I may have been one of only a handful of reviewers in the Western world who bought and read the novel The Children of Men before seeing the film of the same title, released in North America on Christmas Day. Given their mutual premise – a near-future world of total human infertility and the rebirth of hope in the person of an unborn child – I found it surprising how easily I predicted the differences even before I had seen the movie.
As I read P.D. James’s subtle critique of our current culture of sex-obsessed, anti-Christian, child-phobic self-indulgence, I was inspired to make a list of the plot and thematic elements I was willing to bet money on would be carefully expunged from the film. Good thing for them, none of my friends took my bet.
A book is necessarily going to be a different experience from the film. Narrative and dialogue are qualitatively different and a book’s atmosphere is usually impossible to capture in film, which ineluctably relies on the latter.
But even given these acceptable parameters, knowing what I know about Hollywood’s … let’s call them “philosophical priorities,” I thought I could make a few educated guesses as to what not to expect on screen.
The Christianity of the main characters and the novel’s genuinely Christian themes would be replaced in the film with a hymn to the secularist’s worship of man as his own saviour.
The government’s use of organized euthanasia as a means of solving the problem of what to do with an aging population and dwindling social resources would be deleted or sanitized.
The film would present the infertility crisis as a sudden, inexplicable anomaly, like an asteroid blowing away dinosaurs, that had no antecedents and could not have been predicted or stopped. The growing demographic crisis of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the obsession of the post-hippie generation with childless sex and self-gratification would be curiously absent.
The film, however, did manage to provide a few surprises. Who would have predicted that a film could be entirely about a premise alone, without so much as a nod to plot, story or character motivation or even Aristotle’s requirement of a beginning, middle and end? This is certainly postmodern filmmaking at its … well, I can’t say “best” … perhaps, “at its most representative.”
P.D. James’ book is an insightful examination of our own cultural fetishes. In a lovely irony, the world of 2021 is paralyzed by despair because it got exactly what it wanted: sexual gratification without “risk” of children.
In contrast to the film, the novel not only has a premise, but also contains a story about characters.
It opens 25 years after the birth of the last human baby. The last generation, the Omegas, have reached adulthood and prove the old wives’ axiom, “Treat a child like a god and he will grow up to be a devil.”
Baby boomers are pensioners who fear for their lives should they begin to show signs of diminished economic usefulness. The government has instituted the “Quietus,” a pseudo-religious ceremony where the oldies are drugged, escorted under guard to a pier, strapped to a barge and drowned like unwanted kittens.
The film, in keeping with Hollywood’s enthusiastic support of “end-of-life choice,” trims this soldier-enforced exit ritual to a polite, pharmaceutical pack whose slickly marketed slogan is, “It’s your choice.”
The novel’s Theo Faron is an emotionally isolated Oxford professor of Victorian history who, as the cousin and only relation of Britain’s rather benign dictator, is approached by a group of political dissidents and asked to intervene, among other things, to stop the Quietus.
The novel, progressing through Theo’s slow awakening of sacrificial love and moral conscience, is a lesson in the redemptive value of suffering. The book’s pregnant mother is white, middle class, a British citizen and a believing Christian of the sort that is unfashionable even now and nearly extinct in 2021. That is, she believes in the redemptive sacrifice of a fully divine Christ for the remission of sins. The last act of the novel is the baby’s baptism.
Eschewing both Christianity and classical literary themes, the film chose instead a favorite template for Hollywood leftists: an oppressive totalitarian and xenophobic right-wing state so bent on expelling illegal immigrants that it apparently forgot to investigate the cause of the infertility crisis.
In keeping with Hollywood orthodoxy, the film’s mother was required to be black, poor, an illegal immigrant on the run and a foul-mouthed tart. The poke at George Bush and the Iraq war is so clear that the brief shot of the Abu Ghraib prisoner, complete with hood and outstretched arms, elicited at least one loud guffaw in the theatre.
The work of saving the world is left to the “Human Project,” a little-seen deus ex machina, a mysterious group of the world’s “greatest scientific minds” whose function in the film seems exclusively to be to replace the novel’s Christian themes with something (anything!) meaningful that conforms to the secular humanist ideology.
The movie’s dependence on “action,” incomprehensible chase scenes and fashionable “documentary” jiggly camera work leaves little time for plot or story. Women can’t have babies and no one knows why. The world has exploded in “sectarian” violence without explanation. It is merely taken for granted people in severe crisis behave badly.
The Children of Men is a fine novel that explores a critical problem of our time with subtlety and a humane story of faith and redemptive love. Too bad the makers of the film Children of Men chose not to tell it.