The following is an essay written for my Film as Literature class.
V for Vendetta was a work of major cultural importance for over a decade before the 2005 film adaption helped spread the messages and themes of the film worldwide. Originally in publication from March 1982 through May 1989, V for Vendetta is the brainchild of Alan Moore, who is widely considered to be one of the greatest comic book writers of all time. The film centers on V, a terrorist out to destroy the fascist government of dystopian future England. While the film itself makes many important points about freedom, liberty, individual choice, and the damage totalitarian control does to them, what makes this film remarkably relatable to the current cultural and political atmosphere of the world, American in particular, is its ability to unite all of these themes under one symbol: the Guy Fawkes mask. The Guy Fawkes mask has a long history, dating back to 1605 and the failed Gunpowder Plot, to its current use as a symbol for protest and the power of revolt. V for Vendetta, by augmenting a preexisting historical figure, has changed the way that the youth of the world protest, both socially and politically, by giving all protesters a single symbol to express their ideals.
A central element of V for Vendetta is the attempted assassination of King James VI and I, commonly referred to as the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Led by Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes and several others plotted to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of England’s Parliament on November 5, 1605. After the destruction of the House of Lords there was to be a popular revolt in the Midlands, but the plan was foiled via an anonymous letter that one of the plotters sent to warn a fellow catholic and ensure his safety. Catesby, Fawkes, and the rest of their conspirators, who had not already fled after hearing news of the plot’s failure, were captured and eventually executed. After these events the people lit bonfires in the street to celebrate the king’s survival. Eventually the ceremony evolved into a national holiday, and every fifth of November England would celebrate Guy Fawkes Night, where people would burn effigies with Guy Fawkes masks on and light fireworks to celebrate the assassination plot’s failure. At this point in time Fawkes’ name was synonymous with treason and failure, but this would all change in 1982 with the start of V for Vendetta’s publication. After the film adaption was released in 2005 the stylized version of the Guy Fawkes mask used by the comic’s protagonist V came to represent protest and the desire for change. Protesters throughout the world wear Guy Fawkes masks to illustrate their disdain for whatever establishment or law they may be protesting. All of these people pulled together beneath a mask for the simple fact that, as V himself said in the film’s climax, “Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. There is an idea…and ideas are bulletproof.”
The film is set in a future dystopian England where the fascist Norsefire party sets up concentration camps, which they fill with political prisoners, ethnic and sexual minorities, along with the rest of Brittan’s unwanted populace. The film deals with V’s scheme to end the fascist regime of the Norsefire party and his interactions with a young girl named Evey. Upon rescuing Evey from an attempted rap by the Norsefire’s secret police, the Fingermen, V takes Evey to his home, the Shadow Gallery, where she is to live until November 5th of the following year. Investigator Finch is the Scotland Yard’s chief of police, and tasks himself with the duty of brining V to justice. Through his investigations he learns of V’s origins, as well as exactly how the Norsefire came to power. Fourteen years prior to the film, the United States collapsed after being the victim of a bio-weapon attack. The United States is currently in a state of civil war, and eventually the war reached England. Those who would become the Norsefire used this attack to lead a purging of ‘unwanted’ British citizens. Homosexuals, political opponents, Muslims, and many more were sent to concentration camps. The public was outraged by these attacks on their freedoms until another bio-weapon attack killed 80,000 English citizens. This attack was blamed on Muslims extremists but was actually the work of the Norsefire to instill fear into the English populace and ensure their victory in the next election. V, the film’s protagonist and a wanted terrorist, was once a prisoner in one of the Norsefire’s concentration camps. During his stay he and many others were studied and subjected to various experiments. V, however, managed to escape and plotted out revenge for ten years before finally resurfacing as a terrorist driven to bring down the fascist government and install anarchy upon England. As one can imagine there was much controversy surrounding the creation of this film as it deals with many hot button issues such as homosexuality, totalitarianism, criticism of religion, and terrorism. However the film even gained negative feedback from the author of the original comic, Alan Moore, who stated that, the Hollywood script for the film had watered down the anarchist ideology of the original and had instead turned it into a story of ‘current American neo-conservatism vs. current American liberalism.’
