The rest of us here at Culture Conquistadors have been talking about Jupiter Ascending and the Wachowskis. It’s about time I get there, too, isn’t it?
Any time a novel, graphic or otherwise, is adapted to the Big Screen, the received wisdom is that the movie is going to be shallower and in some way a disappointment to the novel’s die-hard fans. I’m not going to pretend that this received wisdom is entirely false. On the most basic level: the novel took me about seven hours to read cover-to-cover, and the movie runs a bit north of two hours. This sort of time disparity is common for adaptations, and unless there is a lot of bloat on the page or a truly unrealistic density of ideas on the screen, it’s safe to bet that the movie is shallower or is at least missing some of the threads that the original author saw fit to include.
But that doesn’t need to mean that the movie is bad or even that it’s any worse.
Accusations on that level, I believe, are often (usually?) motivated by a particular mix of childish signaling games. “Criticizing this thing shows that it is beneath my tastes and therefore that I am to be respected” is a painfully common conversational trope. In college dorm rooms, over dinner, at the water cooler, at the barber shop, on internet message boards, everywhere… you see empty criticisms offered by people consciously or subconsciously hoping it’ll make them look better. The other element here is this: since books occupy a higher spot on the intelligentsia’s “culture totem pole” than movies, criticizing the movie in favor of the book also offers a convenient way to signal that one is sophisticated, a world apart from the hoi polloi at the cinema.
In case it isn’t yet clear: I find these kinds of empty criticisms detestable. If you want to engage with our twenty-first century culture/art/entertainment/pop-art by making claims about the relative merits of a novel and its movie adaptation, you’d best be able to explain how you came to that opinion or else face the towering menace that is my literary nerd rage.
So, with all that said? Yeah, the movie isn’t quite as good as the book. But! The Wachowskis went into it with their eyes wide open, and I want to argue that the decisions they made in the adaptation reveal a deep love for the original text, great care taken to preserve (some of) its messages, and great intelligence applied to the enterprise of including as much of the novel’s themes as possible.
Some quick notes on things I liked:
- I was afraid that, despite the movie being rated R, it would soften the corners and round the edges of Norsefire’s nasty authoritarian England. By and large, it did not. It dotingly preserved the pulpy crassness of the novel, even inventing a few of its own brutalities to keep pace (“Percy gives his Beretta a blowjob, Keyes dies in a fire…”). There was only one bit that I can think of that clearly got cut because it was too extreme for movie audiences (the “virginity examination”), and I don’t think it’s hard to see why.
- Superhero comic movie adaptations feature a lot of action porn. V for Vendetta, as a pulp comic serial, includes a bit of action porn already. I’m pleased to say that the movie absolutely did not go overboard with it. Suspense and audience interest were sustained by much the same methods as were employed in the comic without resorting to overblown and overextended action sequences.
- On the other hand, the movie did spend a great deal more time on the fireworks that V produced. Where the comic included only a few frames of towering flames for each of V’s demolitions, the movie extended those into longer sequences, notably the destruction of Parliament set to the 1812 Overture. And that, in my opinion, was a wonderful idea, fitting perfectly with V’s character and the story’s texture. It seemed to me like Moore and Lloyd would have done the same thing if comics allowed them to do it.
- V’s masked face is used often to build tension in the novel: sometimes we can’t tell what he thinks of what he’s seeing until later in the novel when we understand more about him. This mystery is played up by frames drawn tight around his mask, much the same way the frame might show only a character’s eyes. The movie makes great use of this device, too.
And some quick notes on things I didn’t like:
- The movie dwells on Guy Fawkes much, much longer than the novel does. It does this, presumably, for the benefit of American audiences who aren’t used to the symbol of his mask. The problem is that Guy Fawkes himself isn’t terribly useful to the story. Sure, one of the ideas is that he should be celebrated as an anti-establishment figure, but Guy Fawkes was caught up in the confusing Protestant-Catholic conflicts of his time, pursuing an agenda that’s mostly alien to modern audiences. So the more we focus on him, the more time we spend tempted to try to read into issues that aren’t relevant to the story. Really, this comes down to the fact that the comic co-opted a symbol that had somewhat taken on a life of its own, beyond Guy Fawkes himself, in Britain, and it would be best if American audiences could somehow be helped to appreciate that without having to get a history lesson on Fawkes himself. Not that I have any good ideas.
- The language of the movie is updated to contain vocabulary more recognizable to the audiences of 2006. Or, put more cynically, the Wachowskis wanted to take potshots at the Bush administration. For example, much of the state propaganda in the movie took on anti-Muslim aspects. Some of the fleeting visuals of the concentration camps showed Abu Ghraib-esque scenes. Evey’s parents were silenced environmental activists rather than closet socialists. It’s a fair thing to do, to update political satire for new times during the process of adapting an old work. The problem is that the movie tries to maintain the symbols and imagery of fascism as well as these modern insertions, and it woefully confuses and dilutes the strength of those themes. The movie could have been stronger by being more faithful to the fascist elements—maybe with some updated visuals, because something tells me riot-police-as-fascists could be done well—but never losing sight that it’s fascism that the story is about. The movie would stay relevant just fine as a story about people and about the nasty things people can do to each other under the thin guise of keeping order.
