The biggest mistake of V for Vendetta, the Alan Moore graphic novel adaptation from 2005, is that it depicts a too easy-to-hate totalitarian state. The eponymous revolutionary (Hugo Weaving) agitates against an alternative National Socialist vision of Britain, complete with giant telescreens, brutal police, and modernist blocky aesthetics. The state directly feeds propaganda through the sole television channel (which everyone seems to be watching at all times of day). The regime persecutes “degenerates” and homosexuals. In other words, they’re a nasty lot.
However, the people apparently need a badass, knife-wielding, demolitionist wearing a Guy Fawkes mask to liberate them. V’s lifelong mission is vengeance against the tyranny that killed everyone he loved and left him deformed. His plan is to assassinate the most influential people of power, and then echoing Fawkes, blow up the Houses of Parliament on the 5th of November.
He recruits stranger Evey (Natalie Portman) to help him get to his targets. Her friendship with a secretly gay TV host (Stephen Fry) comes in handy for promoting counter-propaganda against the ‘great leader’ Adam Sutler (John Hurt playing opposite to his role in 1984). She is immediately taken by this civilized vigilante who seems to have found pleasure in the finer things in life as a substitute for normality that’s been robbed from him.
The real power of dystopian fiction is subtle. It is most certainly not the case that a totalitarian state exists by the state being evil, and the people being good, and the state then simply dominates and exploits the people. As French political philosopher, Etienne de La Boetie controversially claimed, if a state is to be sustainable at all, it has to have at least tacit consent from the people. Our political structures domineer us, yes, but they’re also reinforced by us.
Whether by will, tradition or indoctrination, the painful fact is that we are participants in our own enslavement; the most effective dystopian pieces are those that recognize that fully. Brave New World was shocking precisely because the people loved their tyranny. In fact, they couldn’t imagine the world could be in any different.
The citizens of Fasco-Britain know they’re being enslaved, they know they’re being lied to (as the liberal use of the word “bollocks” indicates), and they don’t like it. V infiltrates the TV station to broadcast his opinion on the establishment. Everyone goes, “Yeah, it does suck, doesn’t it?”
Michael Haneke’s profound claim through The White Ribbon was that National Socialism didn’t sprout from the ether – it had its foundations in the small tyrannies of interpersonal relations. In pre-war Germany, your father was as much of a tyrant as Hitler went on to be. The overarching hierarchy is supported by smaller pyramids – the church, the family, the village, and then down to individual bullying.
The families of fascist Britain look more or less the same as real life Britain – cooperative, peaceful. Rather lovely really. The only reason why the regime continues then must be because they’re utterly passive. It’s difficult to get angry at a dystopia when the state is so divorced from the people. It’s jarring. Another minor problem is that it makes it plain that there are food shortages, yet the people don’t seem to suffer in a material sense. The families we are privy to seem to lead relatively normal British circa 2005 middle-class lives. We want to see some misery!
As far as the central moral dilemma is concerned, there is a slight issue with tone. When the state calls V a terrorist, it’s hard to see how they’re wrong. It’s not inherently bad to expect the audience to be on the side of a morally ambiguous character, but what was plainly amoral in the graphic novel seems like glorification on screen.
Not to get too moralistic about it – you could leave the narrative exactly as it is and it would not be problematic, provided that the tone was consistent. In this version of V for Vendetta, it is, in the end, difficult to place V – is he an antihero, a hero, or just a bit of a weirdo? At various parts during this film, he is all three.
To be fair, the real protagonist here is Evey. The emotional core of the film is in an affecting set-piece where Evey is imprisoned and interrogated as to the whereabouts of V. As she lies in solitary confinement, she is fed through a hole in the wall a series of notes telling the story of another prisoner. The prisoner lays out how she was persecuted and brutalized for her sexuality. The twist in this little story is worth experiencing without spoilers.
One of many visually arresting images is the sight of Evey having her head shaven for her imprisonment. It symbolizes her loss of innocence and brings much-needed grittiness to a world that so far had not felt terribly threatening.
What softens the threat is that V gets away with just about everything. It doesn’t seem at any point that he will fail in his mission. The two detectives charged with tracking him down are practically useless and only serve to explain the plot. It’s one part of a generally hokey delivery that only settles V for Vendetta as a second-tier dystopian film.
The totalitarianism is essentially unconvincing. Basically a theocratic superstate, all The Man embodies is an extreme conservatism that you find only in the weirdest of alt-right circles. Anybody can invent a monster, but if it doesn’t reflect something true in the human condition, then it doesn’t have staying power. It’s plainly an artifice.
You can read more from James Smith on Think Liberty here.