Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Adaptation: V for Vendetta

The A-word.
It's the bane of cinephiles, everywhere.

That book you love; the comic you remember; the show you used to watch; the game you lost an entire summer playing? Oh, someone's adapted it and it's getting made into a movie! Whether a cause for pre-emptive celebration or foreboding caution, it leads to only one thing: expectation. And expectation is the death of the 'clean' movie-viewing experience; no matter how closely the film sticks to its source material, or how much it tries to distance itself, it will be faced with the hurdle of comparison.

And while the movie industry loves the pre-built marketing buzz of 'now a major motion picture!', they loathe the comparative references which will be made from the first review onwards. Because many punters will expect to get exactly the same reaction from a completely different medium, to a story they already know. And therein lies the problem.

In this monthly series, we'll look back at some of the most respected and best-loved properties which have made the perilous journey to the big screen; often with some controversy, and almost always with far too much hype. This isn't so much a review of the films themselves, more an appraisal of their suitability as an adaptation.

V for Vendetta
V for Vendetta
Alan Moore & David Lloyd (w. Tony Weare) (1982-1989)

Hahaha! Remember that time I read Watchmen and called it 'heavyweight'? Dear lord. If ever a book was unintentionally written for the age in which we find ourselves, V for Vendetta would be the one. Really, though. As with the film below, I hadn't read this before, although given my past-aversion to paying attention to socio-political matters, it's doubtful whether I'd have been the right audience for the it, anyway. It's not even the permanent story-threads of a broken society, chaos, anarchy and revolution which resonate, but the overriding view that humanity is its own worst enemy, ever willing to make a bad situation worse by revealing new depths of self-important immorality.

Although bound in one volume, the novel is split into three books, originally beginning publication episodically in 1982's Warrior anthology magazine and ending in its own dedicated comic title six years later. Set in 1997 London, we're introduced to a country ruled by a dictatorship after a nuclear war in Europe*1. An inaccessible police-state rules the streets after disposing of undesirables in 'resettlement camps' but a masked anarchist, Codename V, knows how brittle the short chain of command actually is and sets about reshaping the power structure in a long and self-destructive strategy game.

Much of the story takes place at night, and even daytime scenes are dirty and claustrophobic. At times,V's artwork feels like the Batman approach of drawing onto black paper, so that everything which isn't specified as a lit-object falls into shadow, a style which is all the more desaturated by the pallid colouring. Visually and tonally, the writing and art are pulling in the same direction, which is great if a little... overpowering.

I found the first book to be more intense and (say it quietly) coherent than its successors, although it's also a thing that being written over such a long period, the story adapted and changed from its initial trajectory. The result of this is a few threads left hanging early in the text which aren't picked up again. And it's certainly not a question of the story lacking direction, but David Lloyd and Tony Weare have a very loose art-style, combined with several characters who look quite similar and a script which shies away from over-using names once the players are established. As a result I found myself getting a little lost as I wasn't sure whose story I was following until several pages later when they were directly referred to by another sketchily-illustrated characters. It's the comic-equivalent of shooting a movie in low-light with actors who look basically the same and don't speak much. I enjoyed the book very much, but I was enjoying it more at the start than at the end.

But like all the best works, I know I'll get more out of V for Vendetta by reading it again. Not right at this moment though, I'm not made of time. And by then of course, I'll also have the cinematic-version rattling around my head. But I've read the book to lay the groundwork, so that's the important thing.

England Prevails.

V for Vendetta
V for Vendetta
James McTeigue (2006)

The alterations in the cinematic version of the story are upfront, and unapologetically so. Set in 2028 rather than 1997, and with a nuclear winter being replaced with the aftermath of a biological attack on Britain resulting from a prolonged war, the core aspects of the story mechanics are there. But many secondary characters have been removed and the Wachowski's*2 screenplay is more linear and audience-friendly than its origin (Alan Moore's name is conspicuously absent from the main burst of credits). As it goes on, the film takes considerable liberties with the original story structure, but given the slightly haphazard nature of that, it's perhaps no bad thing.

Much like Watchmen, no matter how hard the film tries to be gritty and urban, there's something very 'clean' and normal about this dystopian futurescape (although maybe that's the point?). The state-control doesn't feel particularly oppressive and the regular families under its influence don't appear to be suffering too much when we join the story. Which sort of makes you wonder where the angst is going to come from? In the fight-choreography, the film feels almost like Tim Burton's Batman, and much like the caped crusader, V is presented from the outset as more of an idea, leaving his actual identity satisfyingly unnecessary.

Natalie Portman is outstanding here, not only with the range she gets to display but also a near-faultless Brit accent. Hugo Weaving's on slightly less solid ground, although he does well with a character whose theatricality has been amplified through the screenplay to be almost pantomime at times (and his turn as a subway vagrant who sounds like Alan Bennett). The only other really notable performance is John Hurt in full scenery-chewing mode, thoroughly over-egging the pudding and not at all like his literary counterpart, although I'm also sure that's exactly the turn he was hired to give.

James McTeigue's V for Vendetta is a solid enough reworking of the ideas in the book, but as an adaptation of the story and themes, it's lacking somewhat. It feels like the journey to the screen has stripped the original tale of its quiet, pragmatic nihilism in place of an Anarchy™ everyone can feel comfortable with. Although maybe that's the real subversiveness?

Apart from anything else, this film shows the sun setting at 7pm on the 4th of November, when anyone who's spent a winter in the UK will know that happens at around half-past four at that time of year. Still, that's alternate-reality for you…

Is the original thing any good, though?
It is.

Is the film-version any good, though?
…it is, but I don't think it's as good, and that's taking into account my reservations about the book, too.

So, should I check out one, both or neither?
Both, they make an interesting pair.

Oh, is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Not that I heard?

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: For the book, Alan Moore wrote the 1982 Marvel Star Wars story Rust Never Sleeps (among others); for the film, Padmé, nu-Tarkin and one of the 'Additional voices in The Old Republic' dudes are in it*3.

*1 And while you may furrow your brow at the notion of any survivors at all after a global nuclear conflict, this is a naiveté. which Moore himself addresses in his 1988 introduction to the completed work. [ BACK ]

*2 Okay genuine question, and one for whose clumsiness and insensitivity I apologise in advance. The screenplay for V For Vendetta was written by the Wachowskis, the creative sibling team who directed The Matrix and Cloud Atlas, of course. The Wachowskis consist of sisters Lana and Lilly, formerly known as Larry (who fully transitioned in 2008), and Andy (likewise in 2016). My question is, what's the accepted way of identifying them in a film-criticism/historical context? Obviously common courtesy would dictate that Lana and Lilly Wachowski wrote the movie, since it's not as if someone transforms into another person when they transition gender (quite the opposite, in fact). But it's also true that the names listed in the film credits are Larry and Andy, and I'd be surprised if the payslips they received from Warner Bros in 2006 said any differently. I don't want to refer to each of them as 'different' people in reference, but at the same time I'm a stickler for accuracy (or at least I try to be). I only ask because it feels awkward to refer to them just as The Wachowskis, as if I'm making some subtextual point by not referencing their first-names or gender (they were previously known collectively as The Wachowski Bros).

Anyway, hit me up in the comments and let me know, unless of course I've stepped over the line completely, in which case tweet me about my indiscretion so I can come back and quietly edit this bit out and we'll all pretend the whole dreadful incident never occurred. Much like I've tried to do with their more recent film Jupiter Ascending... [ BACK ]

*3 Seriously though, if I can level-one Toby Kebbel for having done that, everyone in there gets a mention. It'd be at the top of my CV, certainly until I appeared in one of the films anyway… [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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