In 1982, British cartoonist Alan Moore felt confident that he knew how the UK’s 1983 elections would go. He predicted conservative Margaret Thatcher would lose, and nuclear disarmament meant England could exit the Cold War relatively unscathed, although there would be strong fascist pushback.
Following his political conjecture, Moore wrote a political revolutionary thriller in a fascist future that, despite poor early sales, eventually gained a cult following.
By 2006, when the movie adaptation of V for Vendetta came out, just about every one of Moore’s political forecasts had proven wrong. Thatcher resoundingly won that election, and the Cold War never turned hot. The movie, adapted by the Wachowskis, proved to be so different from the original work that Moore demanded his name be removed from the screen.
While its differences are clear, director James McTeigue’s movie stands on its own. Here is why you should see this movie for yourself as V for Vendetta is now streaming on HBO Max.
After a quick introduction of Guy Fawkes, the movie tells the story of Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), who works at what seems to be England’s only TV station, BTN. Evey is invited over to a talk show host’s house for what appears to be an inter-office seduction. But before she goes, two of the government's secret police, the Fingermen, catch her after curfew. They’re about to sexually assault her when a mysterious figure in a Guy Fawkes mask with incredible speed, strength, and seemingly endless knives saves her.
With no real intention of going through on her date, Evey follows this figure, who calls himself V (Hugo Weaving), to watch the explosion of London’s historic court building, the Old Bailey. The explosion is followed by a sudden celebration with V setting off fireworks and playing the “1812 Overture.”
The government is not thrilled by V’s activities, to put it mildly. High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt) is particularly upset, calls V a terrorist, and demands he be caught while the government passes off V’s explosion as a planned demolition. A police inspector, Finch (Stephen Rea), is assigned to the case. While he can’t figure out who V is, he’s able to use the state’s vast surveillance apparatus to find Evey. Digging into her life, he finds that her parents were killed for being political dissidents.
All three characters converge at BTN headquarters, where V hijacks the network’s programming to make a very special announcement: A year from now, on November 5, he will blow up Parliament.
Evey helps him escape but is knocked out in the process. When she wakes up, she’s in V’s underground lair, surrounded by a cultural cornucopia of artistic treasures from statues to old movies.
V soon begins explaining his philosophy to Evey, which is perhaps where Moore’s objections start. V sees violence as a means to his ends but never really gets more specific than that. Moore originally saw V for Vendetta as a fight between fascism and anarchism and said in an interview that the movie recast the struggle “as current American neo-conservatism vs. current American liberalism.”
The movie is replete with references to the Bush-Cheney administration and the War on Terror. Prisoners are taken away in hoods and sacks that resemble what torture victims wore in Abu Ghraib. Muslims are repeatedly mentioned in the movie as being attacked; owning a Quran was an offense punishable by death. The same punishment goes for being gay.
Torture, homophobia, and Islamophobia are worth fighting against. It is genuinely rare to see a character in a Western movie express love and appreciation for the Quran, as closeted gay talk show host Dietrich (Stephen Fry) does. Speaking with Lana Wachowski in a 2020 retrospective, McTeigue called a scene where an imprisoned Evey reads the hidden autobiography of a woman named Valerie, “the heart” of the movie, and it’s hard to disagree.
This story-within-a-story plays out very much as Moore wrote it, and it is genuinely moving. While V for Vendetta can accurately portray hatred (although, as Moore noted, the film does not portray racism as the books do), it jettisons much of its titular character. Here he is an anti-hero, a man driven to tear down a government based on personal revenge. It’s a good story, but Moore’s ideas about anarchism are mostly cut.
It’s why the movie was protested by anarchists outside a movie theater dressed in V outfits (who were then counter-protested by anarcho-capitalists, making for a very confused crowd). Moore’s work is undoubtedly the deeper of the two and is still an incredible read today.
With its limitations understood, V for Vendetta can still be seen as an exciting summer action movie that goes deeper than most. These days, LGBTQ+ characters still struggle to get even the smallest amount of screen time. Back in 2006, not exactly a progressive time in film history, Vendetta placed heroic queer characters front and center. And it has solid performances from Portman and Weaving, although Hurt steals every scene he’s in as the tyrannical Sutler.
V for Vendetta’s greatest legacy is no doubt the Guy Fawkes mask, worn at political protests worldwide. David Lloyd, who drew the comic and created the mask, told the BBC he felt the movie, not the book, had inspired protesters around the world. While it may not have the depth its originator hoped for, there’s no denying its spirit of rebellion caught on in ways Moore could never have expected back in 1982.
V for Vendetta is now streaming on HBO Max.