If a film suffers from production problems, it stands a greater chance of being a bad film than one on which everything runs smoothly. It's a perfectly logical observation to make, one which is largely correct in the grand scheme of filmmaking, and especially with regard to adaptations of Alan Moore. The scale of the problems may vary from stars dying to huge studio interference, but whatever their merits From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman and Watchmen are all found wanting.
Occasionally, there comes a film which manages to overcome such difficulties and emerge, whether by skill or sheer luck, as a genuinely enjoyable and well-formed piece of work. V for Vendetta fits this bill perfectly, overcoming casting issues and delays in the release to be by far and away the best Alan Moore adaptation. In the hands of James McTeigue, Moore's graphic novel is brought to life in a vibrant and gripping if slightly silly adaptation, which will satisfy the action crowd while providing food for thought.
Like Watchmen, which eventually found its way to the screen in 2009, V for Vendetta was a long time coming. The Wachowski Brothers began adapting the graphic novel in the mid-1990s, before they had found success with The Matrix and its sequels. Their initial drafts were faithful to the novel at the cost of being long and impenetrable, with even their most ruthless rewrites being dismissed by long-time friend and producer Joel Silver.
The later drafts which emerged after The Matrix updated Moore's story, moving it from a thinly-veiled allegory of Thatcherite Britain (as seen through American eyes) to a near-future totalitarian state parodying the governments of Bush and Blair. Having been impressed with his work as an assistant director on The Matrix, the Wachowskis gave the finished script to McTeigue as a birthday present. With the backing of both his peers and their producer, production could finally begin.
The fact that Alan Moore has disowned V for Vendetta, along with all adaptations of his work, should not put you off seeing it. There are times when having no familiarity with the source material can enhance our viewing experience, and all great adaptations should be able to stand alone as works of cinema, regardless of how faithful or affectionate they are. V for Vendetta reflects this principle, succeeding first and foremost as a film and leaving all other debates up to the fans.
The film has an exuberant visual style which not only reflects the graphic novel but the Wachowskis' love of martial arts. The use of bullet time in the fight scenes owes a clear debt to The Matrix, while the abundance of martial arts-style blood nods towards the exploitation movies on which Silver cut his teeth. While Sin City took the comic book aesthetic and tried to make it fit the big screen, V for Vendetta successfully translates the story into the visual language of cinema.
Comparisons are naturally going to be drawn between this film and Watchmen, Zack Snyder's heavily flawed and overly long adaptation of Moore's greatest work. The debate over which work is more reflective of their respective sources is a matter for Moore's fans, particularly those who grew up with them the first time round. For the casual viewer, we have to assess which is better as a piece of cinema, and on these grounds V for Vendetta triumphs, for three reasons.
Firstly, it has a more rounded attitude towards the fans. Watchmen floundered because it was trying too hard to please the fans, with Snyder sparing no expense and pulling no punches to make what he saw as the definitive adaptation. Like many video game adaptations, the film was so worried about replicating every last detail that it forgot to cater for the newcomers. V for Vendetta, meanwhile, has much in it that fans will recognise, but is also much more entrist and emotionally involving. The Wachowskis deliberately changed the character of Evey to make her more prominent and intelligent, recognising that without her the audience wouldn't have a way in.
Secondly, there is the small matter of tone. One of the biggest problems with Watchmen was its lurching tone: Snyder was so concerned with visual flippancy that when the tougher scenes came along (involving rape and child abduction) they felt adolescent and desperately misjudged. V for Vendetta may take a while to get going - the whole first hour is very pantomime, with ripe delivery of lines and stand-offish characterisation. But in the second hour it really gets into its stride, upping its game as the stakes are raised and matching the tone of the story very well.
Thirdly, V for Vendetta is the more intelligent offering, knowing how to handle its subject matter in a nuanced and creative way. Watchmen, whether through its script or Snyder's tricksy visuals, kept losing sight of its main theme of policing vigilantes and the morality surrounding them. While Snyder is all style and no substance, the Wachowskis are masters of the thinking-person's action film, and at least some of their craft has rubbed off on McTeigue. The film raises a lot of interesting ideas and questions, and even in its silliest moments it keeps its eye on the ball.
The film explores the grey area between terrorism and freedom fighting, pulling us into a series of dark places and forcing us to question if the ends ever justify the means. V charms us with his enigmatic blend of anarchy and morality, and we find ourselves subversively supporting an enemy of the state. Halfway in, we are truly shaken when we discover the methods V used on Evey to make her fearless. We find ourselves caught between submission to the state and submission to another force; we are in the centre of Evey's dilemma, and are none the wiser for it.
V for Vendetta also looks at the relationship between the state and civil society. It raises intelligent questions about where the balance of power lies, and how the one manipulates the other - particularly in the murky practice of governments attacking its own civilians to create legitimacy, creating enemies when none can be found. The V mask may have become a system of popular protest, but the film is far from unequivocal in this respect. The rise of the Chancellor's regime is traced through public demand and paranoia as much as arbitrary coercion, and the film's ambiguous ending leaves us on a note of hope but not certainty.
Of the two main performers, one meets our expectations while the other exceeds it. Hugo Weaving's previous work with The Wachowskis leads us to expect the best, and he doesn't disappoint, voicing and physicalizing V so well that we never really need to see his face. Natalie Portman, who can be annoying, does a pretty good English accent, and in her more hysterical moments she comes close to the form she would show in Black Swan five years later. There is good support from Stephen Fry (more or less playing himself) and John Hurt, knowingly cast as the Chancellor having played Winston Smith in 1984.
There are problems with V for Vendetta. The opening section is verbose, the editing is a little clumsy and the torture scenes could be seen as being manipulative. But despite these problems, it remains a very fine film which knocks Watchmen and its predecessors into a cocked hat. It is at very least the most cinematic of the Moore adaptations, with a unique visual style which is all too rare in big-budget films. It won't be to everyone's tastes, but you will struggle to find a comic book film which combines politics and pyrotechnics so effectively.