(*Beware: plentiful spoilers ahead.)
Critics and audiences seem to be largely in agreement that V for Vendetta, which opened strong two weeks ago with a $26.1 million weekend, is one of the best — and most political — mainstream movies so far this year. But for Alan Moore, who wrote the original graphic novel it's based on, it doesn't seem to be either good enough or political enough.
Both the movie and the graphic novel feature a masked terrorist, who calls himself V, instigating revolution against a religio-fascist regime in near-future England. In the comics, V is a cold, unrelenting man interested only in vengeance against a government that tortured and experimented on him and stripped him of his memories. The comics V abducts a young woman named Evey and tortures her until she becomes like him and carries on his work. In the movie, V is softer, kinder, vulnerable. In the end, he and Evey even fall in love.
Moore, writer of some of the most influential and commercially successful comics ever, including Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and From Hell, has complained about these changes and others and has, at best, washed his hands of the film. When the credits roll, you'll see only illustrator David Lloyd's name.
This is just the latest chapter in an ignominious tale. Both From Hell and League have been made into commercially successful films — and Moore has publicly attacked them both.
"It was imbecilic," Moore said of the Vendetta script, written by the Wachowski brothers, who also wrote and directed The Matrix trilogy. "It had plot holes ... plot holes no one had noticed."
Moore might be referring to the cuts to the story demanded by a 120-minute adaptation of a 275-page graphic novel. Several major characters and their subplots are omitted in the film, including the grieving widow of one of V's victims who falls into prostitution and assassination — all part of V's orchestrated revolution.
In fact, many of the cuts in Vendetta — and in other Moore adaptations — seem to be directed at material with a sexual edge.
Artist Lloyd has his own gripes with the Vendetta movie, though not severe enough to warrant taking his name off the picture. Lloyd's reportedly complaining that, in the film, Evey is less of a victim than in the comics.
A comparison of the comic book and the movie supports that assessment. In the graphic novel, Evey's abduction and torture leave her gaunt and broken — and a terrorist. Natalie Portman's movie version of Evey escapes V's prison changed, but still a relatively normal young woman.
Evey's victimization reflects Moore's feminism, a concern of his that has largely failed to make it into any of his movie adaptations. The comics From Hell, a retelling of the Jack the Ripper story, comments on royal politics, Freemasonry, class struggles, child abuse, and architecture — but mostly on the objectification of women. Its disturbing epilogue features Moore himself visiting a strip club at the former site of some of the Ripper's killings, and concluding that the ways of men haven't changed much. But the movie From Hell abandons the feminism for a straight-up detective tale. And the League comics, featuring the adventures of a gang of 19th-century British literary characters including Mina Harker (one of Dracula's victims), Captain Nemo, and Allan Quatermain, grapple with Harker's leadership of an otherwise all-male team in a patriarchal age. Like From Hell, the League movie ditches the feminism in favor of a fairly conventional, sub-par action plot.
Despite his reservations, Lloyd supports the Vendetta film. "We were making a story that was for a different audience and an audience that didn't have to be pleased on a massive scale," he says of working with Moore on the comics. "Let's face it, we're talking about a global scale here [with the movie] because it's going to be released all around the world. So, [the filmmakers'] working position was so completely different to mine and Alan's that making a comparison is almost impossible."
The Vendetta filmmakers, including director James McTeigue, also defend the film, even while admitting that past Moore adaptations have been artistic, if not commercial, failures.
"You can't go into the work of Alan Moore and not be cognizant of the other films that have gone before you," McTeigue said in a recent interview. "[But] you can't do a straight page-by-page rendition of the graphic novel. That's never going to work in cinema. But what you can do is be in a headspace where you're making a version of all those great ideas that he tried to put into that graphic novel. I don't know whether Alan will ever see [the movie], but hopefully it's something he might enjoy if he saw it."
Don't count on it, Jim. In the wake of his rejection of Vendetta, Moore has cut all ties with the comics' American publisher, DC — one of the biggest comics houses — and has joined small indie publisher Top Shelf. Moore seems convinced that mainstream publishers and studios can't be trusted to respect his work.
"For the most part, popular culture plays it safe, whether you're talking about comics or records or TV or movies," Moore said in a 2000 interview. "The mainstream is almost always deathly dull. The only place that you seem to find anything of any value is at the margins of any of these cultures."