Jan 12, 2011

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

V for Vendetta is set in a post-apocalyptic near future (or what was the near future at the time of its publication). The year is 1997, and the world has suffered through a nuclear disaster which resulted in starvations, perpetual winter, and the complete obliteration of Africa and continental Europe. Great Britain was spared, but it has turned into a fascist police state that includes concentration camps for glbtq, black, Jewish and Muslim people, as well as for anyone else deemed undesirable by the leaders. This fascist state also includes constant surveillance, of course – The Eye and The Ear watch its citizens every move, while The Mouth disseminates official propaganda.

The story opens with a man in a Guy Fawkes mask saving sixteen-year-old Evey from a group of policemen who intended to rape and murder her. This man, who goes by the name of V, is an anarchist bomber, and like the original Guy Fawkes, he intends to blow up the Houses of Parliament – and succeeds. This is just the beginning of a campaign that some see as terrorism, others as liberation. But who exactly is V, and what does he intend? These are some of the questions that Evey, who is taken by V to his secret headquarters, repeatedly asks herself. However, the meaning of these questions changes as events progress.

As customary with Alan Moore’ work, V for Vendetta is a clever and dense book: it’s full of literary allusions (Moore really seems to have fun with those); it deals with complex political, social and historical ideas without ever trying to oversimplify them; and it offers no clear or easy answers at the end.Moore himself says in this quite interesting interview that he “didn’t want to stick to just moral blacks and whites.” I always appreciate that about his work, and in this case I particularly appreciate his willingness to set up anarchism against fascism without prettifying it as an alternative (and this regardless of where his own political sympathies lie). Likewise, and regardless of how much fascism horrifies me, I appreciate his inclusion of characters who are not mere cartoonish villains, but rather human beings who do terrible things.

V for Vendetta

There was, however, one aspect of V for Vendetta that made me hugely uncomfortable (I wonder if it’s the same one Emily meant). I can’t tell you what it is exactly, as it would be a major spoiler, but it has to do with one character being deceived and manipulated, supposedly for their own good. It’s a difficult plot element, and it raises all sorts of questions about the extent to which it is ever legitimate to sacrifice personal relationships and the trust of others for the sake of principles or ideals. I feel like I’m about to channel E.M. Forster or Elizabeth Gaskell here, but my own allegiance will always be with the individual, and the personal will always be my primary orientation. As Forster so well put it, “I if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” Still, I realise that there are countless situations in which these decisions aren’t at all easy to make.

The more I think about this problematic aspect of the story, the more I begin to think that it’s very likely meant to be problematic. Moore has never been a comfortable or comforting writer. To return to the aforementioned interview, he says:
The central question is, is this guy right? Or is he mad? What do you, the reader, think about this? Which struck me as a properly anarchist solution. I didn’t want to tell people what to think, I just wanted to tell people to think and consider some of these admittedly extreme little elements, which nevertheless do recur fairly regularly throughout human history.
I did finish the book without being able to make up my mind about V, which seems to be exactly what Moore was hoping for.

V for Vendetta

Another thing I liked about the story was its exploration of why we need symbols and myths – or, as V puts it, “romance, always romance.” His tactics are dramatic and very theatrical, but deliberately so. He intends to become the embodiment of a symbol; of an idea who is larger than a single individual could ever be. Symbols and ideas have staying power, and they have a considerable ability to move and inspire people. But of course, this has its dangerous side too: when does an idea become so big that it’s permissible to sacrifice individuals in its name? When we reach that stage, have the opposites met? As always, Moore has left me with plenty to think about.

Before anyone asks, no, I haven’t seen the film. Alan Moore’s wish to have his name removed from it and his belief that his ideas had been completely defanged have put me off somewhat – as did the fact that I read a plot summary on Wikipedia and found the changes to the story staggering. I’m not saying this because I believe a movie has to be absolutely faithful to its source material, but because of what these changes implied thematically and ideologically. Anyway, you’re more than welcome to try to convince me that it’s worth a try regardless.

