Arguably the most lauded name behind “V for Vendetta” — an ambitious, futuristic tale of totalitarianism and rebellion — doesn’t belong to the film’s stars Hugo Weaving, Natalie Portman or John Hurt or even to its writers/producers, the Wachowski Brothers. The honor belongs instead to Alan Moore, the award-winning author of the ’80s comic book series on which the upcoming film is based. The irony here is that Moore neither has nor wants anything to do with “V” — or with any other movie versions of his comics work.
Considering what’s come thus far from such adaptations, we can’t blame him.
Moore burst onto the comics scene in the early 1980s, first bringing his literary sensibility to books such as “Warrior” and “2000 AD” in his native England. Moore then moved on to DC Comics, where he reinvented “Swamp Thing” as an elemental force of nature rather than simply a human-turned-muck monster. From there, through use of cinematic writing techniques, non-linear storytelling and mature themes, Moore managed to bring fresh perspective to sometimes stale superheroes such as Superman, Batman and Green Lantern. But it was his groundbreaking 1986 series “Watchmen” (with artist Dave Gibbons) that turned the entire concept of superhero comics on its head, earning Hugo, Kirby and Eisner Awards (within the comics and sci-fi world) as well as a ranking among Time Magazine’s 100 best novels of the past 75 years, cementing Moore’s position as comicdom’s greatest writer.
In “Watchmen,” all non-government-sanctioned superheroes are outlawed, Richard Nixon is still president in 1985 and the threat of nuclear war with Russia weighs heavily on the nation. Deconstructing the traditional comic-book mythos, Moore posits the psychological, social, economical, political, sexual and moral ramifications of how the real world would cope with super-powered vigilantes — and vice versa. It’s a vastly complex, multi-layered 300-plus page narrative that takes full advantage of comics’ inherent and unique storytelling techniques. From the beginning, it seemed to be unfilmable. But that never stops Hollywood.
From as early as 1989, “Watchmen” has been in various stages of movie development. At first, Terry Gilliam was slated to direct. If any filmmaker has the proper twisted vision to adapt “Watchmen,” it’s the director of “12 Monkeys” and “Brazil,” but after numerous failed attempts to develop a workable screenplay, Gilliam realized it was a Quixotic effort at best and abandoned the project (although anyone who’s seen “Lost in La Mancha” knows it wouldn’t be his last fight against the odds). Producers, however, are rarely known for bowing to collective creative wisdom, so the property has continued to bounce around Hollywood. At one point, “Requiem for a Dream” writer/director Darren Aronofsky was going to make “Watchmen,” but the proposed budget proved too large for anyone to hazard a green light.
More recently, Warner Bros. (sister company to DC Comics, the publisher of “Watchmen”) is supposed to be developing a screenplay adapted by “X-Men” co-writer David Hayter, and “V” director James McTeigue has expressed interest in helming.
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Don’t expect Alan Moore to have any involvement on any level, however, and not just because in order to do the comic justice, “Watchmen” would have to run about 8 hours with (at least) an R rating and a budget in the hundreds of millions. While many comic book creators (like Todd “Spawn” McFarlane) may see movie adaptations as validation of their oft-maligned art form, Moore embraces comics as a singular, inimitable medium, capable of perhaps more experimental and rewarding storytelling techniques than film.
Additionally, the “too many cooks” nature of filmmaking, with everyone from producers to marketing executives having input, is anathema to Moore’s visionary style. He’s always worked very closely with his collaborating artists, but has never taken kindly to editorial interference. Moore had enough tussles with Marvel and DC Comics over censorship issues to make him refuse to work for either of the “Big 2″ publishers any more, and they’re small potatoes compared with the meddling he’d encounter at a major motion picture studio.
So, any movie that attempts to recreate the complexity of an Alan Moore comic must do so without any aid or endorsement from the notoriously cranky creator. For better or (mostly) worse, most of the time they don’t bother aiming that high, anyway.
