Previously in Last War in Albion: After a decade and change in development hell a film version of V for Vendetta was made in 2006, with a screenplay by the Wachowskis, fresh off the success of the Matrix trilogy. Moore, however, was aggrieved at producer Joel Silver’s false statements about his enthusiasm for the project, and went on the warpath.
The pang was hers, and my pang was mine, but I recognized they were a similar species. By understanding her, I felt seen. I saw myself.” -Kieron Gillen, “Colossus”
Moore even complained about the depiction of British culture, fixating on a scene in which Evey is being served breakfast, complaining that “They don’t know what British people have for breakfast, they couldn’t be bothered. ‘Eggy in a basket’ apparently. Now the US have ‘eggs in a basket,’ which is fried bread with a fried egg in a hole in the middle. I guess they thought we must eat that as well, and thought ‘eggy in a basket’ was a quaint and Olde Worlde version.”
There’s a clear sense that Moore made his mind up about the film after Silver’s comments and that anything and everything that followed was simply more proof of what he’d already decided. Certainly that’s the easiest explanation for his outrage over the clearly minor “eggy in a basket.” And it is true that the film greatly simplifies the moral complexity that Moore tried to paint—V is a straightforwardly cherished freedom fighter, described by Evey in a fawning voiceover at the beginning and end of the film, culminating in her declaration that “No one will ever forget that night and what it meant for this country, but I will never forget the man and what he meant for me,” a piece of dialogue that seems far worse than much of what Moore complained about.
Indeed, Evey is poorly served by the film in general, though the reasons why are largely ironic. The Wachowskis make the decision to give her much more agency—she’s hostile to the Norsefire regime from the start, and instead of starting as a desperate teenager who turns to sex work only to be busted by the cops she’s a career woman at the Mouth on her way to a date with a popular comedian. This is all very textbook screenwriting stuff—she’s the viewpoint character so, within orthodox theories of how movies are supposed to work, needs to be more than the meek little girl that Moore’s Evey begins as, and certainly not a prospective sex worker. The problem comes when it becomes time for her to leave V, a plot beat that is recast from being something V does to her to being of her own choosing after she attempts to betray V by warning Bishop Lilliman. From here her story proceeds similarly, with her hiding out with a man named Gordon (now the comedian she was going on a date with) and then being captured by V. This, however, significantly changes the subsequent tenor of her imprisonment and reading of the Valerie letter, and has the result of badly weakening her rooftop apotheosis when V reveals the deception. Bafflingly, she then parts ways with V again, returning only to see him before he launches his final plan and be given the task of deciding whether to blow up Parliament. And, inevitably, to kiss him. The Wachowskis also opt not to have Evey take on the role of V after V’s death, instead focusing on a mass uprising of people wearing V masks. This decision has its virtues—certainly it’s more accurate in its sense of how revolutionary change happens than Moore’s depiction of lone anarchist heroes was—but it further serves to weaken Evey as a character. These changes, along with the decision to focus the film on a quite direct critique of the Bush administration instead of a larger philosophical examination of fascism and anarchism, unquestionably make for a film that is less nuanced and substantive than the book even before you start looking at all the secondary characters and subplots that get cut.
And certainly Moore is correct that the film positions itself as directly commenting on the Bush administration. The Wachowskis add an elaborate backstory for the rise of Norsefire, which included an elaborate lie about the origins of biological weapons as a pretext for their takeover—an obvious reference to the shoddy pretexts of the Iraq War. There’s a line about how “unfamiliar words like ‘collateral’ and ‘rendition’ became powerful,” both words that came to prominence in Bush-era news stories. There’s an added focus from Norsefire on the hatred of Muslims. Even Louis Prothero is rejigged to a Bill O’Reilly style talk host who rants about godlessness.