The film, while set in the year 2030, is really a commentary about America and its policies since the September 11th terrorist attacks. This is in contrast to the graphic novel, which is a commentary on Britain and the political climate of the early 1980s. In the film, when V forces his way onto TV after destroying the Old Bailey, he does so that knowing that if he hadn’t, the government would have covered it up as construction work or as an attack by Islamic extremists. V instead takes his place in front of the camera and explains his actions for all of England:
The truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance, coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who is to blame? Certainly there are those who are more responsible than others and they will be held accountable, but again, truth be told, if you are looking for the guilty, you need only to look into a mirror.
Alan Moore has said before that ‘when you’re talking about the future, you’re actually talking about the present.’ That is exactly what V for Vendetta is doing. For V, too many freedoms have been traded for the so-called peace that the Norsefire party has given England. This speech is his wake up call to all of England. He calls upon the citizens of Britain to take responsibility for what they have allowed to happen to their government as well as to stand up for their lost liberties. This is a direct parallel to the liberties American citizens lost after the passing of the Patriot Act and other similar bills that violate the privacy of citizens. From the onset of the film the Norsefire government is shown to be repressive and hell-bent on instilling fear into its citizens. We open with the corrupt secret police attempting to rape Evey because she was out past her curfew. To further drive home the idea that the government has repressed its people much of the film takes place underground in hidden lairs, with scenes composed of tight close up and medium shots. Both the government and the frame in the first half of this film are strangling the characters, forcing them into tight situations and places with little breathing room. Evey is the character that is meant to act as a stand in for the audience member, as she is the most relatable of the main cast. Just like how Evey has been repressed by the Norsefire government all her life, the audience is meant to feel repressed by the tight camera angles. Evey is eventually captured by the Norsefire and tortured for information regarding V. The angles on Evey seem to get tighter than ever as the government has become ever more involved in repressing Evey, and through Evey the viewers, freedom. Once Evey learns to accept her fate and stops fearing her government she is immediately set go, and learns that the imprisonment and torture was a trick preformed on her by V. Stunned by this, V takes Evey outside in the rain to calm her down, where she is baptized in the rain, washing away all of her years of fear the Norsefire has instilled in her. This is the scene that is meant to inspire the audience, as it has inspired Evey, to take action and fight back against the repressive government. As Brian Ott explains in his own analysis of the political implications of V for Vendetta, “The scene is wrenching for viewers, who learn, along with Evey, that willingly sacrificing one’s freedoms in the name of nationalism is its own kind of imprisonment. The rebellious energy that has been stirred up in Evey and, by extension, the audience must be released” (47). This film is designed to call the viewers to action; to call them all to stand up for their liberties that have been taken away, and to warn us to not to let it get as bad as it has in the film.