- Pursuant to the modernization of the story, the movie’s plot is given a standard-issue revelation where Finch and Dominic discover at the end that all of V’s individual targets profited greatly off of some medical science conspiracy concocted at the Larkhill concentration camp. This supplants the movie’s explanation for V’s targets, who all became Important People in Positions of Power by participating directly in the military arm of Norsefire and carrying out its atrocities during the British holocaust. This falls pretty squarely under the heading above of “it conceptually works, but you’re diluting your story,” but I’m singling it out for special attention. I think the theme of people achieving power through a sort of vile, militaristic old-boys’ network is much stronger (and less trite, to someone living in the year 2015) than this new one that’s about money being powerful.
But, as I said before, the body of the novel is contained in its characters’ relationships. So the surest way to see how seven hours becomes two hours is to follow the characters and see how they change.
Let’s start with Evey. Evey is played by Natalie Portman, who gives, I think, a pretty great performance (and delivers a serviceable English accent in its pursuit, but what do I know; I’m hardly a movie critic or a Brit). But Evey is markedly different from the word go. Evey is no sixteen-year-old would-be prostitute with little worldly experience; instead, she is a capable young woman with a job in the media office, who is “out to visit her uncle” (later, we learn it was to pay a visit to Gordon, who, we also learn, is in need of a beard. But I’m getting ahead of myself!) when she is caught past curfew by the fingermen. She is, same as before, rescued by V, but the dynamic between them is radically altered: she is not content to merely learn from him. She stands up to him more strongly than book!Evey1, abandoning V of her own volition after V murders the bishop rather than returning with him to the Shadow Gallery and being dropped off in London later. Movie!Evey is has a much more solid cultural footing than her comic counterpart, being able to engage and recognize V’s classic quotations rather than having to ask where each one originated.
But why is Evey so different? This kind of thing doesn’t happen on a whim. Millions of dollars and tens of thousands of man-hours went into turning that screenplay into a film; it’s unlikely that such a drastic and consistent change in characterization happened by accident. I can think of two main reasons: first of all, there is less time to make Evey’s transformation happen. In the novel, it takes Evey a full year and lots of “screen time” to transform from a scared teenager to an anarchist symbol and creative force for the world. The movie simply did not have time to do the same thing while making it a convincing transformation. It’s not as simple as sticking in a montage halfway through and calling it a metamorphosis; establishing elapsed time and experience like that requires tens of minutes of screen time to work. That’s a lot of minutes.
There’s a second important reason, I suspect, for Evey’s altered character: Rose and Helen. Rose Almond, unfortunately, is completely missing from the movie, as is Helen Heyer. Their absences do have the effect of changing how Adam Susan must die and how we experience the plight of the oppressed, but they also remove the only other sympathetic, living woman from the story as well as the only powerful woman. Yeah… Without Rose’s voice, the story is being told entirely by men, at least until Evey matures. Without Helen, no women in the story have any control over their own destiny, save possibly Evey. The question is, even if the movie were able to capably convey Evey’s journey as it was present in the novel, would her resolve at the end of the story make up for the first hour and a half of the movie where all of the women are either bit characters, dead, or dying? I suspect the Wachowskis chose to empower Evey early on specifically to ensure that women were not depicted merely as helpless creatures for most of the movie, and in that light, it sure looks like a good idea.
Moving on: I don’t have a ton to say about it, but I want to note that the fake concentration camp scene is lovingly preserved from the moment Evey is thrown into the cell to the moment she embraces the rain on the rooftops. It is terrible and powerful on film, and that is a great victory for the movie.
But if the earliest parts of Evey’s arc are clipped, so too is the end. In the movie, Evey never dons V’s mask. In fact, the entire end of the movie is quite a bit different. Whereas in the novel, V destroys the state’s surveillance apparatus, in the movie, V mails Guy Fawkes masks and cloaks to tens of thousands of Londoners, thereby allowing them to escape the Eye a different way. The primary motivation for that change seems to have been to allow for the visuals in the movie’s climax, where the people march on Parliament as a horde of black-cloaked Fawkeses and, as it explodes, remove their masks to reveal people of all walks of life, including a great diversity of characters who died at the hands of the regime. It’s a striking sequence, but it means that Evey herself doesn’t fully inherit V. Movie!Evey speaks to Finch at the end to convey the idea that V is more than a man, he is a symbol, and he stands for everyone who has felt the weight of oppression and the call of freedom. Book!Evey understands it differently: V stands for anarchy and his work isn’t over. The people still need a V to make something of the chaos. This statement is a bit lost in the movie, where it seems more like V’s ultimate victory is sealed as Parliament comes crashing down and the people of London commemorate his brave fight by honoring the symbol of his mask.
