Shooting the voice of treason

March 24, 2006

V For Vendetta
In cinemas nationwide

The reviews of V for Vendetta have been pretty much "C is for crap". The movie adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Lloyd's graphic serial/novel looks doomed for the toilet bowl of film history.

The film industry has not entirely worked out how to make use of the rich store of narrative in adult graphic fiction. Comic books - "kid's stuff" - have been cracked, and there will, doubtless, be Spider-Man sequels until the crack of doom. Grown-up stuff is still in the experimental phase.

Moore, who was responsible for the plot and dialogue for V for Vendetta , was so disgusted with Hollywood's special-effects-laden version of his League of Extraordinary Gentleman that he removed his credits from this film. But were the works "his"? In contrast to traditional fiction, graphic fiction's ownership is a vexed question. Is the artist (Lloyd) or the wordsmith (Moore) the real "creator"?

Another problem is the nature of the medium. It progresses on the page by intrinsically unmoving pictures. Typically, too, bitty serial instalments work against any incremental plot build-up. Arguably the most successful attempt to translate graphic fiction to the screen has been Sin City, in which the author, Frank Miller, was recruited by Robert Rodriguez as co-director. Between them, they fused a unique visual style, evocative everywhere of its source.

V for Vendetta , from the same stable as The Matrix , has the objectionable feature of that trilogy: portentousness. The story began as a serial in the influential magazine Warrior , in 1982 - during the most unsettled period in Britain since the Second World War. Moore and Lloyd expected the Thatcher Government to fall and Orwell's "Ingsoc" - National Socialism with a British face - to take over. Nineteen Eighty-Four was, after all, imminent.

The original Moore-Lloyd scenario is set in 1997, vaguely post-WW3. A unilateralist government has kept the UK from nuclear destruction, but not from 1940s-style austerity. The country is a dictatorship; ostensibly puritanical, wholly racist and homophobic. The leadership indulges its vices behind party doors. There is a fleeting reference to a Queen Zara. V is the only survivor of Mengele-like hormone experiments at one of the state's concentration camps, Larkhill, and the drugs that killed his fellow inmates have rendered him superhuman.

He carries out a programme of revenge against his tormentors, his face and identity concealed behind a smiling Guy Fawkes mask. His nom de terrorisme may be a Roman numeral reference to the Fifth of November, or to Beethoven's Fifth.

V teams up with a young partner, Evey Hammond, whom he rescues from rape by patrolling secret police. After revenge comes revolution, brought about by cleansing "anarchy". He is a one-(super)man IRA.

The film holds to the original Moore-Lloyd outline, but softens its sharp edges and updates the action to 2015. The mood is radically changed. The conclusion to the novel, penned after a break of five years, found Moore terminally glum: "[This country is] cold and it's mean-spirited and I don't like it here anymore," he wrote. The movie, by contrast, ends with rousing power-to-the-people optimism.

The film has had some awful luck. It was scheduled to come out on November 5 with a grand fireworks display. But after the events of July 7, release was postponed to a very un-Fawkesian March 17. No fireworks. V for Vendetta doesn't quite work, but doesn't entirely fail. It merits an E for Effort.J John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe professor emeritus at University College London.

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