The Children of Men (1992) by P D James, adapted for cinema in 2006 by Alfonso Cuarón
Re-reading this near-future thriller written in 1992 but set in 2021 is a fascinating experience in 2023, not only to gauge how accurate the view of the future is, but also to compare it to the 2006 film adaption, set slightly later in 2027.
In both a fascist dictatorship has risen to manage the UK’s decline and against this background, as in Orwell’s 1984, we’re introduced to Theo, an Oxford academic who falls in with a beautiful young woman and becomes involved with her revolutionary group.
No children have been born in twenty five years and humanity is in its death throes as a species. James hints a germ or disease is responsible but with no definitive explanation offered, the existential threat also feels biblical in nature, a judgement of the gods. And it’s no coincidence the book’s finale takes place in a chapel.
From its opening which references Orwell’s 1984, this extraordinarily cynical near-future thriller has a bleakly satirical bent.
And Theo is subject to the full weight of the author’s ire. He’s a self-pitying emotionally repressed, middle aged, middle class loner, who accidentally killed his own pre-school daughter and for which he unfairly blamed his now ex-wife.
All Theo’s assumptions regarding women are wrong. He can’t see what he regards as subservience to love is really abusive control. He’s arrogant, vain and unable to recognise his own failings.
Utterly selfish and incapable of empathy or offering sympathy to women, he dismisses female outpourings of grief as evidence of insanity. Theo could be the hero of a John Wyndham novel.
In the film Theo is played by the dashing Hollywood star Clive Owen with a great deal more charisma than the character in the book possess. The film also affords Theo a great deal more sympathy than the book, re-framing him a noir-ish hero, a trench-coated protagonist in the tradition of Bogart.
The scathingly ironic title is lifted from a line in the bible, and the finale of the book see the birth of the world’s first baby to be born for over a quarter of a century.
And the newborn’s mother has to watch and listen as three men argue over the future of her and her child. This is not how the film ends.
I applaud the director and co-writer Alfonso Cuarón for ripping out from the book what he needed to adapt it to a different medium, it’s often the best route towards a successful adaptation. But he does so at the cost of what makes the book important.
Where the book is about Theo’s failings, the film is about his redemption. Cuarón refocuses the novel from the essential misogyny of society to the optimistic view the next generation will combat fascism.
Instead of being about the powerless of women in a society run by men, In Cuarón’s hands the story becomes about the noble sacrifice of a reluctantly heroic man whose reward is his name survives him.
That’s not to say the film is a failure. Far from it. Owen leads an excellent cast which includes the immense talents of Michael Caine, Julianne Moore and Chiwetel Ejiofor, as well as Charlie Hunnum.
And the production design is superb, creating a believably derelict England on the brink of social collapse and governed by a fascist military junta.
James includes references to hot topics of 1992 such as media panics about eco warriors and illegal rave parties, and including jokes about the footballer Paul Gascoigne. Meanwhile the film references the UK’s Foot and Mouth outbreak of 2001, with burning pyres of flesh adding to the mood of apocalyptic doom.
Photographed with immense skill and great style by the immensely talented cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuarón’s remarkably choreographed immersive long shots are a tour de force.
And the final shoot ’em up battle scene is a greater signifier of the influence of first person POV video games on cinema than any number of IP-dependant Hollywood fare.
Recent movies such as those featuring Sonic the Hedgehog and the Super Mario Bros employ a much more frequently used snappy editing style, which is anathema to their video games format, which scrolls rather than cuts.
However this love of extended shots is at times limiting and results in some dialogue being used as a wooden plank hurriedly nailed down to bridge two halves of a separating raft.
One scene of Theo creeping through a riot foreshadows a similar scene in Cuarón’s 2018 semi-autobiographical Oscar winner, Roma, a drama set against a failing economy and political instability.
Cuaron has taken a book about the inability of men not to put themselves in the centre of every cultural moment, including the birth of children, and made a film all about his preoccupations.
It’s probably of no comfort to James her excellent novel continues to prove her correct.
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