Book review -- unmasking V
After reviewing the V for Vendetta movie, I knew I had to read the classic book from which it's adapted. Since I'm comparing it to the movie, which I saw first, I'm "working backwards" in a certain sense, but this actually turns out to be a good way of assessing the differences. The book is very powerful, and makes explicit much of what was left ambiguous in the movie. Spoiler alert -- I'm going to go into some details of the story that I didn't in the movie review.
One admission up front -- the art style used in this graphic novel is not my favorite. My taste in such things was shaped by early exposure to Japanese manga and to a few works by artists like John Findley and Michael Kaluta. The style in V for Vendetta is very different. It is, however, a good fit for the bleak, stark world the novel depicts.
The racist and theocratic character of the fascist British regime is much more explicit in the novel; the systematic annihilation of blacks, Muslims, and gays is presented far more bluntly. The official slogan "Strength through purity, purity through faith" makes the religious quality explicit, and the film's rapist secret police and child-molesting bishop are here too, embodying the inevitable hypocrisy of such regimes. The novel is also much clearer about the horrific atrocities at the Lark Hill concentration camp -- confirming that V's extraordinary powers originated with medical experiments performed on him by the regime, which thus created its own eventual destroyer.
There are two really essential points on which the novel is more explicit than the film, and in both cases, it makes a startling difference.
First, there is the disturbing interlude during which Evey is apparently captured and tortured for a prolonged period by the regime, only to discover that her captivity was staged and carried out by V himself, to "liberate" her from her fears and weaknesses. Evey is naturally outraged at first, but then comes to accept V's action. The movie just barely gets away with this, but in the novel, frankly, it misfires because of the more lengthy and realistic dialog which accompanies the revelation. Evey argues forcefully, and convincingly, against V's insistence that she was somehow in a metaphorical prison all along until the faked captivity "freed" her. "You're wrong! It's just life, that's all! It's how life is! It's what we've got to put up with. It's all we've got. What gives you the right to decide it's not good enough?" V's responses, by contrast, seem cold and cliché-like, and any reader would surely judge that Evey is in the right and justified in her outrage. Her later acceptance, even kissing V and thanking him, feels not only implausible but creepy. She seems brainwashed -- and we've just seen that she's too strong-willed to have been brainwashed in this way.
The second point concerns V's goals. In the movie review, I noted, "We don't get much sense of what V is fighting for, aside from his desire for revenge against his former tormentors." In the book, V makes it clear that he's an anarchist, opposed not only to the fascist regime but to authority in general. He spends some time explicating elements of anarchist philosophy, elements which I recognize very well, having once been an anarchist myself, and later engaged in debate about the issue. V's monologues here just served to remind me of how flawed the philosophy he's describing turned out to be -- once I started having doubts about it and challenged it, I found that other anarchists were so unable to defend it convincingly that I rapidly abandoned it.
Others may differ on that point, of course, but what's indisputable is that V comes off as a terrible hypocrite here. Not only has he controlled and brutalized Evey in a shockingly arrogant manner, explicitly imitating the methods of the fascist regime itself, but also he speaks rather contemptuously of the masses of ordinary people whom he hopes to spur into action against their rulers (this is the meaning of the domino metaphor in both movie and book). "Those stolid, law-abiding queues, so pregnant with catastrophe, insensible before the wave so soon released by callous fate. Affected most, they understand the least.....until they're caught up in that terrible momentum, possibly mistaking it at first for bold decisive action, charging to the rescue.....but they are not charging, they are falling." Ordinary people are mere pawns to be manipulated and sacrificed for his goals -- an authoritarian attitude, surely. By leaving V more ambiguous, the movie makes him more sympathetic.
(Our objection to the right wing's minimalist-government, laissez-faire ideology is that in practice, for the great mass of people, such a system means not more freedom but more vulnerability to exploitation by a wealthy elite against which the state would otherwise give them some protection. Here, anarchy apparently means subjecting the masses to exploitation by the anarchist himself.)
There are a couple of lesser points where I think the movie comes off better. At one point V takes temporary control of the regime's TV network to deliver a speech to the nation. In the book, the speech is an extended corporate-performance-review-style metaphor which would surely bewilder his audience; in the movie he speaks far more clearly, though still elegantly. The fight which mortally wounds him is, in the book, a brief altercation in which a single gunshot does the damage; the movie makes it a terrific, climactic action scene (V is wearing body armor, which allows him to survive for a little while).
The book does capture the bleak and dreary quality of life under an authoritarian regime rather better, and imbues the characters with more depth than would fit a movie's time limitations and more streamlined narrative. It's a powerful work. But on the whole, I have to say that this is one of those rare cases where the movie does it even better.