A Post-November 5th World
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London
I'll show you something to make you change your mind - Ralph McTell
It's only a movie. Well no, thank God: V for Vendetta is also a graphic novel with a reach that will always exceed Joel Silver's grasp. Still, I won't be one of those people who can't see the screen for his upturned nose at the faithlessness of an adaptation. (Foolish me, I actually expected the destruction of the Houses of Parliament in the opening act, just like on page six.) Because there is a plot point added that means everything to V's story, and ours, post 9/11.
The first chapters of Alan Moore and David Lloyd's V for Vendetta were published in 1982. Today, Moore's introduction from the series' first DC Comics run invites thoughts of you think you've got it bad:
It's 1988 now. Margaret Thatcher is entering her third term of office and talking confidently of an unbroken Conservative leadership well into the next century. My youngest daughter is seven and the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for persons with AIDS. The new riot police wear black visors, as do their horses, and their vans have rotating video cameras on top.
But Moore knew his dystopic vision had already undershot reality: "Naivete can also be detected in my supposition that it would take something as melodramatic as a near-miss nuclear conflict to nudge England towards fascism." And here's where the post-9/11 adaptation honours Moore's work by departing from it: the backstory of medical experimentation to which V had been subject is extended to a black ops bio-weapons attack on schools and public transit, leading to the deaths of 100,000 people. Foreign patsies are framed and executed, and the government rewarded with limitless authority in exchange for the promise of security.
Natalie Portman's character Evey tells V her father used to say that "artists use lies to tell the truth, and politicians lie to hide it." I think the film becomes genuinely important here, by artfully telling why a government might want to kill its own people. The lies of art serve a hard truth well. The political lies are well told, too, and comically familiar. The laughter they provoke is bittersweet.
Now, with a spoiler advisory, here's where I think the film falters as dangerous art. (At least as good dangerous art.)
The climax sees thousands of Londoners converge on Parliament at V's appointed hour. Fine. But they all look like V, shod in identical mask, cap and cape. It's reminiscent of the black hoodies of Eminem's Mosh. I know it's easier to depict visually, but for the love of all that's anti-fascist, unity doesn't mean uniformity. Hell, abhorrance of diversity is one of fascism's most noxious and prominent traits. So the spectacle of an identically-costumed silent crowd marching with seeming mind-controlled precision doesn't exactly make my heart shout "Freedom forever!"
But even an antifascist of Woody Guthrie's pedigree found himself similarly wrongfooted on occasion. In "She Came Along to Me," first recorded for Billy Bragg and Wilco's Mermaid Avenue, Guthrie wrote
And all creeds and kinds and colors
Of us are blending
Till I suppose ten million years from now
We'll all be just alike
Same color, same size, working together
And maybe we'll have all of the fascists
Out of the way by then
Or maybe not, if it takes us all being the same size, kind, color and creed.
The world needs fewer uniforms, even on our side. We ought to be the irregulars.