“Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot.” Every year, people on social media throws this line into the proverbial wind, maybe less so for Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot, and more for the political action film V for Vendetta. While Guy would ultimately be hanged for his attempt (and would get a day named after him in the U.K.), the film and more specifically, what it represents, has become something of a torch for activism movements. The mask, which was designed for the graphic novel, has become the symbol of activism in the 21st century, and the face of the Anonymous hacker group. So in the ever so rocky and contentious world that we’re being witnessing, how does V for Vendetta look at the tail end of 2020?
V for Vendetta, an adaptation of the Alan Moore graphic novel of the same, was directed by James McTeigue and written and produced by The Wachowskis. It stars Natalie Portman as Evey, an employee at the state-run news/television network and Hugo Weaving as the titular V. The plot takes place in a dystopian version of London, where a fascist regime has been voted into power and rules the United Kingdom with an iron fist. Many liberties we take for granted, such as music and art, are systematically banned, and anyone who isn’t White/Aryan, British (sorry, the Irish aren’t included here), Christian (Protestant) and heterosexual are “processed” into camps, as are political opponents. Think Nazi Germany meets 1984, as the government listens to everything the population says and will arrest citizens without trial for anything said that goes against what the government stands for. Likewise, they also use the media to misform and manipulate the masses. When Evey breaks curfew to see a work superior under false pretenses, she’s ambushed by the secret police.
Along comes V to save the day and set the plot in motion. Played by Hugo Weaving both on set and with re-recorded dialogue, V isn’t your typical hero. In fact, it would be fair to label him as a terrorist or freedom fighter, depending on where you stand. While he fights off the secret police with blade in hand to save Evey in a manner much like a swordsman from the 18th century would, he soon blows up the Old Bailey and later straps on a bomb vest and threatens to blow up the television network. Bit extreme, eh? But desperate times call for desperate measures. In the wake of government corruption, conspiracy, secrecy and downright murder, V is giving the people one year to rally to his cause, to overthrow the High Chancellor and fulfill Guy Fawkes’ dream of blowing up Parliament, because, in V’s point of view, the building is a symbol, as is the act of blowing it up.
In the wake of the 2020 election and Donald Trump declaring victory as ballots were still being counted on November 4th, I’m reminded of one quote from the movie:
“People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
With lines like that and the year we’ve had, this quote may identify strongly with many people around the world. In fact, there’s a lot of themes and parallels between the world today and what’s being depicted in the movie/graphic novel. There are internment camps for Muslims in China, immigration detention centers in the US, a virus that’s spread throughout the world that could have been prevented had the source country, China once more, taken action and responsibility early on. Hong Kong has lost its democratic rights, and the protests leading up to that decision featured thousands wearing the Guy Fawkes mask. Many countries are in a second nationwide lockdown, police brutality finally sparked a massive reaction due to the continuous demise of unarmed African Americans, sending the Black Lives Matter movement into full overdrive. Was that everything? Probably not, but you get why the people are angry, frustrated, confused and rebelling, either on a wide variety of issues, or just one. There are even those protesting against those protesting.
But many of those themes, emotions and reactions can be found within the plot of V for Vendetta. Thankfully, no one is blowing up buildings, but this is 2020, who knows what will happen. But seeing a government, a Western government, rule with so much hatred and division while doing all it can to control as much power as possible certain strikes a few cords and echoes some of the themes of the plot of this story. Byways of manipulating the media, the Norsefire Party rose to power while secretly working on a virus that they willingly released on the British population. The Norsefire Party got the media to blame it on terrorism, while fear led the people to look to their saviour, the fascist hate party, and voted them in, much like how Hitler was voted into power in the 1930s. The crazy thing is that when the novel (and the movie) were released, the world didn’t look anything like how the U.K. was portrayed in the story, but the world has inched much closer to that reality. Sure, the coronavirus isn’t an act of biological terrorism, but pretending it isn’t there and sending the world into lockdowns while decimating economies is the next worst thing. But the internment of Muslims is pretty much on par for the Norsefire Party.
Of course, once Adam Sutler (John Hurt) is appointed as High Chancellor, he doesn’t give it up and tightens his grip on the nation. V, a survivor of the experiments that caused the virus, is bolstered with superhuman strength and sees it as his responsibility to thwart the government and their sinner plans. We never see Hugo Weaving’s face, but he does such a good job of conveying how V is feeling through his voice. We know when he’s excited, sad, angry etc, despite V’s “face” never changing expressions. Despite being labelled as a terrorist (or freedom fighter?), V enjoys the simple things in life: toast, movies, and music.
Despite his violent tendencies, we begin to sympathize and grow to like V…until he blatantly admits to murder. Was he justified? Was that the right thing to do? The questions hang in the air, waiting for you to decide. V has good intentions with his mission, he seeks to liberate the masses from tyranny, but sometimes he does some pretty radical things that question the validity and nobility of his cause. His argument boils down to you need a monster to defeat a monster, and he’s willing to be what the people need.
But as the end of the movie showcases, the unarmed masses in the face of tanks and guns march fearlessly towards their oppressors, without the intention of causing them any harm. The soldiers, without getting any orders, standdown. They could have opened fire, they likely wouldn’t have gotten into any trouble for it, but the gut reaction here was to stand down when faced with making a choice on their own.
We don’t have a V of our own, but the idea that we’re all V has permeated into the mindset of many activists. 2020 seemed to be the year where people put their foot down and said, no, not anymore and began to fight for change. Is V the reason for that? I’d say no, the current state of affairs was the spark for that, but the spirit of what V was fighting for lies in that ideology, as does those who don the mask. When it was written, the mask was meant to represent resistance against a fascist government, but now it has been adopted to represent activism as a whole, regardless of what the cause is. Depending on where you are in the world, there may be no attempts to overthrow the government, as V intended, but V is certainly the concept of an idea, which is also something V intended. The very name, V for Vendetta, no longer applies to solely a movie or a book, it represents much more. So, if you plan on watching V for Vendetta this November the fifth, instead of remembering the gunpowder plot, think back on 2020. One thing is for certain, none of these issues are going away any time soon.