And yet it is hard not to feel like Moore’s attacks on the film overplay their hand significantly. The key issue is his insistance that it was wrong to repurpose his story into a critique of the Bush administration. In one interview, he even suggests that “it would have been better for everybody if the [Wachowskis] had done something set in America, and instead of a hero who dresses up as Guy Fawkes, they could have had him dressed as Paul Revere. It could have worked.” The suggestion of Paul Revere is surely tongue in cheek, but the larger claim that the Wachowskis should have created their own narrative is clearly sincere—Moore also calls the Wachowskis timid for using his story in place of their own, and notes that “George Clooney’s being attacked for making [Good Night, and Good Luck], but he still had the nerve to make it. Presumably it’s not illegal — not yet anyway — to express dissenting opinions in the land of free?” But this is aggressively unrealistic. The concern was not that the Wachowskis would be black bagged and sent to Guantanamo, but that a movie such as Moore imagines would simply never be made in the United States. No studio would have touched a movie advocating for terrorism against the American government in 2006.
By adapting a well-known and well-regarded property the Wachowskis were able to make a film with a political message that was entirely outside the acceptable mainstream, and to make one that was a mainstream blockbuster seen by millions instead of a small arthouse film. More to the point, the specific position that they were able to take with the V for Vendetta film, with its terrorist hero, was one that Paul Revere didn’t really suit. Indeed, Moore himself argued that a key dynamic of V for Vendetta was an intrinsically British phenomenon, describing “the British tolerance, at least in comics, for criminals as heroes,” citing Robin Hood, Charlie Peace, and Dick Turpin as examples. By making an American-set film, the Wachowskis would have lost that angle.
And that angle was crucial to the film’s power. The Bush era was largely defined by the fact that 9/11 happened nine months into his first term, and thus by the subsequent War on Terror. It was a period of shockingly low dissent, especially on the subject of terrorism, which was an absolute and unequivocal evil, indeed, the most straightforward evil that could possibly be presented. A film that presented a terrorist as the hero, and had him openly declare that “with enough people, blowing up a building can change the world,” and that made it explicit that the it was targeting the Bush administration was shockingly audacious in 2006. But it was only possible because the Wachowskis had an underlying text to adapt—one that let them displace the Bush era onto a fictionalized Britain, with its love of criminals as heroes, and thus find a context where a terrorist could be portrayed as a hero. That Moore failed to appreciate this is unfortunate, but largely understandable: he had made his mind up about the film, and did not probe his reactions further to consider whether there were more sympathetic interpretations available.
Another layer to the film and explanation for why the Wachowskis were drawn to the material, meanwhile, was surely opaque to Moore when he made the bulk of his attacks on the film in 2005, which was that the Wachowskis were both transgender. This fact began to become clear, at least about Lana Wachowski (Lilly would not come out until 2016), in the summer of 2003 when Liz Smith’s gossip column described how she “is sometimes photographed in large hoop earrings and recently appeared at Cannes in full slap” (slang for makeup) and discussed her relationship with a dominatrix, complete with correctly identifying that she was going by the name Lana within that relationship. It seems deeply unlikely, however, that Moore was a keen consumer of celebrity gossip columns or was remotely aware of this. The date, however, is significant—the appearance at Cannes that served as the inciting incident for this violation of privacy was to promote the release of The Matrix Reloaded, which is to say, the film whose post-production was when the Wachowskis wrote the V for Vendetta script.
In January of 2006, a few months before the release of V for Vendetta, Wachowski was further outed in a Rolling Stone article by Peter Wilkinson, whose primary source for the article was Buck Angel, a trans pornographic actor who marketed himself as “the Man with a Pussy.” Angel was the ex-husband of Karen Winslow, who had worked as a professional dominatrix under the name Ilsa Strix until she met Wachowski, initially as a client, but eventually as a fully consensual romantic partner, travelling to be with her on the set of the Matrix sequels. Around this time, Angel threw Winslow out of the house, declaring, “Let [Lana] take care of you.” His participation in the Rolling Stone article, which was an absolutely vicious hit piece that quoted Winslow’s former colleagues describing how “[Lana] decided to live the life full-time, and [she] had millions, so [Winslow] just dropped her husband like a hot potato” along with a lengthy quote from psychologist J. Michael Bailey, who is infamous for promoting the largely discredited theory that trans women are motivated primarily by the sexual fantasy of having vaginas.
