V is for Read the Book Instead
"People shouldn't fear their governments, governments should fear their people." This line from the movie V for Vendetta seems to have convinced libertarian luminaries like the Ludwig von Mises Institute and Lew Rockwell that it is a libertarian movie. It isn't. The thing is, it could have been. In bringing it to the screen, the Wachowski Brothers have insulted a great work.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
Some words of background are in order. First, the plot. In both the movie and the comic book that inspired it, a young girl named Evey is being harassed by corrupt police ("Fingermen") when she is saved by a figure wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. This strange character blows up a prominent London building, then takes her under his wing, sheltering her in the Shadow Gallery, where he keeps works of art and literature banned by the British government. For Britain is now a fascist dictatorship with racial minorities and homosexuals rounded up and taken to camps. The figure, V, proceeds systematically to destroy the pillars of the new establishment, killing officials and destroying buildings. We also learn, as does an honest policeman tracking him, that V was the subject of terrible experiments at a resettlement camp, which he was able to destroy. He has tracked down and killed every staff member of the camp. Eventually, he brings the government down, but dies in the process. His final, posthumous act destroys another iconic symbol of Britain.
The comic book is actually quite old and one I instantly liked. In the early 1980s, I picked up a copy of the British comic book Warrior. Unlike American comics, British comic books tend to be anthologies of different stories and this one contained some excellent ones. Marvelman, by writer Alan Moore, was one of the first stories to rip apart the character of the superhero and ask what would the world be like if super-powered beings walked, or rather flew, among us. Yet it was another strip of his, V for Vendetta, that intrigued me most. It was clearly aimed as a critique of the Thatcher government, but as a Thatcherite I saw it had missed its target. Nevertheless, as an essay on government it worked very well. I was disappointed to see Warrior fold. I thought I would never know the full story of the enigmatic anarchist known as V.
About ten years later, a friend reintroduced me to the world of comic books. I was delighted to find out that DC Comics had picked up V for Vendetta and allowed Alan Moore to finish the story. The story is a rejection of fascism and, by extension, other hierarchical orderings of society. After he has torn down their institutions of power, V recognizes that there will be chaos (indeed, this is the state the story leaves Britain in), but presupposes that the people are able and willing to establish order for themselves. As V's successor says, after he has done his job, "The people stand within the ruins of society, a jail intended to out-live them all. The door is open. They can leave, or fall instead to squabbling and thence new slaveries. The choice is theirs, as ever it must be."
Nor is V's Vendetta merely against the people who harmed him. After V's death, Evey says, "How purposeful was your vendetta, how benign, almost like surgery. Your foes assumed you sought revenge upon their flesh alone, but you did not stop there. You gored their ideology as well." V is no simple revolutionary. He sees freedom as the central virtue, without which no other governmental virtue has any meaning. He converses with Blind Justice, the statue atop the Old Bailey (London's central criminal court), and regrets how justice has been seduced by the fascist government. He tells her, "[Anarchy] has taught me that justice is meaningless without freedom. She is honest. She makes no promises and breaks none. Unlike you, Jezebel." He then destroys the Old Bailey.
For V, who lives underground, fascist Britain is stuck in Plato's cave. "You were born in a prison," he tells Evey in one harrowing episode, "You've been in a prison so long, you no longer believe there's a world outside...You're afraid because you can feel freedom closing in upon you. You're afraid because freedom is terrifying." Indeed it is, and that's why so many even democratic governments have sought to restrict it over the years.
So it should be plain by now that Alan Moore had laid the groundwork for a real libertarian movie. Unfortunately, the screenplay adapters, the Wachowski Brothers who wrote the excellent movie The Matrix and its more lackluster successors, fumbled the ball for a full seven-point turnover. V for Vendetta is still a good movie, but it sparkles only where the Wachowskis left Moore's plot alone, most notably in the scenes surrounding Evey's incarceration.
Where the Wachowskis rewrote the story, they diminished it. The fascist Leader in Moore's story is a complex, even sympathetic figure, an embodiment of the claims of imposed order to provide best for humanity. In the movie the Chancellor becomes a bellowing caricature, a cartoon fascist. The movie version of his rise to power is almost cretinous. He was a Conservative (but just who has been in charge of the UK for the past 9 years and introduced the surveillance cameras seen early in the movie?) yet at some unexplained point becomes leader of the racist Norsefire Party, which wins an election. He attacks his own people in a grotesque nod of approval to 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Meanwhile, America has collapsed in disorder as a result of "its war" and the regime is explicitly anti-American (although Dell still supplies the police with computers). Most annoyingly of all, at one point there is a flag with the US and UK flags quartered and surmounted with a swastika together with a reference to the Coalition of the Willing. The implication, surely, is that the new fascist government is no worse than the current, real-world one. By implication, the UK's center-left government is equated with fascism. If not, just what is the point?
All this could be dismissed as just so much attention-grabbing froth, but the trouble is that the rewrites ruin the story. V is no longer goring ideology. He simply blows up buildings and kills nasty people. There is an implication that he is doing this to restore government to the people, but the bizarre "happy" ending the Wachowskis chose to replace Moore's chaos tells us nothing about the nature of government. The people V kills are all evil, certainly, but, with one exception (an essential Moore creation), they are so cartoonish you can't feel sorry for them. Early in the Moore version, the honest policeman points out that V slaughtered two bodyguards who were "human beings, for all their faults."
And then there are the buildings. The Wachowskis inserted a line to the effect that buildings are just symbols (tell that to those who lost loved ones on 9/11), so why did they make the heavily-trailed demolition of the Houses of Parliament the capstone of the movie? In the comic, Parliament is the first building to go; having been closed long ago by the fascists, it is useless. Parliament plays no role in the Wachowski story (except in the oblique reference to the Chancellor's election), but its demolition is the highlight, at exactly the point in time when it might be useful again, both as symbol and building. Its destruction is meaningless sound and light.
As for freedom, so central to the original story as the essential catalyst towards justice and good governance, it is advanced as if it is a form of government itself. The bad guys die, we have freedom! All is right with the world! Huzzah! Moore himself, who refused to have his name associated with the film, had this to say of the script: "It was imbecilic; it had plot holes you couldn't have got away with in Whizzer And Chips in the nineteen sixties. Plot holes no one had noticed." He must have seen the final version.
V for Vendetta is still worth seeing as a spectacle if you ignore the new dialog. It visualized the artistic style of the comic book better than I could ever have imagined. Yet if you want a libertarian tale, don't be fooled. Read the book instead.