This Vicious Cabaret

I’ve been looking forward to the release of V for Vendetta with some trepidation since I first heard that an adaptation was seriously in the offing (see my previous posts). and I went to see it last night; I’m hoping that she will also post her views on the film, because unlike myself she hasn’t read the comic and has a different (and more positive) take on the film.

Without spoilers, what are my feelings on the success of the film?

Is it a bad film? No.

Is it a good adaptation? Sadly, also no. It isn’t a disaster, but I wouldn’t class it as a success.

Do I think that Alan Moore’s condemnation of the film is unjustified? No.

In many ways, the film reminded me of the Morecambe and Wise sketch with Andre Previn; all of the right scenes, just not necessarily in the right order.

First, the good news. The world has moved on since 1981, and several aspects of the background in the comic work less well now: a unilaterally-disarmed Britain surviving a nuclear war; a state run by means of an all-powerful monolithic computer; a fascist party rising to power almost by chance (although this latter point is Evey’s recollection, and she’s likely to be an unreliable narrator). The film updates the background well, keeping the same general feel, but in a more plausible fashion. Rather than a great nuclear conflagration, there are a series of small, vicious conflicts, culminating in a second civil war in the US. Britain is not as isolated as it is in the comic, because there are other surviving polities, but it remains strongly isolationist. The computer Fate is replaced by an all-pervasive ‘interlink’. There’s a subplot which goes some way towards explaining exactly how Norsefire came to power – it’s still a bit pat, but it’s more plausible than before.

In general, the performances are good (Natalie Portman being the main exception, more about which below), with Hugo Weaving’s performance being particularly noteworthy. John Hurt was mostly reduced to a ranting head on spittle-vision, which was a shame. The art direction was generally good, if not entirely in keeping with the vision of a slightly run-down Britain. There were a few jarring gaffes which seemed to arise from ill thought-out product placements; if the UK is refusing trade with the US, where are the shiny new Dell computers coming from? But I digress…

The definitive Good Thing about this film was that V remained masked throughout, but this is a somewhat bittersweet victory, for reasons that I’ll explain later.

Next, the less good news. As I’d expected, the film doesn’t keep too closely to the plot of the comic, but more of the comic makes it into the final cut than I’d expected, albeit not always in the same order. V’s opening salvo is the destruction of the Old Bailey, with the destruction of the Houses of Parliament being kept for the closing sequence. Jordan Tower (presumably Euston Tower) and the Ear (the Post Office Tower) seem to have been conflated. Neither are touched. Downing Street is not mentioned at any time.

What makes it more frustrating is that certain sequences made it in completely untouched. The death of Delia Surridge, the opening montage of V and Evey getting ready to go out, the interrogation and torture of Evey, and Valerie’s autobiographical note in prison are all unchanged, and remained the most powerful sequences in the film.

Other scenes remained in part, but with substantial changes. The death of Bishop Lilliman kept to the same rough pattern as in the comic, with Evey being used as bait. However, at that stage in the film, the relationship between Evey and V hasn’t developed in the same way as it has in the comic (I suspect a dramatic necessity brought about by the condensed timescales), and so Evey attempts to warn Lilliman of his fate. Beethoven’s 5th does not feature in this scene; it appears in a new scene between V and Creedy later in the film. The death of Lilliman in the film is more conventional than in the comic; the poisoned sacrament does not appear, which I think is a crying shame, because the film therefore discards some rather nice dialogue which touches on the nature of faith and which adds an extra dimension to Lilliman.

V’s televisual address to the nation remains largely as before, an ultimatum to overthrow a brutal government, but by changing the style from that of an avuncular annual performance review to a straight ultimatum, it loses a certain quirkiness. This is indicative of a noticeable shift in V’s character in the translation from page to screen. Moore’s V has a sense of humour and the absurd that manifests itself throughout (for example, the breaking of Prothero is undoubtedly cruel, but has a Mikado-esque aptness), which is exhibited less by the V in the film. Violence, not vaudeville, in other words.