There is a sad parallel between this article and the “Valerie” chapter of V for Vendetta—notable for being just about the only part of the comic to make it into the film more or less unaltered. The story of how Valerie met the love of her life on a movie set and how “the first time we kissed, I knew I never wanted to kiss any other lips but hers again,” how she regrets nothing because “for three years I had roses and apologized to no one,” and how “I’d only told them the truth. Was that so selfish? Our integrity sells for so little, but it is all we really have. It is the very last inch of us, but within that inch, we are free” has obvious resonances with what happened to Lana, especially when you compare the surveillance state regime that punished Valerie to the tabloid press that outed her. For that matter, it has resonances with what happened to her sister, who was forced out of the closet before she was ready in 2016 because the Daily Mail threatened to out her.
Of course, Buck Angel’s attacks on Lana Wachowski post-date production of V for Vendetta, and even post-date its premiere. It’s possible she knew it was coming, especially since it had been nearly three years since Angel had thrown Winslow out of the house, so his vindictiveness was surely known, but the similarities between Valerie’s ordeal and Lana Wachowski’s are largely post facto interpretations. Even Liz Smith’s gossip column comes after the script’s completion. Nevertheless, it is clear that a trans reading of the film is supported. In addition to leaving the “Valerie” chapter unaltered in a way that nothing else in the original comic was, the changes made to the film similarly highlighted queer themes. Most crucially, the character of Gordon, who is changed from a minor criminal that takes Evey in and dies for it to a talk show host who Evey is on her way to a date with when V rescues her from the Fingermen at the story’s outset, and who subsequently takes her in after she escapes from V. Crucially, his story is reworked to have him be a gay man who gives a moving speech about why he’s in the closet, mourning how “a man in my position is expected to entertain young and attractive ladies like yourself because in this world, if I were to invite who I desired, I would undoubtedly find myself without a home, let alone a television show,” and who mourns how “after so many years you begin to lose more than just your appetite. You wear a mask for so long, you forget who you were beneath it.” It is impossible to read these lines as anything other than Lana Wachowski commenting upon living in the closet as a trans woman, having to put on a suit and pretend to be a man to continue to work in Hollywood. And the casting of Stephen Fry to play the role—one of the higher profile bits of casting in the film, along with impishly casting John Hurt in an inversion of his famous role in Michael Radford’s adaptation of 1984—makes it clear that this character is more important to the film than his relatively minor role in the plot suggests, further highlighting the queer themes of the movie as important.
But in the end it is, much like the original comic, the Valerie sequence that proves key. Her famous discussion of the very last inch, which “is small, and it is fragile, and it is the only thing in the world worth having. We must never lose it or give it away. We must never let them take it from us” is a line that would have had obvious, powerful meaning to Lana Wachowski a trans woman in the course of realizing herself. The realization that one’s dysphoria and discomfort with their gender assigned at birth is not simply, as the Wachowskis described it a few films earlier, “a splinter in your mind driving you mad” but in fact the vital, undeniable cornerstone of one’s life and identity is a terrifying and literally transformative one. The fact is that Lana Wachowski, as a trans woman—especially a trans woman who began transitioning amidst the rampant homophobia of the early Bush era, when the queer community was locked in a seemingly losing battle to get same sex relationships a measure of legal recognition, where anti-sodomy statutes were still on the books and constitutional, and where trans rights were still a distant and politically unimaginable horizon, mostly existing as the thing gay activists could offer to throw under the bus as a compromise—had already undergone her own equivalent of Evey’s despairing horror locked in her cell, her terrified embrace of her last inch, her realization that it would be better to die behind the chemical sheds than give up who she was, and her rain-soaked apotheosis and rebirth. V for Vendetta was, in a fundamental sense, far more her story to tell than it ever had been Alan Moore’s. [continued]