The entire arc of the movie is foreshortened in this respect. The novel actually dabbles in a bit of revolutionary philosophy, including a frame where a woman is shown holding a copy of The Confessions of a Revolutionary, and more on the next page where V discusses the unfolding events with Evey:
This subtlety is missing in the movie, and that is its greatest weakness. The movie retains its anti-fascist message, but it loses completely its anarchic message. All that remains is the Guy Fawkes mask, a celebration of a man who dared to blow up the government. And while that’s a fine thing to retain, it’s a damn shame that the rest is lost.
Finch’s role is largely the same in the novel and the movie, so I’ll pass on over him for now, except to note that Stephen Rea portrays a powerfully sour man. It’s a different look than in the novel, where Finch is more reminiscent of the hardboiled pulp detective, but it’s certainly not a bad one.
Gordon, however, got quite the makeover. In the novel he was an underground booze dealer that Evey fell in with, and in love with, with nowhere in particular to go. In the movie, Gordon is a comedian who runs a slapstick act for the state-run broadcasting company, acquainted with Evey through their mutual place of employment. Book!Evey accidentally finds Gordon after V drops her off on the streets of London, whereas Movie!Evey actively seeks him out after abandoning V with the bishop (neatly fitting in with her adjusted character). After a brief stay with Gordon, Evey learns that: 1) he is an art collector and possesses a Quran that would be his death if it were discovered, 2) he is gay, which would be his death if it was discovered, and 3) he has just produced a bitingly sarcastic act portraying Sutler (the Movie!Leader) as being cartoonishly unable to apprehend V. This goes on to get him thrown in prison, and as it turns out, the discovery of his Quran does get him executed. It seems that Gordon’s character was transformed thusly to better highlight the regime’s oppression and to account for Alistair’s absence2. Since this is a movie, after all, characterizing the regime needs to be done expediently and with a minimum of awkward exposition, as compared to the comic, which has the time to weave in flashbacks and recollections that won’t seem contrived. I really dig that Gordon was made into a performer for these purposes; he fits right in with the rest of our cast of performers, it was a perfectly natural role for Stephen Fry, and the Charlie Chaplin-esque satire was spot-on. On the other hand, this means that the movie completely excises the criminal element of the novel, and dadgummit, that criminal element was an important part of the greater whole! Ah, but it was less important than much of the other stuff that was going on, and so it was, sensibly, cut.
Aside from the missing themes of anarchy, V is mostly unchanged (“besides the fact that it’s about a hundredth of the weight of a lion and hunts mice and lizards instead of wildebeest, yeah, a housecat is mostly the same thing”). Hugo Weaving is given the most technically difficult role in the movie: he must depict a flesh-and-blood man whose face cannot be seen for the duration of the story. He’s convincing, for sure, and his body language, stage presence, and dreamy baritone carry the role perfectly. However: the Wachowskis made some further tweaks to the character. In the novel, V is relentless, even mystical, and he hardly seems human. So far as I can remember, he shows no regret nor any signs of stopping. But in the movie, V has some moments of doubt. Evey leaves, and V angrily tosses his mask against a mirror. Evey emerges from her fake prison, and a slight yet emotive tilt of the head shows that V knows that he has done something vile. Why choose to humanize V in this way? This is the one decision in the entire adaptation that just doesn’t make sense to me. It could be as simple as this: he was the male lead and the Wachowskis thought he needed a nudge in the “more likeable” direction for the mass market. Or maybe, with fewer characters and a shorter timeframe to work with, they thought that an easy way to draw attention to the fact that V is “most unlovely and most unforgiveable” is for him to express a little bit of doubt himself. In either case, I don’t think it was necessary. The entire point of V’s character is that he’s hardly a man, he’s an idea. And they already went in full-bore on that concept with the scene where V kills Sutler and Creedy (a beautiful bit of pulp, by the way. “Beneath this mask, there is an idea, Mr. Creedy. And ideas are bulletproof!”) Why back off of it, even a little bit? We have Evey to sympathize with, especially now that she has some verve from the beginning. The audiences themselves can decide what to think of V.
In the end, what the Wachowskis accomplished capably what they set out to give us. Well, better than capably. The movie has flair. It’s arresting and inspiring, and it was executed with great technical skill and a clear reverence for the source material. I do wish they would’ve more fully explored V’s anarchist side, but maybe it wouldn’t have worked in a two hour movie, or even a two-and-a-half hour movie. I don’t really know; I’m just a nerd on the internet.
V for Vendetta, in summary: Pulp genius, translated by people with a gift for it into a new medium in a way that, unfortunately, shows some of its shortcomings.
- My usage of Exclamation Mark Notation may or may not be primarily tongue-in-cheek. I’ll never tell! ↩
- ALISTAIR IS MISSING. UGH. Possible motives for the Wachowskis writing him out include: they didn’t have enough time to address his criminal themes (which is probably more true than I’m willing to admit); they wanted to avoid the only Scottish guy in the whole story being a murderous crook (the kind of thing that gets heavily scrutinized in big-budget movies; I don’t know whether to give the comic a pass on it or not); they didn’t have enough things for him to do in the story since he mostly interacts with other supporting characters that got cut. Ugh. Ugh! It was almost definitely the right decision, but he was such a great character. Ugh. ↩