There’s a completely new subplot to explain Norsefire’s rise to power, in which it’s suggested that the experiments at Larkhill were part of a germ warfare programme that was subsequently used to engineer a biological weapons attack on London by ‘terrorists’ that leaves 80,000 dead. Norsefire saves the day by producing a vaccine for the plague, and by rounding up the ‘terrorists’, all of whom are conveniently executed. It makes Norsefire’s rise more plausible, and for that reason alone I’m ambivalent about it. The comic’s message is effectively Edmund Burke’s warning that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. By suggesting that fascists can only come to power when they actively plot to overthrow governments by foul means, the film weakens this message.

There are some aspects of the background that have been played down, most notably that Britain is effectively in a state of civil war, with widespread guerrilla action in Scotland and an Anglo-centric government (motto: “England Prevails”). I can see why this was removed, because it serves no major dramatic purpose by itself. Unfortunately, it also allows the cast list to be trimmed of a slew of characters, including the marvellously amoral Harper.

Regarding new characters, by eliminating the Scottish gangsters the film finds itself in the position where it needs to change the character of Gordon, Evey’s sometime lover and landlord. The change here, making Gordon a gay television presenter, doesn’t work especially well, although the Benny Hill-like scenes from Gordon’s television programme are a reasonable substitute for the Kitty Kay Kellar cabaret scenes in the comic.

Finally, the bad news. Natalie Portman’s performance was pretty wooden, and her accent veered from upper-middle class English to South African. In the film, Evey is most definately upper-middle class, from her accent, and from her job as a runner in a television studio. To my mind, this is an unacceptable change, because it completely changes the relationship between V and Evey, and Evey’s expectations of life. Lest we forget, the opening scenes of the comic show Evey getting ready to go out on the game for the first time. She’s an orphan ekeing a living on low-paid factory work. By bowdlerising this (in the film she’s getting ready for a date with Stephen Fry’s closeted gay television presenter), the film pulls a punch that it would have been stronger for not pulling.

This is not the only area of bowdlerisation. The depiction in the comic of a society in which the powers that be maintain order by tacit collusion with organised crime is gone, and we’re presented with a Britain which is less seedy and more of a technocratic state. In effect, we have hygenic gas chambers rather than “three good South Ken boys with iron bars”.

I wasn’t overly impressed at the dialogue in the film, which managed to be both more verbose and to say less than than in the comic. Given that Moore’s dialogue tends towards the long-winded, this sounds unlikely in extremis, but there were several times that I found myself wishing for the simplicity and rhythm of his dialogue (I’m not sure, but I suspect that in the comic V speaks predominantly in iambic meter, but I’ve lent my copy and can’t readily check it). The only scenes where the dialogue shone were those which had been lifted from the comic with minimal changes (those I mention above). This has all the hallmarks of Wachowski Bros screenwriting, given the excresence that was Matrix Reloaded.

For a film set in Britain, with a largely British cast, the film also ended up with some unnecessary concessions to US audiences. I can understand the need for the Guy Fawkes preamble, since that is an aspect of British history that I don’t expect a non-British audience to be familiar with (although I note that Hollywood rarely makes the effort to explain US cultural references to non-US audiences), but why boxcar? Why leh-ver and not lee-ver, especially when it’s Stephen Rea that’s saying it?

The biggest change, and the one which had me hissing under my breath, was in the final scene. V has been shot and fatally wounded (by Creedy rather than by Finch, but I’ll let that slide). Evey does not remove his mask, but neither does she don it. This completely negates what we’re told earlier in the film, that V is an idea, and that ideas are bigger than flesh and blood. Instead we’re treated to a touching scene where Evey and Finch stand on a rooftop and watch the destruction of the Houses of Parliament, and presumably the establishment of a new, benevolent order in Britain. The message that the comic leaves is bleaker; the closing frames show Finch walking away from a London already sinking into chaos and turmoil, with the suggestion being that anarchy is preferable to totalitarianism. The ending of the film is full of hope for the new society that has been created. The ending of the comic is full of hope for the new society that may be created.

For those that are interested, Charlie Brooker has a rant on V for Vendetta in today’s Grauniad, and there’s a rather good V for Vendetta in 15 Minutes that’s going around LJ.

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