Today, the Fifth of November, is the perfect day for V for Vendetta. To be sure, Guy Fawkes Day finds a reference or two in a story about an anarchist in a Guy Fawkes mask. Go figure. He even intones as much: Remember, remember, the Fifth of November. But it’s this particular 11/5, the one here in 2017, that’s a perfect day for V. Because we’re now coming up on a year (!) since the presidential election of 2016, an entire year of what this masked anarchist, vested with a vast and verbose vocabulary, would call vitriol, venom, vilification, violence.
Maybe you’re on the other side of this screen saying sheesh — I came here for a movie, not a political rant, or some variation on that oft-repeated question Do you have to politicize everything? To be fair, our primary focus throughout this Alan Moore Writer Series has been the differences from the page to the screen in adaptations like From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; V for Vendetta, adapted by the Wachowski siblings from Moore’s 1988/89 comic, is no exception in that it contains fairly sharp divergences from the source material. The last act of V and entire characters like Leader Adam Susan are either condensed, excised entirely, or changed to better suit the unique needs of a big-budget Hollywood production.
The main difference is that you could in fact discuss the film today, November 5th 2017, without necessarily drawing parallels to the current American political climate. The V for Vendetta film takes the plot of the source comic and plays it straight, shying away from giving any character too much moral gray area. There is a clear protagonist, there is a clear antagonist, there is action between them, and there is a distinct resolution that fails to challenge any preconceptions the viewer might have had. Moore’s comic, conversely, leaves no such ambiguity around the fact that it is a political work, meant to be considered as such, rife with deeply flawed and conflicted people at the story’s center.
Back in a more innocent time, we jested that the best literary representation of Donald Trump is undoubtedly Ebenezer Scrooge, the heartless penny-pincher incapable of human compassion and concerned only with a perverted notion of the importance of “business”. Perhaps that’s still valid, and perhaps the real-life Jacob Marley might yet materialize, chains a-jangling, to awaken our Tweeter-in-Chief to notions of empathy the rest of us learned in kindergarten. But right now the analogue to Adam Susan, Leader of the fascist Norsefire party in V for Vendetta, is as inescapable a comparison as Alec Baldwin doing Trump on SNL, and it’s all the more terrifying for having been written almost three decades ago.
Which of course is a hallmark of any great political art, that it can be applied again and again to different eras and different political injustices. When the Wachowskis adapted V, their commentary leaned into Bush, the War on Terror, and the Patriot Act; when Moore penned V in the late 1980s, Margaret Thatcher was very obviously on his mind. Read the same comic today and you’ll encounter the dictator Adam Susan commanding a government built on newsworthy lies, demeaning civil liberties in favor of “law and order”, and privately worshipping the media as God:
The Leader is infatuated with the supercomputer Fate, which simultaneously broadcasts his message, monitors the populace, and keeps dissidents in line. In the panels above it is strongly implied that Susan’s more likely to make love to this machine than to another human being. Meanwhile, there’s real pain and suffering on the other side of that screen. If you really need me to keep spelling this comparison out for you, here’s a recent article — one of hundreds — that details the ramifications of Trump’s love of Twitter.
At one point in the comic Leader Susan rides in a motorcade through a throng of adoring citizens, all of whom are waving and craning their necks toward the limousine for a look at their captain. Susan calculates the wave he gives in return, stressing to himself that it not look rehearsed. “Why can’t I feel anything for them?…I’ll try to love them more,” he resolves. After the limo passes, a man with a rifle stands and forcibly instructs the crowd to relocate to a different spot further down on the motorcade route. “…An’ less have a bet muir cheerin’ thess time, eh?” he says. One can imagine this same footsoldier bragging later about how the crowd was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.
So if Trump is Leader Susan and Twitter is Fate, who are we? Are we V, the anarchist/terrorist bent on active disruption of government control? Are we Evey, the innocent youngster caught up in V’s ideas of resistance and freedom? Maybe Finch, the world-weary seeker of truth? There are dozens of minor characters throughout Moore’s Vendetta that don’t make it fully into the film, some of whom are (knowingly or unknowingly) complicit in the sins of the fascist government. Leader Susan claims these characters form a “silent majority”, a term popularized by Richard Nixon and used often on the Trump campaign trail. Maybe we’re in there somewhere (knowingly or unknowingly).
Leader Susan was changed to High Chancellor Sutler for the film version, a far more explicitly evil character played to mustache-twirling perfection by John Hurt. He might as well have a campaign slogan hat that says I’m the Bad Guy (and, yes, we’re aware of the Guy pun; in fact, V artist David Lloyd wrote to Alan Moore and asked him to call the strip Good Guy instead, suggesting it would be “good for U.S. appeal, right?”) But as we try to find ourselves in this story it’s worth noting that at the end of the film the bad guys are dead and the good guys — including V, in the form of an ideal — live to fight another day. The bow is not tied so nicely on the V comic, with all of the characters either dead, imprisoned, insane, or tasked with the small matter of awakening society to the truth of the world.
That last one might not be so bad. Remember, remember: in a beautiful twist of historical irony, Guy Fawkes Day was originally Gunpowder Treason Day, a day that celebrated the survival of King James I. Now the same holiday sort of celebrates the King’s would-be assassin. That old fashioned cocktail of misinformation and time managed to reverse the entire thing from its intended purpose, undoubtedly stoked along by the Adam Susans of the world. I see no reason why that should ever be forgot.