Before HBO’s Watchmen, stream V for Vendetta, the best Alan Moore adaptation

There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to watch

V for Vendetta, the 2006 movie adaptation of the politically charged graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd. Set in a dystopian future England, the film stars Natalie Portman as idealistic young woman Evey Hammond, who becomes a protégée of “V,” an anarchist revolutionary (Hugo Weaving) in a Guy Fawkes mask. The original comic book series debuted in the UK in the early 1980s, as a furious reaction to the authoritarian bent of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — and in particular, the nation’s rising intolerance toward its ethnic minorities and LGBTQ citizens. When the collected edition of V for Vendetta was published at the end of the decade, it connected with the same adventurous adult-fantasy fans who’d devoured Moore’s previous deconstructions of pulp adventure, in his comics series Swamp Thing, Miracleman, and Watchmen.

Why watch now?

Because Damon Lindelof’s new TV series version of Watchmen debuts Sunday night on HBO.

This new series is a direct sequel to Moore’s seminal DC Comics graphic novel, illustrated by artist David Gibbons The show’s main storyline takes place 30 years after the book’s events. (Or in other words, roughly right now.) Set in a future where the laws against masked vigilantes are now being aggressively enforced, HBO’s Watchmen is partly about the police in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where a violent massacre of cops led to a new law requiring police to wear masks, and leading detectives to adopt full costumes and vigilante-style personas. The Tulsa police are facing the growing threat of a militant white-supremacist organization — who themselves are sporting disguises, inspired equally by the Ku Klux Klan and the martyred anti-hero Rorschach.

This premise is just a jumping-off point for Lindelof, who’s best known for the similarly ambitious TV fantasy/dramas Lost and The Leftovers. In both those series, the larger narratives were broken up into character-driven episodes that tell their own discrete stories. Lindelof’s technique is fairly true to the structure of Moore and Gibbons’ book, which also gives each issue of the comic its own satisfying arc. Watchmen’s nine-episode first season jumps around in time and location, revealing its bigger picture via fascinating individual fragments that gradually come together.

Don’t expect Lindelof’s admiration for Moore’s work to be mutual, though. Alan Moore famously detests seeing his comics adapted to the screen. After several bad experiences, he’s asked to be left uncredited (and unpaid) for all future film and TV versions. He vocally protested during the promotional campaign for V for Vendetta, when the producers claimed he approved of the movie. Though he’d have preferred to remain silent on the issue, Moore felt compelled to criticize the changes made by director James McTeigue and writer-producers Lana and Lilly Wachowski, who updated his book’s social commentary to make it more relevant to George W. Bush-era strong-arming in the fight against terrorism.

And yet of all the movie versions of Moore’s work, V for Vendetta is the most creatively successful. Zack Snyder’s 2009 Watchmen movie is more slavishly faithful to the source material’s visual style and dialogue, but its attempt to streamline the story into a feature film flattens out much of the nuance. Because V for Vendetta was originally serialized in six- to eight-page installments in the science-fiction comics anthology magazine Warrior, it in some ways lends itself better to a movie, where the chapters can play as normal-length scenes, punctuated by bleakly ironic twists. Plus, often in the comic book V for Vendetta, Moore and Lloyd seem to be finding the plot as they go. The film version has an explosive endpoint already set, and the filmmakers build carefully to it.

Photo: Warner Bros.

Who it’s for

Wachowski fans, and anyone who likes provocative vigilante adventures.

McTeigue and the Wachowskis didn’t just adapt Moore and Lloyd for their V for Vendetta, they also brought in design elements from other dystopian science-fiction films, such as Brazil and the version of 1984 helmed by writer-director Michael Radford. They also nodded to the rising influence of crypto-fascists and state media in geopolitics, setting their version of V for Vendetta in a 2032 UK where the leading broadcast TV network works hand-in-hand with a dictatorial High Chancellor (John Hurt) to keep social deviants and political dissenters from having a voice.

Because of all that, the movie has had an impact beyond even the graphic novel. V for Vendetta fans who know nothing about the comic — or about Guy Fawkes, for that matter — have been inspired by the screen version, and have adopted the mask and the message for many different kinds of protests against the powers-that-be. From Occupy Wall Street to Arab Spring to Anonymous, the image of V in the film endures.

But aside from a few tweaks (some significant, some merely cosmetic), the essence of the story comes straight from the book. V for Vendetta is primarily about the education of Evey, who — in the graphic novel and the film’s most riveting sequence — is completely broken down, emotionally and physically, so she can understand how vital it is to preserve some sliver of free thought. The particulars vary between the page and the screen, but the loud, defiant support for human individuality resounds across both.

Where to see it

Netflix. For another fairly faithful Alan Moore adaptation, the Justice League Unlimited episode “For the Man Who Has Everything” offers an abridged but still effective animated version of one of Moore’s Superman stories. It’s available through DC Universe.

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