This essay analyses the film V for Vendetta in connection with concepts explained in the textbook Politics: The Basics by Stephen Tansey and Nigel Jackson. This information will also be linked to the novel Animal Farm by George Orwell. Reference will be made to the concepts of totalitarianism, social democracies and liberalism, although this may not always be stated directly. The essay’s goal is to illustrate these concepts, rather than to use rigid terminology to define them. Some direct definitions may be made, however, to contextualise the arguments presented. Firstly, brief summaries of the film and novel to be discussed: V for Vendetta takes place in England in the near future where a single party – Norsefire – is led by a tyrant who uses fear and propaganda to control and oppress the country’s citizens. A freedom fighter then emerges to encourage the citizens to get rid of their fears and challenge the system. Animal Farm is an allegory about animals that rebel against oppressive human farmers in a pursuit to create a new democratic system. However, the smarter animals become mad with power and eventually come to resemble the humans they first served. In Many ways, these two texts relate to each other, especially when examining the ideologies and political concepts they represent, as explained below.
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V for Vendetta: Strength through Freedom (an analysis)
Much of the film deals with what happens once democracy has been destroyed and a totalitarian state has taken its place. There is, however, the significant monologue in scene 24 where it is explained exactly how this came to be: the fascist political group Norsefire, led by the tyrannical Chancellor uses the fear of the unknown and the public ignorance to gain power, for example the use of soldiers to enforce the law and the media as a propaganda medium that depicts frightful viruses and uses false reporting to create fear within the hearts of the citizens. These citizens then seek comfort in a seemingly benevolent leader who is an excellent speaker and a new political party that seemed to offer them hope and courage which previous parties could not, as Valerie explained in her first and last autobiography in scene 19.
These same methods of gaining power can be found in Animal Farm. However, after the rebellion against the humans, there first existed a kind of social democracy (there are some traces of leftist, socialist values such as shared wealth and the state as powerful, but decisions were not made without first listening to opposing views and then voting on the decision) as can be seen on page 29 in the book: “It had come to be accepted that the pigs, who were manifestly cleverer that the other animals, should decide all questions of farm policy, though their decisions had to be ratified by a majority vote.” Later, however, the pigs became corrupt with this new-found power and the farm started to resemble the totalitarianist state one sees in the movie.
It is common to refer to a totalitarian society as one which is dominated by a single tyrant (often with a small group or committee – the ‘party members’ – who are responsible for spreading and/or enforcing his ideas) who manipulates all the resources of the country and plays on the guilt and fear of ordinary people so as to satisfy his sense of power. The tyrant is the most privileged member of society, enjoying privileges and material comforts denied to ordinary men. This is the kind of leader High Chancellor Adam Sutler is. For example, he is the only person in the country who is allowed to eat butter, a simple luxury that ordinary people are not allowed to enjoy, as the dialogue between V and Evey in scene 8 illustrates: “I haven’t had real butter since I was a little girl. Where’d you get it?” “A government supply train on its way to Chancellor Sutler”.
This can be likened to George Orwell’s now popular idiom on page 83 in Animal Farm: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” The pigs have a much more comfortable lifestyle than the “lower animals”: they live in a house, sleep in beds, drink alcohol, kill other animals, wear clothes and walk on two legs.
Every part of national life becomes a matter of state, making the tyrant’s hold over his people more secure and his personal life more pleasant; the state becomes no more than the extension of his own vanity and he controls and absorbs the energies of the people by keeping the country mobilised as if for perpetual and total war. This is the inevitable end of the totalitarian state, the state where only one narrow set of beliefs is tolerated.
