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Volume 19, Issue 1: Ex Libris

(The) Children of Men

Reviewed by Brendan O'Donnell

Inside Man
Novel by P.D. James
Film directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Theo Faron, the protagonist of P. D. James' 1992 novel The Children of Men and Alfonso Cuaron's 2006 critically heralded film of almost the same name, once had a child. James' Theo remembers in his journal: "I must have left the front door open and Natalie, who had walked since she was thirteen months, toddled out after me . . . some things I do remember: the gentle bump under my rear left wheel like a ramp but softer, more yielding, more tender than any ramp. The immediate knowledge, certain, absolute, terrifying, of what it was. And the five seconds of total silence before the screaming began." Cuaron tells us, through another character's recollection, that Theo's boy, Dylan, died in a flu pandemic. The two children died in a world where, inexplicably, no children have been born for eighteen years; Natalie, a year before the world became infertile, and Dylan in the chaos that resulted after humanity discovered its sterility. As with all book-to-movie translations, the process that took James' novel from the printed page to the celluloid frame involved massive changes to structure, character, plot, time, and so on. To a great extent, these are necessary and forgiveable—to complain that the movie doesn't allow access to Theo's interior the way the book does is akin to complaining that trains don't float. Books and movies speak different languages, and the two ought to be considered otherwise distinct works of art.
James, a Christian, tells her story from within a strong moral and cosmic vision in which the chief horror she discovers in the sterile future is the degradation of human life. After eighteen years of global barrenness, England, having weathered social upheaval and societal decay, has come under the soothing dictatorship of Xan Lyppiatt, Theo's cousin, who took power on the promise that the lights would work and the water would run even until the end. England would not die in spasms like other parts of the world, but would slip, as it were, quietly into a coma, with all the support systems still operational. Meanwhile, in the hope that some man or woman has bucked the trend, Xan subjects all fit members of society to demeaning fertility tests. He sequesters undesirables and criminals on the squalid and violent Isle of Man penal colony. The elderly are compelled into the Quietus, a state-run mass suicide where boatloads of people are inconspicuously jettisoned into the sea. A small, pathetic band of clandestine rebels, the Five Fishes, takes up the cause against Xan's government, and enlists Theo to supplicate his cousin to change things. Then Theo discovers that one of the group, Julian, is pregnant, and he becomes entangled with the Fishes' plot to secret her away from the government until she delivers, at which time Rolf, the group's leader, will appear on television, holding the baby, swaying the balance of power in England, and possibly the world, into his own hands. The action follows the group along their perilous journey, concluding at the birth of the child.
The Children of Men, considered as literature, could be better. James never explains the cause of the world's barrenness, and her book could use an extra fifty or so pages to flesh out her characters and story to the standard set in her crime fiction. Part of the novel occurs on the pages of Theo's journal, part as third-person narration; the journal device slows the story down, and James seems uncertain of what exactly to do with it as the book moves on. Despite its weaknesses, the book remains an elegantly written and occasionally devastating work. Her Christ-haunted England carries on in a semblance of its old self, the inescapably, compulsively religious people filling the emptiness by baptising newborn kittens and pushing dolls around in prams. Everyone in the story relates their life to the old religious ways; she finds the remnants of a vibrant and fruitful Christendom throughout the land and her people. Across this sad and violent landscape, a new Joseph and Mary flee the new Herod to protect humanity's only hope.
Cuaron's movie shares with James' book three-quarters of its title, the names of some characters, and its central revelation of a woman pregnant in a sterile future. Beyond that, it would be more fitting to compare Children of Men with The New York Times, a daily fiction rag noted for its perfection in the art of moral equivocation. Cuaron's England never emerged from the upheavals that ensued infertility, and a fascist government has clamped down on the nation, visciously hunting down aliens and immigrants and deporting them to a wretched detention-city on the coast under the aegis of the department of "Homeland Security." Prisoners are stripped, beaten, and humiliated, their faces covered by black hoods purchased at the Abu Ghraib PX. The state security forces are a tank-wielding, insurgent-killing, occupying army. Against this backdrop, Theo falls in with the Fishes, in this case a militant para-terrorist group hoping to ignite "The Uprising" in the midst of the city, who have found a pregnant "fugee" named Kee. To hear the Fishes tell it, Kee, an African, can't possibly be the mother of the new humanity in the eyes of the fascists, and so must be kept secret. Theo falls in with the Fishes' plot to spirit her away to "The Human Project," a committee with a boat called Tomorrow that will float Kee and the baby to safety.
If James' dystopian England hearkened back to its faded Christian memory, Cuaron's touchstone is the activism of the late 1960's, which the newspaper clippings littering the walls of one character's house tell us was revived in the anti-Iraq-war movement of our present day. This presents a fundamental problem that the movie can't possibly solve: if we need more of the pro-choice `60s in us, why should we care about a pregnant woman or her baby? Cuaron, in erasing James' Christian reference point, erases his entire story. James had room to pit secularism against the faithful; Cuaron has only feuding secularists—revolutionaries and fascists—and a submerged appeal to the brotherhood of man to clear up the violence. James knew what a baby is; Cuaron's baby is what Alfred Hitchcock called a "MacGuffin"—an otherwise meaningless device used only to propel the plot. Children of Men baffles the intellect as to why the movie even exists.
But it does astonish the senses. Shot almost entirely with ambient light, every frame of the movie rivets your attention, even as the violence repulses you. One shot follows the unarmed and desperate Theo through six agonizing minutes of combat in the detention-city, the camera as single-minded as the man to retrieve the kidnapped mother and child.
And, try as he might, Cuaron the storyteller cannot avoid Christian imagery and themes—indeed, Children exhibits that no story moves unless it learns from the gospel. If Theo and Kee need to escape, Cuaron provides an ark; if Theo has a vice, it succumbs to self-sacrificial action; if we first encounter Theo as a self-absorbed bureaucrat, we see him finally as a self-emptying Christ type, however flawed and reluctant. "Jesus Christ!" says Theo when he learns of Kee's pregnancy; flung like a cuss word, there's only one way to hear His name mentioned in the same room as a miracle birth.
Admittedly, all this happens in spite of Cuaron's stated aims—by no means can we consider Children of Men a Christian story. As acutely as it portrays human grief and anguish, it has too shallow and fragile an understanding of humanity to tell us anything more than we could hear on CNN. We see the gulf between James and Cuaron, and the Christian and secular pictures of man, when we look at Natalie and Dylan—the one, a flesh-and-blood person glimpsed in a father's painful remembrance of her death; the other, recounted chiefly as a statistic. Cuaron's movie, lauded and acclaimed as it is, is as mute as a pie chart. James' book, flawed as it is, works and coheres; it reaches outside of itself, self-emptying in the way only a Christian story can be.

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