Children of Men

Warning: spoilers ahoy!

When I first read P.D. James’s Children of Men back in January I wondered how in the world they’d managed to make a Hollywood movie out of it. After all, here’s a book where the heroes are a band of Christian terrorists, the villain is an overweening government that subsidizes euthanasia, and in which a recurring theme is the possibility that the universal infertility that has stricken the human race is a punishment from God.

Well, having seen the film version just last night, I now know the answer: they didn’t make a movie out of James’s book. Sure there are similar ideas and plot contrivances, and characters who at least have the same names as some of James’s characters, but that’s about it. The movie seems to aspire to being a thinly-veiled diatribe against the Bush/Blair axis of evil and evacuates virtually all of the Christian themes and imagery.

Still present is the broad theme of Theo, the main character, learning to sacrifice for something bigger than himself, but while in the novel he’s a self-absorbed and despondent academic who becomes sensitized to the possibly transcendent mystery of the first human birth in eighteen years, the movie version has him as an ex-radical who rediscovers the joys of stickin’ it to the man (complete with an old pot smoking hippie mentor played by Michael Caine). The question of human infertility frankly almost seems like little more than a distraction with the real issue being the government’s treatment of refugees (‘fugees) and the police state that rounds them up like animals in the name of “fighting terrorism” (in case you don’t get the connection, a cell that the heroes are herded into is helpfully labeled “Department of Homeland Security”).

James’s book, by contrast, explores the despair and futility that afflicts a world without children. This makes the first birth in a generation far more powerful. “The Five Fishes” – the band of somewhat hapless dissidents whose name seems to have a distinctly Christian reference, made completely inexplicable in the film – have a simple faith that if they can just protect the mother untill the baby is born somehow everything will be ok. In the film, by contrast, rather than trusting in any kind of providence, you have a shadowy cabal of scientists to act as the deus ex machina.

All of which is not to say that Children of Men is a bad movie. It certainly has its moments, and the cinematography is top-notch. It’s just a shame when such rich and interesting source material gets wasted so someone can take shots at George Bush and Tony Blair.

4 thoughts on “Children of Men

  1. Jennifer

    Hey, I just watched the movie a few days ago also. I read the book a while ago and agree with almost everything you said. I think Theo’s transformation was about more than stickin’ it to the man though – I think the radicalism was less of a motivation than his long depression over the death of his child and becoming willing to sacrifice himself for this new child in the world.

    Did you see any of the extras? Zizek gave a short commentary – I’ve never heard of a philosopher doing that before. I did think the scene where all the fighting ceases when they hear the baby cry was powerful, though. But then it didn’t make sense to me that none of the soliders they walked by stopped her or tried to take the baby from her.

  2. Yeah, and it didn’t make sense that (as one of the characters claims) the state would try and hide the baby because it was born of a “fugee” since it would be the most important world event in 20 years. Or for that matter that a nation bereft of children would be forcibly deporting immigrants rather than importing them to do menial work as in the book.

    I didn’t catch the extras – that’s wild about Zizek. Though, he is Mr. Pop Culture so it makes more sense than if, say, Saul Kripke stopped by to record a commentary.

    There’s a good piece up at the New Republic on this too:

  3. I suppose this is one of those curses that we have if we love a book that is butchered into a movie. As it is, I haven’t read the book, and so found the movie quite profoundly Christian. But don’t get me started on how Peter Jackson ruined Return of the King… 😉

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