By Paula R. Stiles
Remember, Remember the Fifth of November
The gunpowder treason and plot
I see no reason why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
This verse refers to a man, Guy Fawkes, whose name has lived on in infamy (and also fame) since he was arrested in 1605 on this day for treason. The celebration, “Guy Fawkes Day (Bonfire Night)“, has been named after him. Fawkes was an Englishman who was part of The Gunpowder Plot. This conspiracy intended to blow up Parliament in London because the conspirators were worried that English Catholics were being increasingly persecuted by the government. Lacking (at least as they saw it) legal recourse, they decided to blow up Parliament while the King, James I (1603-25), was in Parliament.
This sounds really bad, but James wasn’t the most popular of monarchs, and with good reason. He had inherited the throne from Elizabeth I (the Great), a very popular monarch. He had started out his reign as King James VI of Scotland in 1567 at the age of 13 months, but when Elizabeth died, he happily jumped on board as her successor (despite the fact that she’d ordered the execution of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587). He unified Scotland and England under one crown (though the official Acts of Union didn’t occur until 1707) – something his Scottish ancestors had fought for centuries. The Scots did not fair well under the new union.
Other people who did not fair well under James’ reign (mainly in Scotland) were witches, as James fancied himself something of an authority on prosecuting witches, and enthusiastically supported hunting them down. He even wrote a pamphlet called Daemonologie in 1597. He also believed in absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings (basically, that kings were better than everybody else and whatever they said went because God was on their side).
In short, James was a bit of a weasel and petty tyrant. Not terribly surprising, then, that even though such doggerel as the above verse was encouraged against Guy Fawkes and his effigy is still burned on this day in the Commonwealth as part of an excuse to party and make things go boom, Fawkes is better-regarded in this democratic age than James.
Which brings us to the film V for Vendetta (2005). It’s based on a British graphic novel by Alan Moore, written in the ’80s and set in a future about a decade later where Thatcher-style totalitarianism has gone nuts in Britain in the wake of limited nuclear war. Turning the above verse around and taking it as a battle cry rather than a cautionary fable, V for Vendetta boldly states that terrorism is an acceptable substitute for public discourse when the more polite forms get you killed.
The title character, V, hides behind a stylized Guy Fawkes mask, blows up buildings and kills corrupt public figures. He also announces to the public that, on November 5, he will do something Guy Fawkes never did accomplish – blow up Parliament.
It’s an interesting idea, actually, and the film came out at a time when making that kind of statement about terrorism was very bold. Certainly bolder than all the “Tea Party” people complaining about taxes a few months back who were strangely silent just a couple of years ago.
The idea, however, is better than the film, which doesn’t live up to its full potential. I think part of this is that V for Vendetta was very much a film of its time and that time is already past. The villains of V for Vendetta are convenient caricatures who dominate and silence the people. Yet, who voted these caricatures in? Yeah. Therein lies the rub.
The Phantom of the Opera plot between V and Evey, an aimless young girl with a tragic past that, again conveniently, dovetails with V’s own situation, is soapy and unrealistic. The way V torments her until she becomes his successor is also seriously questionable, and not really in the way the film intended, methinks. Neither am I ecstatic about the fact that film projects based on Alan Moore’s comics seem to forget about everyone in the world who isn’t white and reduce women to a bitchy or apathetically helpless (or both) minority.
I also am starting to question whether the trend toward adapting graphic novels is such a hot idea, when all is said and done. It seems (with both this film and another Moore dystopia-fest, Watchmen) that directors fall in love with the images so much that they copy and paste them onto the screen and animate them. Which is all very nice, but the necessary creative process with a novel or short story of figuring out how to put words into pictures that convey the same idea with similar power seems to get lost with graphic novels. I’m not being some literary snob here and claiming that graphic novels are bad quality. Some of them will probably be remembered as great art. But there seems to be some kind of disconnect between comics and Hollyweird where producers and directors seem to think that a quickie shortcut is to animate and condense just what’s on the page. This may make some fanboys of the comics happy, however temporarily, but it feels like an empty exercise to me.
That said, V for Vendetta has some great ideas in it about the abuses of power and to what lengths ordinary citizens can/should/must go to get it back. It even dabbles in the question of how far is too far, even when your overall cause is just? And it has fantastic lines, delivered in a superlative performance by Hugo Weaving as V, like, “People should not be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
I also have to say that this is one of those films where it’s worth sticking through some of the slower, iffier, and sappier parts for the ending because the ending is absolutely brilliant. Big Ben goes sky high in a huge blaze of fireworks as citizens watch, wearing V masks. Then, all at once, they take off those masks and step forward to take responsibility of their new world. Everywhere in the crowd are the faces of those murdered by their corrupt government during the course of the film, either on screen or off. It’s really quite moving and almost worth the price of admission on its own.
Remember, Remember the Fifth of November…