In the early '80s, Alan Moore created one of his best-loved comics, V for Vendetta. The hero, or rather anti-hero, of his story, was a man simply known as V, a man who donned a Guy Fawkes mask and believed wholeheartedly in anarchy. He tortured, he killed, and he rebelled against a corrupt government over a ten-issue limited series.
In 2005, the Wachowski siblings created a cult classic modeled after Moore’s original work. They named it V for Vendetta, they molded its hero after the Guy Fawkes look-alike in the comics, they even dipped their toes into the anarchist undercurrent that drove Moore’s writing.
But though they share the same name, the same basic storyline, and the same vigilante, Moore’s book and the Wachowskis' film couldn’t be more different, at least in intention. In fact, the two properties are so different that, when the film premiered, Moore refused to see it and requested his name be pulled from any marketing materials.
To be fair, Moore has never had anything nice to say about Hollywood adaptations of his work, but with our current political climate being the burning bag of dog feces that it is, it might be a good time to see just how the movie and the book differ ... and what those differences really mean.
The Problem with Government
Moore has been an outspoken proponent when it comes to anarchism.
It’s why, when he wrote V for Vendetta, he decided to mold his own version of a superhero into the image of a man on a quest for revenge against an overreaching monolith government. For Moore, who penned the series decades ago, that government was Britain’s conservative ruling party, particularly its head, Margaret Thatcher.
Now, Thatcher was always a controversial figure. Dubbed the Iron Lady, she rose to power during the Cold War, becoming the longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century in Britain. She was hard and uncompromising in her values, values Moore clearly disagrees with in his novel. For Moore, V for Vendetta was about opposing Thatcherism, the notion of deregulation, centralizing government, disempowering trade unions, and placing trust in the free market. There was also a notion of morality and sin that Moore flouted when writing about the Norsefire Party, the ruling fascist government in his comic series. Nationalism and white supremacy, the idea that to be “different” was to be sinful, those themes were clearly stated in Moore’s work and modeled after the Britain he knew at the time.
The Wachowskis, on the other hand, chose to model their tyrannical regime around a more imminent threat. Not only did the siblings envision the Norsefire Party and Chancellor Adam Sutler (Adam Susan in the books) as a direct comparison to the Bush administration, they hinted at the corruption and conspiracies associated with that era. We’re talking about the Patriot Act and the power given to the government to effectively spy on its citizens in the name of freedom, unity, and a safer republic. The Wachowskis saw the Norsefire Party as a neo-Conservative organization, one that believed in the supremacy of a certain race and religion, was wholly evil in nature, and intent on creating a subservient people.
These may seem like subtle differences, but Moore took issue with the directors using themes and problems he felt were native to England and giving them an Americanized twist. Understandable, especially since the film feels less like a condemnation of fascism and doesn’t dive into the roots of anarchism in the same way Moore’s graphic novels do. When you take the anarchism out of a story about anarchism, that doesn’t feel like a subtle change at all.
A Different Dystopia
In Moore’s books, England had recently been ravished by nuclear war. It’s what allowed the Norsefire party to come to power. That threat made sense at the time of Moore’s writing. The Cold War was in full swing, there was panic, confusion, a sense that some structure might go a long way in making citizens feel safe.
The Wachowski siblings set their adaptation years in the future. Nuclear war seems less ominous now than something as sinister and effective as biological warfare, a way to target, to cull, to sufficiently wipe out an entire population without so much brute force and destruction. But they took things a step further when they made the government responsible for the virus that ended up killing hundreds of thousands of people. Again, a subtle change with huge consequences.
In the books, the leaders of the Norsefire party, though still evil and corrupt, seemed to truly believe that fascism was the only way to restore order and civility to a ravaged nation. By making the government the instigator of that chaos in the film, the Wachowskis added a new layer to their all-encompassing villain. They also used that cover-up to hark back to the Bush administration’s handling of 9/11 — how the conservative party banked on fear and scare tactics to push their agenda — and conspiracy theories surrounding the hijackings that would later surface.
