Bloody hell, this post has caused me some grief! I just hate that the books I'm most passionate about promoting, the ones with the most complex plots and compelling characters, are always the books that are IMPOSSIBLE to review without days, even weeks, of reading and rereading, notes and strife, procrastination and pain. Hopefully In Cold Blood will be easier - if not, it might be a sign that it's time for a summer blogger vacation, give myself a bit of time to recharge the ol' reviewing batteries. In the meantime, here, at last, are my beyond-a-review-because-it-wasn't-enough thoughts on V for Vendetta...
I've been wanting to read this book for SO LONG. And I've been wanting to watch the movie ever since I discovered the book - prompted particularly by David's excellent double review during last summer's Page to Screen event here on the blog. Finally, fairly recently, everything came together! I found the DVD at a local charity shop for £2, the book came into the library at long last, and by the time I was halfway through it I'd fallen in love and bought my own copy anyway.
The basic summary goes like this: England is now under the control of a totalitarian government called Norsefire. The different branches of control - the Eye, the Ears, the Voice and so on - fall under the dictatorial eye of one power-hungry leader. The story opens on 5 November with Evey Hammond, a young woman, out after curfew and about to be raped by a bunch of corrupt government officers. To her simultaneous relief and surprise, she is saved by a masked and cloaked figure who rather theatrically recites a section of Macbeth as he effortlessly takes down the agents. Thus we meet the enigmatic V, and watch as he takes Evey into his confidence and sets in motion his elaborate plan to bring down the government once and for all. But who is he? What did they do to him? Is he a madman, a genius, a terrorist, a freedom fighter - or a mixture of all of these things?
The graphic novel was originally published in the 1980s, but my new edition was published by Titan Books in 2005. The movie, starring Natalie Portman as Evey and Hugo Weaving as V, came out in 2006 and was directed by James McTeigue and written by The Wachowski Brothers, of The Matrix fame.
This being my first ever graphic novel, I really wasn't sure what to expect. I didn't know if I'd fully engage with the visual format, or if I'd be involved enough in the emotional aspects of the novel to really enjoy it. Which just goes to show how little I know - because it completely blew me away!
Between Moore and Lloyd they have crafted a beautifully stylised book that was as moving and exciting as any novel could be. The use of creative techniques like 'voiceover' captions and poignant juxtaposition actually creates an experience that is at times even more powerful than a 'conventional' novel. The musical interlude, a third of the way through the book, is one of the most poignant and memorable bookish moments I've ever come across - it is sheer genius from start to finish. Complimenting Moore's writing, Lloyd's artistic style is dramatic, using stark colour contrast and black backgrounds to bring England's bleak existence to life.
There were some elements of the book that differed from the film. There were more characters, exploring this new society across a wider range of individuals, including the wives and partners of some of the government agents. The key characters' back stories were also explored in more detail, as you might expect. It was perhaps easier to follow V's flights of speech and copious literary allusions in print, where they were obviously reduced to the readers' own speed. In the movie some of his rhetoric is delivered in a furious and unstoppable torrent, so it's easier to miss things along the way.
The symbolism in the book - and film - is one of its strongest points. I can see now why the Guy Fawkes mask has become such a potent cult emblem over the years. More than symbolism in itself, I think V for Vendetta is about the POWER of a symbol. One letter, one mark, one dynamic figurehead - that is all it can take to create an icon, to bring about a revolution. And alongside the power of symbols, of course, V is a deep believer in the power of the ideas behind them. The book explores how an idea can flourish and strengthen if you only ACT on it: something we can all take away and apply to our lives, where so many of our hopes and dreams remain just that - ideas.
- "Everybody is a hero, a lover, a fool, a villain... Everybody has their story to tell."
- "He's killed them, Dominic. Everyone who ever worked at Larkhill Camp, one by one, over the past four years... He's killed the bloody lot of 'em."
- "It was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it's all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us... but within that inch we are free."
- "Authoritarian societies are like formation skating. Intricate, mechanically precise and above all, precarious. Beneath civilisation's fragile crust, cold chaos churns... and there are places where the ice is treacherously thin."
- "From rubble may we build."
The film adaptation of V for Vendetta takes the stylised swirl of Lloyd's images and makes them harder and cleaner. The theatricality and the most striking images remain, only now they live and breathe and move - which is exactly how a film adaptation should be! All of the key moments of the book, the most memorable frames, are there, and are reproduced so beautifully on screen that it really is a case of 'bringing the book to life'. The addition of music strengthens the atmosphere and creates even more layers in V's enigmatic story. Natalie Portman is on top form as Evey, and casting John Hurt as the High Chancellor is an inspired reversal of his role as 'everyman' Winston Smith in Michael Radford's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
I think one of the key strengths of the film is that it takes a superhero, a character who seems perpetually untouchable, calm and sure of himself, and makes him human. Although most of his surety and confidence remains, screen V is just that little bit less distant. He cooks breakfast (V with a dishcloth thrown over his shoulder, cooking eggs? Priceless!), he is unsure of himself, he gets angry, and if we could see under that smiling mask I'm sure we would have seen a blush or two. All credit to Hugo Weaving for giving a faceless character such a variety of expression...
There are some changes, of course. For example, Evey's moment of triumph near the end of the book is changed in such a way that it surely works much better on screen than the original would have done. The film also redeems those who deserve it, which the book doesn't entirely. The resulting finale is so powerful that I was holding my breath, tears streaming down my face as I watched it. The filmmakers have cleared out some of the more confusing or convoluted elements of the book's plot too - some of the sideline characters are gone, and the political environment feels more streamlined and focussed. In a way, Moore's story may have been made all the more powerful by the clarification allowed by the transition from page to screen.
I think V may be one of the most magnetic characters I've ever come across, on the page OR on screen. He's quite the gentleman, well versed in literature, music, and all the other elements of culture Norsefire has forbidden. Every frame and every scene he appeared in, I couldn't take my eyes off him. I think it has something to do with his monochromatic appearance, the clean lines, the efficiency of his vision... like all the best heroes, he cuts an impressive figure, while retaining a certain poetry that renders him irresistable. His Shadow Gallery is almost as covetable as the Beast's library (don't pretend you didn't want it, ladies!), and his care of Evey and reverance for the beautiful Valerie render him deeply, poignantly human. He reminded me a little of the Phantom of the Opera in a way, only he kills for justice, not out of bitterness and jealousy. In fact, he's pretty darn sexy!
My advice to anyone considering reading their first graphic novel? Do it. And if you like masked heroes, political intrigue and gentle romance, this might just be a good place to start. V for Vendetta offers a wonderfully complex look at the corruption and brutality of a totalitarian government, and its effects on the whole of society, including the families of the people who forms its backbone. And on a smaller scale, it is the story of one man who is determined to set things right. He never moans, he never complains, but he knows what must be done and he does it.
Both the book and the film are absolutely fantastic, but if you're planning to tackle both, I'd definitely recommend reading the book first. It will give you a stronger understanding of Norsefire and the politics of Evey's world, as well as giving you a good grounding in V's style. Some of his motives and explosive exploits are more thoroughly explored in the book, and it is obviously easier to follow his literary and ideological flights of rhetoric in print. Then when you're done reading, you can watch the movie and see Lloyd's illustrations coming to life before your very eyes...
Enjoy... and England prevails!