiguous characters have proven successful when audiences have been given multiple seasons to understand their history, ethics, and actions, which leads me to believe that V for Vendetta is suited to an episodic format. It would be far too easy for a contemporary adaptation to repeat the 2006 film’s mistakes; I have faith that up-and-coming talents would be able to do Moore’s story the justice that it deserves. Let's just hope that Netflix doesn't get their hands on it.