I mentioned P.D. James’s thoughtful novel in my book. Then came the shriekingly bad film.
Don’t blame me for ’Children of Men’
I mentioned P.D. James’s thoughtful novel in my book. Then came the shriekingly bad film.
There are zillions of bad movies, but Alfonso Cuarón’s film Children Of Men is bad in an almost awe-inspiring way. They should teach it in film school as the acme of adaptation. Mr. Cuarón’s previous films (including A Little Princess and one of the groovier Harry Potters) were perfectly fine, and certainly different directors will approach the same property in entirely different ways. But, with Children Of Men, he’s managed to spend a ton of time and money, hire a fine cast, lavish inordinate care and attention to detail on the film’s design and cinematography—and yet completely miss the point of the book. More revealingly, the way in which he misses the point portends a difficult future for Hollywood in the years ahead.
The original novel by P. D. James, English literature’s reigning grande dame of the police procedural, was published in 1992 and set in the near future—2021—in a world that is impotent, literally: the human race can no longer breed. The last children, the “Omega” generation born in 1995, are now adult. Schoolhouses are abandoned and villages are dying as an ever more elderly citizenry prefers for security reasons to cluster in urban centres. As the narrator writes:
The children’s playgrounds in our parks have been dismantled. For the first 12 years after Omega the swings were looped up and secured, the slides and climbing frames left unpainted. Now they have finally gone and the asphalt playgrounds have been grassed over or sown with flowers like small mass graves. The toys have been burnt, except for the dolls, which have become for some half-demented women a substitute for children...The children’s books have been systematically removed from our libraries. Only on tapes and records do we now hear the voices of children, only on film or on television programmes do we see the bright, moving images of the young...
I read the novel in 1992, enjoyed it, and thought about its eerie vision from time to time. The best dystopian novels hinge not on some technological gimmick but on some characteristic of our time nudged forward just a wee bit. Recently, I wrote a book about the demographic death spiral already under way in western Europe, Russia and Japan (with Canada just a step behind), and I quoted P. D. James’s novel therein. I’d read a small news item from Tokyo about how local toy manufacturers, facing an ever shrinking market, had begun manufacturing talking dolls to provide company for the elderlyin effect, to be the grandchildren those Japanese seniors would never have. And I thought, “Hang on, that rings a bell...”
So I mentioned Children Of Men in my book, and as a result over the last couple of weeks I’ve had a bunch of emails from folks furious at me for stiffing ’em out of eight bucks for a lousy movie. Whoa, hold up, I was trying to stiff you out of 30 bucks for a book. Who said anything about a movie?
Where does Alfonso Cuarón go awry? Well, let’s first credit the film with what it does well. It looks like a fully realized world—London’s suburban trains, the double-decker buses, the terraced houses, a familiar landscape with a futuristic veneer imposed on it by way of a pervasive police state. More cages and wiring, more security warnings on large video screen— though, in a sad comment on the way Britain’s heading, not that much more.
But, as skilfully done as it is, it winds up with the same generic bleakness as any other dystopian thriller. Cuarón has failed to grasp the specific situation P. D. James conjures. Let me give a small example. A few years ago I used to host a BBC arts show on which Baroness James was a fairly regular guest. We’d get her in to review the new Bond movie, that sort of thing. I remember her telling me she preferred Timothy Dalton’s 007 because he pretty much forswore all the sex and double entendres (which is why he nearly killed the franchise). Each to her own. So I think it fair to say Lady James would not enjoy the way Cuarón’s film translates her protagonist’s restrained Oxford English into standard Hollywoodese: “Fuck!” “Fuck!” “Jesus Christ!” “Fuck!” Fuck-fucketty-fucketty-fucking-fuck. That is not how P. D. James writes. There is one lonely F-word outburst in the novel, all the more effective for its isolation.
So the author would not regard the reflexive expletives as an improvement. But more importantly, she might wonder about their accuracy. In the book, the infertility of man has been followed by a declining interest in
penetrative intercourse. The state frantically sponsors government porn stores promoting ever more recherché forms of erotic activity in an effort to maintain sexual desire just in case man’s seed should recover its potency. It’s not working: “Women complain increasingly of what they describe as painful orgasms: the spasm achieved but not the pleasure. Pages are devoted to this common phenomenon in the women’s magazines.” In such a world, would “fuck” survive as an epithet? As for “Jesus Christ!”, that too would be less likely to pass their lips—because in a world with no future, whether one regards global infertility as evidence of God’s anger or that He is indeed dead or (for a third group) that this is a kind of slo-mo Rapture, very few are as careless about faith as we turn-of-thecentury profaners are.
But Mr. Cuarón’s movie is careless about quite a lot of things. As one might expect from godless Hollywood, he de-Christianizes the movie. A scene in which a fawn is happily loping round the altar in the chapel of Magdalen College in Oxford is replaced by one in which a nervous deer skeeters through the corridor of an abandoned elementary school. It’s not quite the same. “Bloody animals,” rages the Magdalen chaplain. “They’ll have it all soon enough. Why can’t they wait?” The movie’s image is sentimental. The book’s is one of utter civilizational ruin—of faith, knowledge, art and beauty, all lost to the beasts and the jungle:
The choir of eight men and eight women filed in, bringing with them a memory of earlier choirs, boy choristers entering gravefaced with that almost imperceptible childish swagger, crossed arms holding the service sheets to their narrow chests, their smooth faces lit as if with an internal candle, their hair brushed to gleaming caps, their faces preternaturally solemn above the starched collars. Theo banished the image, wondering why it was so persistent when he had never even cared for children.
You can still hear boy choristers in the chapel: they play them on tape. You can still see christenings in churches—for newborn kittens.
Ladyjames’s dictatorship is a subtler one than Mr. Cuarón’s. The “Warden of England” would win any election in a landslide: he knows an aging population wants “security, comfort, pleasure,” not untrammelled liberties. Mr. Cuarón’s dystopia is a dreary, conventionally brutal police state and its “Homeland Security” (geddit?) apparatus. Free spirits are represented in the usual way: Michael Caine plays a minor character called Jasper, who once protested Bush and the Iraq war and restrictions on illegal immigration. He has a John Lennon fright wig; he smokes dope and listens to 60-year-old boomer rock. This will save the planet?
In the novel, this reductive notion of retro self-absorption masquerading as iconoclasm is certainly not the solution, and in many ways a big part of the problem. R D. James’s short book is a meditation on loss of purpose in society: the symptoms are already well advanced in real-life Europe—convenience euthanasia, collapsed birth rates, wild animals reclaiming empty villages on the east German plain. Cuarón can’t even grasp the question, offering by way of substitution only hippie anthems, package-tour Eastern spirituality and other cobwebbed cool.
The film looks like a film—which is to say that, apart from Michael Caine, everyone in it is young: young transgressive leaders of young gangs pursued by young cops and young soldiers. But that’s exactly what the novel has in short supply: roads crumble to tracks because the employees of the state are too middle-aged to maintain the rural districts. Entirely accidentally, the ineptitude of Cuarón’s movie makes James’s point: a society without youth is so alien to our assumptions about ourselves that we can’t even make a film about it. Which suggests that Hollywood itself—at least in its present incarnation—will be one of the casualties of the coming of age. M
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