“Swamp Thing” the comic book (originally canceled in 1976) was revived in 1982 to capitalize on Wes Craven’s rubber-suited B-movie version of the character. Moore’s run on the title began in 1983, and by 1989, as the movie’s sequel approached comic fans hoped against all odds that the filmmakers had tried to capture the gothic sophistication of the rejuvenated comic book. But alas, aside from approximating Swampy’s goopier, moss-laden new look (designed by artists Stephen Bissette and John Totleben) and some ecology-based banter with Heather Locklear, “The Return of Swamp Thing” is even campier than the first film, with nary a hint of Moore in the muck.
(It’s also worth noting that Moore created the character of John Constantine as a favor to Bissette and Totleben, who wanted to draw a character who looked like Sting (!). In “Swamp Thing,” Constantine was mostly an expositional character, and his spin-off comic, “Hellblazer” was never written by Moore, so the 2005 movie “Constantine” starring a wildly miscast Keanu Reeves doesn’t really fit into our rant).
Beginning in 1989, Moore teamed with cartoonist Eddie Campbell to create “From Hell,” a serial positing Jack the Ripper as a metaphor for the onset of the 20th century. Early on in the tale, the Ripper is revealed to be Sir William Gull, Queen Victoria’s royal surgeon, whose motivations for slashing prostitutes are only partly to protect the reputation of the whore-mongering Prince Albert Victor. Gull’s ritualistic slayings are designed to symbolically announce man’s continuing dominance over women, and he experiences mystical visions of the future during the murders. “From Hell” (eventually collected as a massive 500-page graphic novel) is a challenging, metaphysical, sociological, political work, one of those comics that’s “not for kids anymore.”
But when “From Hell” was turned into a movie in 2001, almost all of the complexity was excised. Directed by the Hughes Brothers (“Menace 2 Society”) and starring Johnny Depp as the absinthe-addled Inspector Abberline and Ian Holm as Sir Gull, the movie turned the story into a simple slasher whodunit (albeit with some incredibly accurate and detailed production design).
Hollywood spat on the source again with the regrettable “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” the 2003 movie based on Moore’s series with artist Kevin O’Neill. The comic teamed 19th-century fictional characters Allan Quartermain, the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Wilhelmina Murray (“Dracula”) as a Victorian-era group of crime fighters battling such adversaries as Fu Manchu and the Martians from “War of the Worlds.” Moore peppered the stories with many references to and cameos by other fictional Victorian characters, and the books gained a rabid following among literate comic fans and even among purported “intelligentsia” who would never have deigned to crack a “funny book” before.
While high-concept, “The League” is not nearly as complex as “From Hell” or “Watchmen,” so you’d think a movie version would be fairly simple to pull off. But no. Fearing that an American audience wouldn’t be familiar with (or care about) British characters over a century old, the producers of the film shoehorned in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer as an American agent sent by Teddy Roosevelt to aid the League. The movie also transforms Mina into a vampire herself and adds the character of Dorian Gray. But more egregiously, the film puts a Hollywood gloss on the more unseemly aspects of the comic, eliminating Quartermain’s opium addiction and toning down the more malevolent personality traits of the Invisible Man and Jekyll/Hyde. All literary allusions were dropped in favor of a standard action plot with some really bad CGI and more holes than James Bond’s liver.
It looks like “V for Vendetta” may finally burst the curse of poor Moore movies, but regardless the writer’s work will continue to inspire the geekiest of filmmakers while he remains out of the picture. We wouldn’t be surprised if “Batman Continues” (or whatever it will be called) looks to Moore’s classic 1988 Batman graphic novel with Brian Bolland (“The Killing Joke”) for inspiration on how to handle the Joker.
Normally, we’re against the comparison of movies with their source material. As we’ve railed before, different media have different needs and offer different rewards. But the alarming disparity of quality between Alan Moore’s comic books and the films that came after forces us to implore you: If you like the movie version of “V for Vendetta” — or, even more urgently, if you don’t like it — you owe it to yourself to read the book.
Check out everything we’ve got on “V for Vendetta.”
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