Liberalism, as seen in the film, fits the model of the liberal democrats. This ideology primarily consists of centre to centre-right ideals. However, in countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States of America, proponents of this view, see themselves as on the left side of the political spectrum, bordering almost on socialist. This comes “with the expectation that they favour such causes as internationalism, civil rights and increased government intervention and spending for social welfare” (Tansey and Jackson, 2008, p. 90). The emphasis is put on the country being run not by the government, but by the governed. In other words, government officials are merely servants of the people of their society and decisions are made not by them automatically, but by the majority vote and rights of all individuals. Liberals have a sense of freedom and feel that it is every individual’s right to freely express his/her own views and moral values without being prevented by censors or other devices that stifle freedom of speech. According to liberalism, an individual should also be allowed to make his/her own life choices, whether it be choices over sexuality, religion etc.
Freedom is the primary theme of the film V for Vendetta and the characterisation is used to depict this and other liberal values mentioned above. Consider, for instance the characters of Valerie and Gordon Deitrich.
Valerie, who we know only as a ghostly narrator of her own autobiography in scene 19 was a lesbian. Despite what she had been taught in school and the general behaviour of society towards her sexuality, she did not hide the fact that she fell in love with another woman and continued to live in an open relationship until they were both taken by the security force. She later died at Larkhill Detention Centre, but wrote down her life story and the wish for a society quite different from that envisioned by Sutler and Norsefire. She wrote: “I hope that the world turns and things get better.”
Gordon Dietrich, on the other hand, experiences life as a prominent person within the system. He is a host on a comedy show and seems to be profiting from the new world. However, he has a secret: he, too, is gay. He is not as open about it as Valerie, for he fears that he may lose the lavish lifestyle he has become accustomed to and besides he has lived a lie for so long that he no longer has any sense of rebellion left, as he explains in scene 13: “Unfortunately 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.” “The truth is 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.” Even worse than his sexual orientation, Gordon owns a Kuran which does not mean he is Muslim, but means that he disobeys the rules of the state by being affiliated with an opposing religion. Later, he decides that he will no longer conform to the conventions and rules of society and uses his position in the media to help aid the revolution. The role of the media in the totalitarian state will be elaborated on later.
The main protagonist, who wears a Guy Fawkes mask, is presented by the media and government as a terrorist and known only as V, expresses the democratic basis of liberalism in a short statement in scene 8: “People should not be afraid of their governments; governments should be afraid of their people.” V uses his message of freedom in order to gain support from the oppressed citizens and justify his use of violence in achieving this goal. This may, however be seen as making him no better than the oppressive government he tries to abolish as their method of gaining support also involves violence.
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Not much is mentioned about liberal views and freedom fighting in Animal Farm. Continuous reference is made to the Rebellion against the humans discussed in the first two chapters of the book, mostly as arguments for why the pigs should not be opposed (“Surely, comrades, you do not want Jones back”). Once the pigs’ rule was established most of the other animals did not oppose it. Those who did, were executed and made examples of, much like Deitrich and Evey’s parents in V for Vendetta. It can be argued that the other animals never opposed the pigs because they were too stupid to realise that they had become slaves of new masters, but perhaps the more logical reason for them conforming to Napoleon and his underlings is the fear they had for the dogs who were constantly patrolling the farm and threatened to kill them if they showed any signs of disobedience.
Violence and the security apparatus is one of the prominent reasons why most fascist or totalitarianist governments remain in power. Consider the Fingermen and soldiers of the Norsefire regime. Much like the dogs in Animal Farm, the thought police in Orwell’s later novel 1984 or the Gestapo of Nazi Germany, the Fingermen play the ‘secret police’ role. They are led by Mr Creedy, Chancellor Sutler’s most trusted party member and are seen to be separate from the general, more formal and conventional police service of which Inspector Finch is in charge. Generally thugs and perverts, the Fingermen ensure that government curfews and other laws are obeyed by being allowed to exercise their own “judicial digression” meaning that they may shoot on sight or even rape women without being opposed, as in scene 2. The army also plays a role in furthering Chancellor Sutler’s goals, for they are used not only as means to gain power at first (as explained earlier), but also as a desperate move to stay in power at the end of the film, scene 32. However, they are not allowed to act without orders and are thus unable to stop the march of the masses in Guy Fawkes masks.
