Not to get whiny, but I'm sick of comic books not getting their due. Oh, they've been successful—with blockbuster movie adaptations like Spider-Man and X-Men and Batman, the action-packed appeal of comics has been embraced by the mainstream. That said, superheroes aren't all there is to comics—fragile magazines whose thin, cheap pages are crammed with boxes and speech bubbles and sound effects and some of the most incendiary ideas in literature. And it's pretty ridiculous that moviegoers will turn out for adaptations, but cringe at the thought of venturing into a comic book shop to sample this perpetually marginalized form.
When it comes to comics as literature, there are few writers more revered than Alan Moore. The smart, searing work of Moore—Watchmen, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen—is arguably the best that comics have to offer, which makes his history with Hollywood a particularly unfortunate one. Removing himself from Hollywood's machinations, Moore's distanced himself from the (usually awful) adaptations of his works—removing his name from films' credits and giving his financial benefits to co-creators.
Long intro, I know, but it's going somewhere: The film V for Vendetta is based on what's perhaps Moore's most powerful work, a 10-issue miniseries published in the 1980s. Moore wrote the series, with David Lloyd doing most of the art; while you'll see Lloyd's name in the film's credits, Moore's is predictably missing. Until now, Moore's absence from cinematic adaptations of his work hasn't been much to mourn, but now it is. Because—finally, to the point—the film version of V for Vendetta is good. Very good.
Adapted by the Wachowski Brothers—who have otherwise been hiding, licking their wounds from the derision thrown at their Matrix sequels—the screenplay for V stays largely true to its source material: It's the story of a terrorist known only as "V," who wears a stylized Guy Fawkes mask as he sows dissent in a fascist Britain. V tells its story through a naïve young woman, Evey Hammond (played here by Natalie Portman); at first, Evey is rescued by V (who's played, or more accurately, voiced, by Hugo Weaving), and then she's drawn into his morally righteous, physically dangerous world. The complex, lyrical V also follows a parallel line—that of police detectives doing their damnedest to slow V's march of terror. As V explodes prominent landmarks and rouses Brits from their government-mandated apathy, Evey's relationship with V grows murkier—and, despite V's brutal methods and shadowy motives, the virtues of his terror become starkly clear.
In other words, V deals with the entrenched power of government, the fluid will of the people, and terrorism as a valid impetus to action. As striking as that theme might be, the film's other subjects are also creepily relevant: a government that invents conflict; a police force that spies on its citizens; a nation both removed and benefiting from other countries' wars. There's a whiff of Nazism here in future Britain's elimination of homosexuals and radicals; there's also a stench of blind, arrogant power that feels far more timely and near.
None of this keeps first-time director James McTeigue from the visceral and mental acrobatics of Moore's work. There are moments in McTeigue's V that rival a thousand other action films in fluidity and impact; as familiar as V is with the cost of life, McTeigue recognizes the giddy thrill of watching justice be bloodily enacted. Likewise, the Wachowskis' writing talents are proven once again—this isn't a flawless adaptation, but it's a more than worthy one.
And well followed through, to boot: From V's poetic monologues to Portman's anxious eyes, the confident, polished V seeks some genuinely riveting and distressing moments, usually with Weaving's voice echoing from Fawkes' darkly cheerful façade. Likewise, Stephen Rea's sympathetic detective's beat-down realism is in perfect step with McTeigue's envisioning of Lloyd's familiar dystopias—from the government-controlled news stories to the silent vox populi, V's is a world that could easily pass as our own.
And that's the crux of it: Moore's story was powerful and daring upon its publication, but it's hard to shake the suspicion that V for Vendetta has gained even more relevance. In light of the film's key phrase—"People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people"—V has only grown more vital, a thought that's at once terrifying and enlightening.