Some great movies come and go, but others transcend the moment, seemingly taking on a life of their own. V for Vendetta (2005), which has something of a cult following, is one such film. While some critics dismissed it as a strange, action-packed dystopian film when it premiered, the film — and the graphic novel on which it’s based — have become startlingly significant in hindsight. So, in honor of Guy Fawkes Night, let’s “remember, remember the fifth of November” by exploring why V for Vendetta remains a must-watch film.
The (Nefarious) Plot
In the world of V for Vendetta, the year is 2020. Dazed by the effects of the latest world war, London is ruled by a fascist totalitarian government that has turned the United Kingdom into a police state. While most members of society are led along like the sheep they’ve been forced to become, a mysterious vigilante has other ideas.
This vigilante goes by V (Hugo Weaving), and when he arrives on the scene — wearing the now-iconic Guy Fawkes mask — his plan involves dismantling the government with a series of “terrorist” plots. One night, he happens upon a young woman named Evey (Natalie Portman) and, just in time, saves her from being attacked by the secret police. Little does V know, Evey will prove to be an intriguing ally in his quest to free his nation from the oppressive government.
Initially, some critics weren’t quite sure what to make of the film. One reviewer remarked, “What it doesn’t manage is to create a credible future or avoid pomposity.” Ironically, the film was not only inspired by actual events from the past, but it also proved to predict several all-too-relevant events and themes that would actually unfold in 2020 — the year in which it was set.
How Guy Fawkes Night Inspired “V for Vendetta”
Before V for Vendetta hit the silver screen, it was originally penned as a graphic novel series by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. The pair first developed the storyline during the early 1980s, a time when the anti-Margaret Thatcher riots were alive and well — and a time during which many feared the rise of the far-right National Front. Initial drafts of their anarchist vigilante, V, reportedly looked a bit superhero-like, but Lloyd finally suggested outfitting V with a Guy Fawkes mask. So, why’s that significant?
While the now-famous mask may not have initially held much significance to American audiences, its message couldn’t have been more clear for viewers (and readers) in the U.K; each year, on November 5, Guy Fawkes celebrations light up the night throughout the U.K. Celebrants light bonfires and set off fireworks, all to commemorate the foiling of an infamous plot that dates back to 1605.
The plot in question was orchestrated by a group of Catholic rebels who attempted to blow up the Protestant King James I and his Parliament by sneaking 36 barrels of gunpowder into a storage room below the House of Lords. However, word of the plot was leaked, allowing the authorities to capture a key conspirator, Guy Fawkes, before he had a chance to light the fuses of the nearby gunpowder.
Guy Fawkes’ Complicated Legacy
After Fawkes was caught holding the bag — or, in this case, the fuses — he was tortured into revealing the names of his co-conspirators. Those who had yet to flee the country were eventually rounded up and treated as traitors — grisly deaths and all.
Fawkes became a sort of symbol for political treachery over the years, and, for centuries, Guy Fawkes Night (November 5th) has seen the burning of his effigy over massive bonfires throughout the U.K. Often depicted wearing the infamous black top hat, boots, and cloak he was discovered in, Guy Fawkes was far from a heroic figure for many centuries. When his mask came into play, it was traditionally used to symbolize a reviled historical miscreant.
But that all changed centuries later. The introduction of the mask in V for Vendetta suddenly introduced the possibility of a whole new meaning. Suddenly, the mask — and Guy Fawkes — symbolized a spirit of resistance in the face of oppression, and it was soon adopted by a variety of protest groups. From Anonymous to Occupy Wall Street, the mask began popping up around the world as a symbol of unity among those looking to dismantle oppressive systems, governments, or institutions.
The Alarmingly Predictive Plot Points in “V for Vendetta”
While it received lukewarm reviews when it was initially released, V for Vendetta managed to assemble a cult following — one that’s gaining even more traction now. If you get a chance to give it a re-watch, one of the parallels you may notice is the mention of a devastating pandemic; the “St. Mary’s Virus,” a product of biological war that holds Britain in the grip of a deadly public health crisis, feels eerily similar to our own 2020 experiences.
The idea that a virus could wipe out over 100,000 people in our technologically-savvy present may have seemed like the stuff of science fiction when the film was released in 2005, but we now live in a time where COVID-19 has claimed the lives of over 4 million people around the globe.
In the film, the ruling government attempts to blame the outbreak on terrorists, all the while having engineered it as an attempt to retain control. While this isn’t the case with the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus did manage to spark an unprecedented amount of political controversy, overshadowing the fact that it was — and remains — a public health crisis, not a political talking point or stance.
Aside from the pandemic parallels, the film centers on V’s fight against a political party known as Norsefire, a neo-fascist, white supremacist group that vilifies socialists, Black people, Jewish people, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. When the real 2020 arrived with a set of very real concerns surrounding the growing “alt-right” movement and the rise of emboldened white supremacist attacks in the U.S. (and elsewhere), many V for Vendetta fans couldn’t help but see the troubling parallels.
All of this to say, if you’re one of the many initial viewers that remember V for Vendetta as a shadowy yet thoughtful action movie, it may be worth revisiting today — especially on Guy Fawkes Night. While we don’t want to spoil any major plot points for you, just know that you’ll come away with a lot to mull over.