The media is depicted in the film as a propaganda mechanism. There is only one state run network called the British Television Network or BTN. Headed by a party member called Mr Dascombe (and nicknamed ‘the Mouth’ in the graphic novel upon which the film is based), the media is told what to report by Chancellor Sutler in the news as well as other content. Its function – far from being the liberal watchdog – is to work in favour of the government by, for example, spinning the story of the demolition of the Old Bailey as not being a statement by a freedom fighter, but rather a cheerful and creative way of conducting a supposedly planned demolition, in scene 4. There also exists an ’emergency channel’ which can be used to spout political propaganda anytime the Chancellor sees fit and which cannot not be switched off or changed. This however backfires when V uses it to broadcast his message of freedom to all British Citizens in scene 5.
Besides the news there are two popular shows on the BTN, Lewis Prothero: the Voice of London and Deitrich’s Hour. Prothero uses his strong voice and engaging speech to argue in favour of Norsefire policies and values, such as all who are different are to be hated and that whatever the government says is right. Although this character does this not live long, he makes proclamations which clearly show the government’s state of mind, even in his very first appearance in scene 2. Of the United States of America, he says: “Here was a country that had everything, absolutely everything and now twenty years later is what? The world’s biggest leper colony. Why? Godlessness. Let me say that again; Godlessness! It wasn’t the war they started, it wasn’t the plague they created; it was judgement. No-one escapes their past, no-one escapes judgement. You think He’s not up there? You think He’s not watching over this country? How else can you explain it? He tested us, but we came through. We did what we had to do. Islington, Henfield; I was there, I saw it all: Immigrants, Muslims, homosexuals, terrorists, disease ridden degenerates. They had to go. Strength through unity! Unity through faith!”
Much of the concept of ‘the media as propaganda mechanism’ can also be seen in Orwell’s work. Although not as obvious as in his later novel 1984 or in the film V for Vendetta, Animal Farm uses the character of Squealer as a metaphor for this concept. Squealer, a young pig who spoke well and made convincing arguments, can be pared with Lewis Prothero as ‘The Voice’ in this case of the pigs. He goes around the farm, telling the animals lies about what Napoleon’s true intentions are. He does this so well that even when it is openly obvious that Boxer is being taken to the knacker’s and thus cruelly and unfairly sent to his death on page 77, Squealer is able to spin this story in a positive manner, much like the BTN in V for Vendetta.
In contrast to The Voice of London, Deitrich’s Hour is a comedy show, usually highly censored. However in scene 17, Gordon Deitrich decides he is tired of his freedom of expression being stifled by censorships and airs an episode which puts the ‘terrorist situation’ in a satiral light and mocks the High Chancellor. He is later killed for this transgression at an unknown time after scene 17 when he and Evey are seen to be captured by Fingermen. However, in his final professional choice, he perhaps helped to gain support for V’s cause. In any case, when the Chancellor’s direct address to the citizens is broadcast in scene 29, no-one is left listening and thus the media is no longer useful in aiding his cause. Perhaps, this is why he was killed, because the citizens saw him for what he truly was and were no longer afraid to stand up to him and fight for V’s idealistic views of freedom.
As can be seen from the points above, there is no doubt that in the world depicted in V for Vendetta there exists a totalitarian state. This is characterised by the following traits, as identified by Crick (2000) in Tansey and Jackson (2008, p. 137): “Government defines public interest that is all-inclusive. Political opposition is treason. No private sphere – good citizens participate enthusiastically in rebuilding society. Official ideology defines happiness.” The film shows the harmful, even frightening consequences that could arise if such a state ever truly existed and warns its viewers to prevent such a thing from ever happening. George Orwell also tries to achieve this in Animal Farm. Both texts show that there can never exist such a thing as the ‘perfect’ society or political system since those in power – regardless of how they got there – will always abuse their power and think themselves superior to others, thus never created a truly ‘free’ and ‘equal’ world where there is no such thing as distinction of class or mistrust of the ‘other’.
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