They read it too:
Good Books & Good Wine
Casual Dread
Stella Matutina
S. Krishna’s Books

(Have I missed yours?)


  1. This is one style of book that I tend to avoid. I am not good with post apocalyptic style books or even apocalyptics books or films.They give me too much to think about and worry about. It does sound like a thought provoking storyline and I feel I would struggle with the characters. Good review though. Shame the film does not live up to the author's expectations.

  2. oh that Forster quote hits home big time! It reminds me of the anger I felt when I watched The wind that shakes the barley. Many times ideals and the struggle for the country's liberation were put before friendship and human feelings. Something I could never do or condone.
    I did watch the movie and sort of liked it, but I wasn't completely happy with it. The graphic novel sounds a lot more complex and interesting.

  3. Glad that you were finally able to read 'V for Vendetta', Ana :) It is one of my favourite graphic novels. I found your review as sophisticated and as complex as the novel :)

    I understand why one part of the book made you uncomfortable. It is a difficult thing to decide whether personal relationships are more important than principles and ideals or vice versa. I think it is something for which there is no right answer for all situations and a question with which we have to grapple with everyday.

    Your review has inspired me to read 'V for Vendetta' again :)

  4. I have seen the movie, but not read the book on this one, and until you mentioned it, I had no idea that the movie was such a bastardization of the book, and was so unsatisfying to Moore. I do want to read this now, even if only to compare the two. I imagine that it would be a remarkable book, given the fact that the movie was already pretty good. Great review, Ana!

  5. It's so funny, but because you said it was a post-apocalyptic book, I assumed there would be weird things we wouldn't know about, so when I first saw "glbtq" I thought, "hmmm, I wonder what the glibtiks are!" doh....

  6. Vivienne: I definitely need to be brace myself for a book like this, as it can (and did) unsettle me for days.

    Valentina: In regards to Irish history in particular, I remember having a discussion about this with my professor when I studied Yeats' Cathleen NĂ­ Houlihan. What was considered a noble decision there was absolutely horrifying to me. It's probably an easier decision to make on behalf of oneself than of others, which is why part of the book bothered me so much - I assume that having seen the film you know what I mean :P

    Vishy: You should read it again and come discuss it with me while it's still so fresh in my mind :P There's so much here I'd love to talk about.

    Zibilee: I guess it's a matter of opinion to some extent, and Moore is notoriously harsh on adaptation of his work, but the changes I read about did shock me some. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the book!

    Jill: lol :P

  7. I really enjoyed the book, but haven't seen the film either - it looked interesting at the time when it came out, but I never got around to it. Now that I've read the original text, I'm not sure that I want to see the film, either. Or, at least, not to equate the two as belonging together.

  8. I also really liked the moral ambiguity of V for Vendetta. I liked that it wasn't black and white and there was not a clear choice.

    Also, I quite enjoyed the movie. I saw it in theaters 3 times. However, I saw the film before reading the book. I also look at the two as separate mediums, and almost different stories.

  9. I've wanted to read this for a while, and was mostly nervous because having seen previews for the film I was a afraid it would be a shiny action flick kind of story, so I'm glad to hear it seems to bear only thevaguest relation :P. I think, in a sense, this is what all revolutionary periods of history go through. Did you ever read of Les Miserables? I had the same struggle with the characters in the ABC club - and I thought Hugo in the sapme sense put them there to be wonderful and awful at the same time. The idea of loyalty to an ideal, of being 'married to the revolution' as it were is a fascinating one - at some level, I can see the argument, and it's such a troubling one. If the world was perfectly logical, one could, like John STuart Mill would, simply weigh the benefits of an action, and see which creates the most good and least evil. But, it isn't. And that sort of utilitarian idealism is so dangerous - that's why reovlutions so often produce despotisms.

