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Empire List: #418 - V for Vendetta

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” I don’t know who came up with that quote, but whoever it was, they most likely did not have the hero of “V for Vendetta” in mind. Although when I use the word “hero” I do so only because the villains are much worse than him. To a fictional fascist government “V” is a terrorist who destroys government buildings and kills government officials. To the people, he is a freedom fighter who opens their eyes to the lies they have been sold. One thing is certain: he believes violence is part of the solution. I hope that is a prospect a lot of people find divisive.

I first saw this hundredth graphic novel adaption at a movie theatre in Quebec City in 2006, but I had a much more interesting second viewing in 2010. One of my courses at the University of Sherbrooke was Cultural Studies, and wouldn’t you know it, the graphic novel “V for Vendetta” by Alan Moore was required reading. Once we were done with that exhausting homework assignment (sarcasm) we watched the movie in class. We now live in a world where we have to read comic books and watch movies as part of our class assignments. This may anger some uptight literary scholars, but it’s fine by me. We had some great conversations in class discussing the similarities and differences between the novel and the movie, its political implications, and its place in modern culture. I even wrote a 2000 word essay about it. It always helps if you are writing about something you actually enjoy.

To be sure, a lot can be said about both the graphic novel and the movie. Alan Moore and illustrator David Lloyd published their work in the 1980s. It was heavily influenced by the right-wing government of the United Kingdom and was set in a future where fascists rule with an iron-fist in the aftermath of nuclear war. In James McTeigue adaptation, the story is set even further into the future and still features a fascist government, but no nuclear war since there is no surviving that kind of war. Instead, Britain has suffered a biological attack, leading to the political takeover of the Norsefire party led by High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt). Sutler controls the police, the army, and most importantly, the media.

As the film opens, two people are preparing to leave their homes and head into the streets of London. One is Evey Hammond (Nathalie Portman), a young woman who works at the state television station. The second person is a man whose face remains hidden until he puts on a mask of Guy Fawkes, the man who is known for the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The mystery man and Evey meet in the streets as he rescues her from police officers who try to rape her for violating curfew. The police have guns, but the man is lightning fast with knives. Following his victory, he delivers a speech where just about every word begins with the letter V. “Are you mad?” says Evey. “That’s probably what they will say” is his answer.

He may be mad, but “V” has a plan. It begins with the destruction of the Old Bailey, a court building of central London. The following day he hijacks the state television station to broadcast a message to the nation. He delivers a promise: one year from now, he will destroy the Houses of Parliament, and urges the people to join him in the overthrow of the government.

Sutler will not stand for this. He barks at Chief Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea) to find this terrorist by whatever means necessary. Finch belongs to the grand tradition of smart British detective who know how to follow the clues. Remember, this is the country that gave us Sherlock Holmes. The evidence shows him that “V” was the victim of human experiences done in camps reminiscent of Nazi Germany. After his escape from the room number 5 (“V” in Roman numerals) the man vowed to kill all those who experimented on him. But once they are dead, the government must fall too.

That the government did monstrous things, of that there is no question. But as Evey points out, “they created a monster.” It seems a lot of responsibility for one man to decide how a government should fall. Are his methods perfect? Does the rubble not hurt people when he destroys these buildings? His relationship with Evey is also questionable. “V” wishes her to live without fear as he does. Therefore she must suffer as he has suffered and find freedom from within. This is definitely not the same relationship as the one between Superman and Lois Lane.

As a movie, McTeigue’s adaption of the story has fewer subplots than the graphic novel and focuses more on action. Well, the point of a big budget is to make money, and action usually fills the theatres. Still, nowadays it’s rare for an action movie to make you think about ideas such as anarchy, freedom, and the definition of terrorism. On the one hand you have a government who rules all aspect of your life. Then a man comes along and says the solution is chaos. Where would you stand?       

Both the graphic novel and the film have influenced protesters all over the world. I have seen people wear those Guy Fawkes masks at anti-Scientology rallies, but most recently at the Occupy protests. I once heard George Carlin say on “Real Time with Bill Maher” that fascism will not come to the United-States wearing brown and black shirts, but Nike sneakers and smiley shirts. Perhaps that is what all of these Occupiers believe: we are not being ruled by an omnipotent Big Brother figure that resides in a government building, but by the people who control all of the money. I doubt a bunch of people wearing Guy Fawkes costumes will make much of a difference in the way Wall Street is run, but at least it shows people care. I am all for protesting inequality, but just as long as nobody decides to fill a train with explosives to blow up a building. 


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