V for Vendetta was a disappointment upon its initial theatrical release. Having had five months to reconsider that diagnosis, viewing the film again on DVD has led me to realize that it's not just disappointing: It's downright terrible.
Marketed as an "uncompromising vision of the future," V for Vendetta was itself a terribly compromised translation of a graphic novel. The original comic (which began its run in 1981 and finished up in 1988) is considered a classic of the genre, with writer Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd creating a grim British dystopia. Having (barely) survived a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, this version of Britain is in the grips of a totalitarian, fascist state that cares only for maintaining the order it has created.
The hero of the comic, a vigilante known as "V," is a victim of government biological weapon testing; driven mad, he takes his revenge upon the officials who worked in the concentration camp that imprisoned him and begins a campaign of anarchy. As society crumbles, the streets erupt into violence and the government falls; gangs rove through London doing whatever they please. In one particularly disturbing scene towards the end of the comic-book series, a woman whose husband had been poised to take power is forced to become the sexual plaything of a group of dangerous men in order to survive.
As the streets collapsed into chaos, V's protégé, Evey, asks "All this riot and uproar V . . . is this anarchy? Is this the land of do-as-you-please?" "No," V replies. "This is only the land of take-what-you-want. Anarchy means 'without leaders'; not 'without orders.' With anarchy comes an age or ordnung, of true order, which is to say voluntary order. . . . This is not anarchy, Eve. This is chaos." The chaos V creates with his campaign of terror is, to his mind, a necessary evil that will lead to the collapse of the government. If society is ready, it will then regroup into a more mature, anarchic state (though V never explains how that might occur). Moore and Lloyd end the book on a down note. Society is still in chaos, V has been killed by a police officer, and the future remains uncertain.
The film version of V for Vendetta, penned by the Wachowski brothers, is less complicated. Whereas Moore and Lloyd admit that anarchy surely leads to violence, with the possibility of salvation somewhere down the line, the Wachowski version glosses over this problem. In the film there is no rioting in the streets. There is no wanton bloodshed (except by the police, who, for example, brutally gun down a little girl for vandalizing a government sign). Instead, the public shows its solidarity by donning replicas of the masks that V wears and marching on parliament at the end of the film, where they watch in awe as the seat of British democracy is destroyed in a pyrotechnic extravaganza.
The pair also decided to make the antagonists soulless parodies of real villains. Whereas Moore wrote that he would "look at a character who I'd previously seen as a one-dimensional Nazi baddy and suddenly realize that he or she would have thoughts and opinions the same as everyone else," the film avoids such nuance. Villains are portrayed lazily as one-dimensional blokes who never question what they're doing.
These large-scale thematic compromises are a result of the Wachowskis' outlook on life. The fascist state of Moore and Lloyd's comic resulted from a nuclear war. The fascist state of the Wachowskis' movie, however, comes after the government engineers a 9/11-style biological attack which it then blames on "religious extremists."
The filmmakers seem to believe that there is no difference between the United States and the terrorism it is fighting. While the Wachowskis are notoriously camera shy (according to a Rolling Stone piece earlier this year, Larry Wachowski is now "Laurenca" Wachowski, and appears to be in the process of becoming a male-to-female transsexual), the actors who work for them are not. In a documentary accompanying the DVD, actors took turns spouting nonsense. "I wouldn't say that terrorism is malign," John Hurt said, "because I don't think any form of warfare is malign. I think it's all atrocious. But it's peculiar that one form of warfare should be regarded suddenly as 'not on.'" Hugo Weaving opined that "we talk about terrorists a lot today, and yet there's probably very little attempt to understand why people are terrorists." Stephen Fry added that, "As we all know, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." How very profound.
V for Vendetta may be an "uncompromising vision of the future" as envisioned by two whacky brothers, but it's also a grotesquely romanticized vision of terrorism (V is never shown killing innocent civilians, for example) and a daft study in moral equivalence. To get such a poor product from such interesting source material suggests that in order for the filmmakers to satisfy their personal political fetishes, a number of unfortunate compromises had to be made.
Sonny Bunch is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.