Hero, Anti-Hero, or Villain?
In both the comics and the film, V is not a clear-cut hero by any means, but we must admit, the Wachowskis painted him in a much more favorable light than his creator did.
Moore envisioned V as a morally-compromised anti-hero. Not the kind that kidnaps you then makes you breakfast or tortures you out of love, but the kind that mercilessly kills his enemies, regardless of whether they’re good or bad. V wasn’t some swash-buckling, knife-wielding lothario as he is in the film, though both versions have him possessing a swoon-worthy vocabulary and brilliant mind. Instead, he was hell-bent on revenge and less interested in pushing an entire nation to better itself. He had his own flaws — a God complex being chief among them — and served as a more ambiguous character than he does in the film.
Sure, movie V was also a bit of a douchebag. He kidnapped Evey, tortured her, killed (though not indiscriminately as in the comics) and seemed maniacal in his attempts to destroy Chancellor Sutler, but the Wachowskis managed to water down his darker nature, infuse him with humor and wit and a bit of forbidden allure that made it easier to root for him, even when he was behaving monstrously.
In the books, Moore imagined Evey as a teenaged prostitute, forced to find a living on the streets after a family tragedy, with no intention of rebelling against the government. The girl was more concerned with putting food in her belly and staying off the Fingermen’s radar. She engaged in a romantic relationship with Deitrich, who was a crime lord, not a television host in the comics, and she was groomed by V to become his successor — a far cry from Natalie Portman’s character in the film.
The Wachowskis' Evey was a 20-something woman with a bright mind and a dark past that pushed her to doubt herself and harbor a cynical worldview. Unlike the Evey of the comics, she despised the government for what they did to her family but refused to take up arms against them. Her relationship with Deitrich was completely platonic, as he used his liaisons with women to cover up his homosexuality, and her bond with V, though just as problematic as in the comics, was more romantic in nature.
In the comics, Evey felt less like the heroine of her own story, more like the background character in V’s. She eventually rises to take up the mantle, but Moore’s treatment of her throughout the books falls into tropes better left forgotten. In the film, Evey comes to power on her own terms, using her time with V, her torture at his hands, to find something that had been buried within her all along. V doesn’t give Evey authority as he does in the comics, it’s been hers all along. He just helps her to find it again.
In the comics, Moore had V blow up Parliament early on in his terrorist plotting. The ultimate target for V, and later Evey, was 10 Downing Street, the historic address of British Prime Ministers. He’s killed by Detective Finch, not Creedy and his men as in the film. It’s Evey who ultimately destroys the prime minister’s residence, donning V’s mask, proclaiming herself a vigilante, and giving British citizens a choice in how they will now lead their lives.
The Wachowskis opted for a sunnier outlook regarding the film’s ending. Parliament became the intended target — a nod to Fawkes’ own failed plans — and V died after taking revenge on Sutler, Creedy, and the government that created him. He died in Evey’s arms, just as in the comics, but not by Finch’s hand and his destruction of Parliament was met with a crowd of citizens donning his masks before revealing themselves as his supporters. That ending gave audiences a more positive takeaway than Moore’s comics.
For Moore, anarchism is all about choice. It’s why, when his books end, a clear solution, a “right” path is left undiscovered. Will people go back to their old ways? Will they create a new life for themselves? All we’re left with at the end of Moore’s comic is chaos, destruction, and that most difficult of questions. That ending seems more realistic, but the Wachowskis chose a Hollywood-approved resolution, one that ended with hope, the possibility of a brighter future, the feeling that people would do things differently this time.
There are plenty more changes between Moore’s work and the Wachowskis masterpiece, but we hesitate to claim one as being better than the other. Each version has something to offer: thoughts on anarchy and revolution, and rising up for what’s right that deserve to be heard and shared. If you like one, you may not like the other, but in hindsight, it’s probably a good thing the film and book differ so greatly. That means there are two stories of V for people to identify with and just maybe, take inspiration from.
It’s all about choice, after all.