V for Vendetta - From comic to film

Remember, remember, that V for Vendetta needs character, reason and plot.

Feature by Keir Hind | 17 Mar 2006

Alan Moore's 'V for Vendetta' is a dark, morally complex, multi-layered, elaborately plotted comic book full of interesting characters. Now Hollywood has got hold of it, and Alan Moore needs Hollywood like ducks need field hockey. It just doesn't interest him, and his attitude can be excused. Moore is one of the most acclaimed writers to ever work in the field of comics, producing at least three major milestones in comic book history, namely 'Watchmen', 'From Hell' and well, 'V for Vendetta'. However, as far as the movies go, he's written one unproduced screenplay and seen a couple of his best comic books turned into average-at-best films.

'V for Vendetta', written in the early eighties, has an unlikely premise, but works because of the elaborate execution. After a 'limited' nuclear war (a notion Moore now admits was naïve) a fascist government emerges and re-establishes a terrible sort of order. Moore felt that there was a fascist undercurrent in British society that could emerge in extreme circumstances. The book is set in 1997 when a challenge to this order has arisen V, an anarchist superhero who wears a Guy Fawkes mask to conceal his identity. V may represent a deeper, revolutionary undercurrent, though he's actually interested in creating circumstances that allow for revolution. V is a mysterious character with a macabre sense of humour, whose speech is littered with quotations. "Please allow me to introduce myself," he tells the leader of the fascist church, "I'm a man of wealth and taste…" The comic is crammed with interrelated cultural and literary allusions used to clever effect, and also uses multiple plotlines to show how V affects characters at all levels of this society. It's a complex work which, like V, has its own secret identity in that it uses the guise of a superhero comic to examine issues of power in society.

However, such an elaborate (and long) work can't be easily transferred to the screen without sacrifices. 'From Hell', Moore's enormously well researched, elaborately written take on Jack the Ripper became another average horror movie on release. "When the film came out, inevitably they made it a whodunit," said Moore, whose own approach was "not to talk about who did it, but to talk about what happened." Moore's was the novel take; the filmmakers rejected this in favour of what they knew. Similarly, 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' was filmed using Moore's basic idea but dispensing with his plot entirely to make a film that emphasised action. If you are in a generous mood, these films are watchable enough - but not the best films you'll ever see. This is the problem, because the comic books are some of the best you'll ever read.

There are many reasons why these comics haven't translated to the screen, most of which come down to money. Thus far Moore's brilliantly complex stories have all been idiotically simplified, which begs the question, why do them at all? But comic to film adaptations are big business these days, with 'Spider-Man' and 'Batman' making enough dough to ensure that all the players and produceniks are hunting for the hottest comic book properties out there, and the hottest writer is... well, Alan Moore. But he's hot because he's different. Moore has said that originally, comic book characters "were big, brave uncles and aunties who probably insisted on a high standard of, you know, mental and physical hygiene." Naturally this sort of character translates easily to the screen. Moore's breakthrough was his introduction of rounded characters of ambiguous morality, which then made more complex plotting almost inevitable. This doesn't transfer easily to the screen, so the solution is to simplify.

Has 'V for Vendetta' suffered a similar fate? The Wachowski brothers, creators of 'The Matrix', have written this adaptation, but didn't direct; that job went to their assistant director James McTeigue. What this means is hard to say. 'The Matrix' was complex, sure, but also confusing, and the characters in it were never morally ambivalent. The Wachowskis have changed the film a little already by setting it in an alternate history where the Nazis won World War 2, a premise that's as dull as it is overused. And Alan Moore has taken his name off the film, saying that the script he saw "was imbecilic; it had plot holes you couldn't have got away with in 'Whizzer and Chips' in the 1960s". But the trailers don't look too bad, and the film will probably entertain - on some superficial level at least. The question is whether it will retain any of the comic's qualities. Remember, remember, that V for Vendetta needs character, reason and plot. Without, there's no reason, in this upcoming season, why this film won't be... well, forgot.

V For Vendetta is released on Friday March 17.