V for Vendetta is rich with recurring themes and motifs. V wears the Guy Fawkes mask to hide his burns and scars, as can be seen in the scene where he makes Evey breakfast with his gloves off. However by wearing the mask and never revealing his identity, he transcending his limits as a human being and becomes only the ideal he fights for: liberty. His enemies, the Norsefire party, borrow heavily from both real world totalitarian regimes and fictional ones. The party’s leader, High Chancellor Adam Sulter, delivers his speeches in a very similar fashion to how Adolf Hitler delivered his speeches. Sulter, similarly to Big Brother from George Orwell’s 1984, mostly appears on large television screens in many different parts of the city to symbolize his power and ever looking gaze. Both the Norsefire and the Nazis targeted ethnic minorities; only the Norsefire’s main targets are Muslims while the Nazis targeted Jews. Throughout the film there is a repeated reference to the letter ‘V’ and the number five. When V first meets Evey, he recites a monologue containing 48 words that start with the letter V. During his imprisonment in the concentration camp V was held in cell V, and Evey did as well during her staged imprisonment. During V’s dance with Evey, he plays the fifth song in the jukebox, and when V confronts Creedy in his greenhouse V plays Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
V as a character is not designed to be an absolute good, nor is he designed to be an absolute evil. He kills those who were involved in his torture while at the Norsefire’s concentration camp and destroys national landmarks, yet at the same time he is doing so in the name of restoring something that England had lost so long ago, it’s freedom. V’s character is meant to inspire thought about whether he is right or wrong, insane or sane, criminal or hero. Towards the end of the film investigator Finch, the detective who had been researching V, starts asking questions about the validity of the government’s story of the biological attack that was blamed on religious extremists. He gathers information to suggest that it was the Norsefire behind the attacks, and not radical Muslims. At this point Finch is able to understand V and his motivation. After all, “The terrorist is, in fact, reacting to an act of state terrorism. Why should one be more legitimate than the other?” (González 206). At this point in the film both V and the government are responsible for terroristic acts. V’s acts of terrorism are to wake up the people of England to what they have lost, while the Norsefire’s act of terrorism are to suppress the people through fear. V for Vendetta is not a film that opts to engage in the easy to understand good versus evil mentality, instead choosing to ask the question ‘can terrorism be justified?’
V for Vendetta has given protesters a symbol to unite under. Whether one is protesting taxpayer-funded bailouts for banks, the Church of Scientology, or just the corruption of government in general, the Guy Fawkes mask unites all people as fighters for a greater good. The film, however, is clearly not a call to violence, as Mararita Carretero-González explains in her article ‘Sympathy for the Devil: The Hero is a Terrorist in V for Vendetta,’ “This should not, however, convince us that the film condones terrorism…it rather invites us to understand the reasons why, on some occasions, some people may resort to abhorrent violence before easily labeling them” (209). While many protesters use the Guy Fawkes mask to symbolize their unity, the online hacking group known as Anonymous also uses the mask to illustrate the power the Internet bestows upon those who know the in and outs of code. Just like V’s true identity was never revealed, the members of Anonymous do not reveal themselves, opting instead to stand for the idea of Internet freedom. Widely regarded by news outlets and major corporations as a group of on online criminals, Anonymous raids websites that are owned by big companies that attempt to finder free speech or Internet freedom. The members of Anonymous have taken the mask symbol to a whole new level that is only possible because of the Internet. The controversial document leaking website Wikileaks has also been contributing to the idea of free information and corporate transparency lately. Founder Julian Assange has also been known to protest while wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. While all of these groups and protests could still happen without the existence of V for Vendetta, V gave them a symbol to rally behind.
V for Vendetta is a complex, mind-turning thriller that did more than entertain audiences; it gave them a symbol under which to unite against tyranny. The Guy Fawkes mask, while having a long history dating back to the Gunpowder plot of 1605, has been transformed from something to be burned for treason into something to be worn for pride. Taking the graphic novel’s original storyline and making it reflect America’s current political atmosphere gave the film a deeper meaning than if it had just been about Britain in the 1980s. It encouraged Americans to stand up for the rights they were losing under the Bush administration. Indeed, V for Vendetta not only changed the way that the youth of the world view their ability to change the world, but it has completely reshaped the face of protest. Now, protesters wear the face of Guy Fawkes when facing tyranny.
Carretero-González, Margarita. “Sympathy For The Devil: The Hero Is A Terrorist In V For
Vendetta.” At The Interface / Probing The Boundaries 63. (2011): 199-210. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 25 Apr. 2012.
McTeigue, James, Dir. V for Vendetta. Warner Bros, 2005. DVD.
Moore, Alan. Alan Moore Talks. BBC. Google.com. 14 Oct. 2007. Web. 25 Apr. 2012.
Ott, Brian L. “The Visceral Politics Of V For Vendetta: On Political Affect In Cinema.” Critical
Studies In Media Communication 27.1 (2010): 39-54. Communication & Mass Media
Complete. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.
A PDF version of this essay is available here.