  10. I've not read anything by Moore, but I have seen this movie and I really liked it a lot. I don't remember much about it, however, so I definitely feel like I should watch it again. And your thorough analysis of the book has made me really want to try that too!

  11. My son has read the book and seen the movie and he says they don't compare and that Moore was right to want his name off of the movie.

  12. I can't stand comic books (ahem, "graphic novels") but one with literary allusions?!!

    I did see the movie and liked it a lot. Obviously I can't compare, but I wouldn't call it "de-fanged."

  13. I think you're right that it was intentionally problematic, although something about the depiction still rubbed me the wrong way (I assume we're talking about the same thing - a certain character reenacts their own experience of trauma on another person).

    I think it's the notion that inflicting intentional suffering is ever "for the victim's own good," even if we could predict with the level of certainty the book seems to imply that Person B will have the same reaction to a given series of events as Person A. The fact that that ends up being the case - that Person B basically experiences the trauma in the exact same way as Person A and has the same reaction - strikes me as unlikely to the point of unbelievable. Had Person B's reaction been different, I would have been much more apt to accept it as an interesting meditation on the cycle of violence, and the human compulsion to reenact their own victimization on other people. As it was...I was unconvinced.

    Still thought the book was thought-provoking and worthwhile, though.

    And PS - I just last night encountered Forster's exact sentiments in a Montaigne essay! Small bookish world.

  14. I've seen the movie and I did enjoy it. To me it sounds like the themes are the same, even if the movie version is declawed.

    I thought about getting my brother this GN for his birthday, but got him Sandman, instead.

  15. I read the book about 15 years ago on the recommendation of a friend who was into graphic novels. It's still the only one by Moore I've read. I agree that it's very unsettling, but I think it's a very powerful book about the evils of ideology.

    The particularly problematic bit I found very confusing, when I first read it, so that I had to go back, once it had concluded, and re-read.

    The film was a bit pantomime-ish. V isn't meant to be camp, but dangerous.

  16. Carina: It's probably best to thing of them as completely separate, yes. I'll try my best to do that if I get around to watching you. (Also: I owe you the MOST APOLOGETIC e-mail ever :S)

    April: I think I'll try that approach too regarding the movie.

    Jason: You are determined to cause me to read both Ulysses and Les Mis, aren't you? :P Seriously now, I think that's a great point. Revolutions are clean breaks that pretty much demand radical actions, or else how do they ever happen? And yet, how can you do that without a level of commitment that surpasses everyday affections? But that's indeed a dangerous idea, because there will always be those who get sacrificed.

    Steph: If you liked the movie, I think you'd like the book as well for sure!

    Kathy: I think a lot of fans felt that way!

    Jeanne: Noooo - why the comics hatred? (I actually prefer that term to "graphic novels".) I can think of a handful of them with literary allusions. The Sandman! The Unwritten! Fables! From Hell! Anyway, as Carina and April were saying I think I'll try to appreciate the movie for what it is regardless of the book.

    Emily: I can definitely see your point. Even if intentional it does remain problematic. I also found V's concept of freedom (as he defined it) and its desirability pretty questionable.

    Heidenkind: Good choice - I do like Sandman a lot more :P

    Ela: This is actually my least favourite of the Moores I've read to date, even though I did like it. So I'd definitely recommend the rest of his work. I love your point about ideology. And I'm sure this is a book I'd get more out of with re-reads.

  17. Now I want to reread this. Moore and Lloyd give the reader so much to think about, and I'm sure I'll notice new things every time.

  18. This GN has been on my wish list for ages, and I keep not buying it for some unknown reason...

  19. Oh I didn't realize he didn't want to have his name associated with the film! That makes me much more curious to read the book. I did see the movie and I liked it well enough but I get the feeling the book will definitely make more of an impact. Great review, Nymeth! I'll have to add this one to my list.

