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V for Vendetta, C for Chaos

After a tumultuous journey, the graphic novel hits the big screen

NEW YORK -- If the making of the movie of ''V for Vendetta" were turned into a cartoon adventure, it would be a dark graphic novel filled with unexpected twists, violence, villains who can't be pinned down, underdogs who rail against the system, and beautiful women who inspire the action -- just like Alan Moore and David Lloyd's dystopic project from 1981 on which it is based.

It would be a happy ending, though. The movie, which opens Friday, would come out in a market with little nationwide competition, and there would be lots of money for producer Joel Silver, screenwriters Andy and Larry Wachowski, first-time director James McTeigue, star Natalie Portman, and Warner Bros., which backed the big-budget production.

That's the kapow! Now, for the back story.

The drama starts in the age of Reagan and Thatcher, which many found to be less about a shining city on a hill than about totalitarianism rearing up in supposedly democratic countries. That's what inspired Moore, a British comics writer, to create a story about a guy who tries to be a future-day Guy Fawkes -- the would-be revolutionary who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605 and is remembered with bonfires in England on Nov. 5. The mysterious V, who wears a Fawkes mask because he was disfigured by a government experiment, wants to overthrow the regime that controls its citizens by ''protecting" them from the disease and violence that are largely its own doing. Illustrator David Lloyd created the look in the style of '30s noir with overtones of Nazi art.

After the story was serialized in ''Warrior" between 1982 and 1985, and then published by DC Comics in graphic novel form, Moore and Lloyd signed over the rights to a movie version in 1988 -- ''We weren't stupid, but we knew there was no way to keep control," Lloyd explains. But after run-ins with Hollywood over the adaptations of his ''League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and ''From Hell," Moore was done with the moviemaking process. By the time Silver and Warner Bros. held a press conference last spring announcing ''V for Vendetta," Moore went public, denouncing the project in a press release and asking for his name to be taken off anything associated with it.

''Alan wouldn't be happy unless it were a perfect adaptation," says Lloyd, who is supporting the film. Lloyd feels that it's enough that the adapation ''keeps all the spirit and integrity of the original and the key messages: that people should not be afraid of their governments; governments should be afraid of the people."

He adds, ''I'm sorry that Alan isn't around, though, because a lot of the questions that people want to ask, I can't answer. Somebody was asking about Thomas Pynchon's 'V' and I hadn't read that, but Alan had."

After Moore's broadside, the complications continued. Ironically, McTeigue, who worked with Silver and the Wachowskis as a first assistant director before taking this as his first solo gig, says one of his biggest challenges was losing battles over art and music rights. He wanted the movie to have a certain look and feel but couldn't get access to all the artwork and music that he wanted.

''Unfortunately the copyright thing is so insane now," he says, staring out at an expansive view of Central Park from his hotel. ''I know, it's kind of crazy. I remember there were all these photos I wanted, like some Mapplethorpes, but couldn't get. There's this funny thing you can do called 'in the likeness of,' so we got some of those photos taken."

McTeigue had worked with Natalie Portman on ''Star Wars" -- he was the film's first assistant director -- and he wanted her to be the moral center of ''V," a young orphan named Evey who gets caught up in the terrorist's web. Portman signed up, and her casting became the one thing about the film that wasn't causing an uproar -- until she turned up in May at Cannes with her head shaved. In a key scene in the film, her character's hair is brutally shorn, and her appearance caused a media frenzy over the controversial themes of a movie that no one had seen.

Shaving her head, she says in New York, was ''something I always wanted to do, and the film gave me the courage. . . . Although for the character, it's obviously a violence committed upon her."

One thing that Portman, who played Anne Frank on Broadway at 16, brought to the project, McTeigue says, was her ability to articulate the film's themes with an ease few other ingénues in Hollywood could muster.

''Obviously, there's a lot of Holocaust imagery and ideas, because Nazi Germany is the prime example of totalitarianism in our recent past that is most strongly echoed in our visual imagery," the actress says. ''The benefit of having the movie set in an imaginary future is that you can relate many historical and current events and make many connections to give it a layered effect of historical allusions."

For the character of V, the director could have gone straight CGI, or at least more high-tech than what he used -- a get-up that is part Greek theater mask and part plastic Halloween mask from ''Scream." Luckily, McTeigue didn't go for anything that morphed an image onto an actor's face, because he ended up changing leads midstream.

James Purefoy (Marc Antony in HBO's ''Rome") started out in the part but then left -- whether he was let go or quit, nobody is saying. Hugo Weaving stepped in, along with various stuntmen, and Weaving did the entire voice part in postproduction. He literally could have phoned it in.

''I don't know if James Earl Jones was on the set of 'Star Wars' to do Darth Vader," says Silver. ''A lot of people played V, but what matters is that Hugo did the scenes with Natalie."

Before anyone got a chance to think about the ramifications of that philosophy on the acting profession, the movie became even more political and dramatic. Terrorists blew up bombs on the London public transportation system on July 7, 2005. Suddenly the release a few months later of a movie in which a terrorist threatens to blow up Parliament by placing a bomb in the Tube didn't seem prudent.

''You don't have to be Nostradamus to think that some stuff was going to happen," says McTeigue. ''But we had the shooting script in 2004 and shot before the London bombings."

Initially the idea was to release the movie on Guy Fawkes Day, but Silver says it was nothing but a romantic notion -- it wasn't done by then anyway. He's much happier now that the opening date, March 17, has one key tie-in -- the release of ''The Matrix" on the same day in 1999.

Moore, however, still isn't happy. He quit DC Comics and is now with a small US publisher, Georgia-based Top Shelf, working on a mammoth project that will be released in June: a multi-volume graphic novel about three lesbians during World War I called ''Lost Girls" -- not exactly mainstream movie material.

''It will be highly controversial and quite profound," says Top Shelf's Chris Staros, who also published ''From Hell." He hopes that copyright problems won't affect any of his other authors who sign deals to get their comics made into movies, but if there's one thing he has learned in dealing with the movie business, it's that there is no such thing as control. ''Keep control?" he mocks, speaking by telephone from Marietta, Ga. ''Some people structure a deal to write a screenplay, but then it's modified by eight writers and they don't even get credit. I don't think you can keep control."

'' 'V for Vendetta' was the first graphic novel I read, and it made me have an epiphany. The movie will never be the book." But, Staros adds, he wishes it well. ''It does look good."

Beth Pinsker can be reached at bpinsker@nyc.rr.com.

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