  20. I watched the movie years ago. Didn't know at the time it was taken from a comic. Didn't know that Moore wanted his name to be taken off the movie too. That's pretty sad. I remember the movie for being "pretty good" but don't remember much about it. I do remember V and him fighting for his ideals vaguely.

    On a side note, I really want to read E.M. Forster this year!

  21. This has nothing to do with your post whatsoever but as I appear to be very slow on the email response front at this time, I thought I'd let you know that I am currently reading book #2 in the Peter Wimsey series. I know I am a LONG way from Harriet Vane, which actually quite frustrates me as again, I'm not a huge fan of Wimsey at this point...

  22. I watched the movie based on this one and by the same name. And I kind of liked it. But I confess, large part of it was a bit difficult to understand. I really did enjoy the performances of the 2 actors and the voice give to V. I always meant to see it again, to understand better but kind of forgot. I did not know that the movie was based on a book. Know I really want to read this and watch the movie. Great review.

  23. Nothing like a writer that writes assuming readers are intelligent beings. I love being challenged and even made uncomfortable in my believes by something in a book.

    I’ve seen the movie and am really surprised that it’s different from the book (which I haven’t read). I remember at the time that it was being promoted as really true to the original…

  24. As to why the comics hatred, it's partly difficulty with spatial relations (which picture do I look at next, duh?) and partly literary snobbism. I figure that since I'm the least snobbish of the English PhDs I know, I can permit myself one disdain.

  25. Memory: I'm sure I will as well!

    Trisha: I also kept putting it off for some unknown reason. But I'm glad I got to it at last!

    Iliana: To be fair on this particular film, I think Moore has said that of almost every adaptation of his work :P But it does seem like the book takes the ideas further.

    Mee: I think part of why he said that were also conflicts with the companies who hold the rights, you know? So it might have been more of a "this is the last drop" reaction.

    Aarti: Oh no :( I think the solution is to jump ahead and go straight to Strong Poison :P Also, don't worry! You know very well that I'm the slowest e-mailer ever :P

    Veens: I hope you'll enjoy the book! And you have all convinced me to give the film a try after all.

    Alexandra: YES. I didn't remember that in particular about the way the film was marketed - sounds a little ironic :P

    Jeanne: Fair enough :P

  26. I had no idea that the comic book version of V for Vendetta is so different from the movie! I've seen the movie but haven't read the book yet. I think I'll do that this weekend! :-)

  27. My favorite thing about the book was the bit where he plays Beethoven's Fifth (V to Romans) that goes dum dum dum DUM (V in Morse Code). That was really clever. I bet Alan Moore felt clever for a week after he thought of that.

    But yeah, overall not my thing. Alan Moore is not my guy.

    Oh, also, another reason not to see the movie is that Stephen Fry is in it, playing just the sweetest darling you ever saw--actually being essentially what Stephen Fry would probably be like for realsies in an oppressive regime of that nature--and when bad stuff happened to him, it was very upsetting. The, er, problematic story elements to which you are delicately referring upset me nowhere near as much as it upset me to see scary dudes pushing Stephen Fry around for being funny and gay.

  28. Vasilly: I can't wait to hear what you think!

    Jenny: Haha - I can very well imagine Moore feeling clever for a week, yes :P

  29. The Beethoven's Fifth allusion probably makes Moore not as clever as you think, Jenny - that first four note progression was used in Britain during WW2 as a shorthand for 'V for Victory', and so to have V use it for his own ends is co-opting that very recognisable motif.

  30. Ela: Now I'm slightly disappointed :P

  31. I almost picked this one up the other day at the bookstore because Scott really enjoyed the movie but I just wasn't sure if he'd read it and I didn't want to spend the money if he wasn't going to.

    I believe I know what aspect of the book you're referring to as it's a very disturbing part of the movie as well (part = extended segment, of course). I did enjoy the movie but didn't realize when I saw it there was a book first.

  32. I thought this book was incredibly thought provoking. However, I do agree with you about the deceived character - that left a bitter taste in my mouth!


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