Going to see a film based on a novel you’ve read and enjoyed is always problematic. The liberties taken in the name of adapting a book for the screen run the gamut. Some are restrained and straightforward translations, such as A Merry War (from George Orwell’s Keep the Apidistra Flying ); some are fanciful attempts to make cinematic a story about internal revolution ( A Beautiful Mind ); others are glorious renditions that will forever color your rereading of the book ( Lord of the Rings ); rarely, some even prove more engrossing and memorable than the source ( The Godfather ).
Then there are adaptations in which the filmmaker virtually co-opts the book, revisioning it and making it his own. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and The Shining stand out in this regard. (There’s a reason the titles are prefaced with Stanley Kubrick’s and not Anthony Burgess’ and Stephen King’s , respectively.)
But writer-director Alfonso Cuarón’s film version of P.D. James’ Children of Men ¯which opened Christmas Day¯is in a category all its own: Call it an act of vandalism. The Christian fable, as James herself described her book , was originally published in 1992 and was a respite from her crime novels. A work of dystopian forecasting, Children of Men was about a time when women could no longer have babies, the world was dying, and Britain was under control of a dictator determined to maintain a semblance of order amid the chaos.
Cuarón ( Y Tu Mamá Tambi én, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban ) uses the core of James’ scenario¯a future without children, and therefore without hope¯as a mere MacGuffin , that Hitchcockian device that in itself is meaningless but serves to move the action forward. Cuarón’s Children of Men is little more than high-tech agit-prop targeting the Bush administration, the war in Iraq, border policing, and Homeland Security. That it takes place in the England of 2027 is rather beside the point; the world’s desperate and despairing populations are at each other’s throats, and George W’s now decades-old policies are to blame. (I couldn’t help but think, not of Nineteen Eighty-four , but of 1984’s abominable 2010 , in which the Reagan White House was retroactively blamed for HAL-9000’s breakdown in 2001 .)
The film begins with the death of the youngest person on earth, an 18-year-old Latin American named Diego. Shortly thereafter, Theo (Clive Owen), an erstwhile activist and now a decidedly lethargic bureaucrat in the Ministry of Energy, is literally pulled off the streets and into the world of a clique of terrorists lead by his ex-wife, Julian (Julianne Moore). Hidden among the group is a young black woman named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a "fugee" (refugee) who is amazingly, inexplicably pregnant. Julian wants Theo to use his influence with the government to pave the way (secretly, of course) for Kee to get safely to the Human Project, an offshore, shipboard collection of intellectuals from around the world who are going to jump-start civilization with fresh answers to old problems.
Throughout the film, characters from the novel are reassigned roles and political stances as Cuarón and co-screenwriter Timothy J. Sexton see fit. In fact, the first thing Cuarón does when he arrives in the year 2027 is eliminate the Christians. In James’ book, Julian is a beautifully wrought Christian believer: the new Eve, the new Mary, the hope for the salvation of the world. But that Julian has been swapped out for Moore’s Julian, now Theo’s ex-wife and a revolutionary any Maoist could love. (As for the book’s Luke, the Christlike Anglican priest¯ Cuarón has rebirthed him as a duplicitous butcher.) In fact, the only bits of religion left in Cuarón’s version are cults of fanatical masochists and a midwife who engages clumsily in Tai Chi and chants the Buddhist Om mani padme hum .
That is, if you don’t count Jihadism as a religion. You see, an intifada is the answer to Bush’s¯er, England’s¯inhumane immigration policy, which consists in hauling illegals off to camps bearing a striking example to Abu Ghraib and mainstream-media images of Guantanamo Bay, and where the Nazi-era "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Will Make You Free) is sung ( hint hint ). What’s implausible about Cuarón’s conception is that no reasonable explanation is ever offered as to why so many people would risk their lives to get into an England that is suffering the same plague of childlessness, pollution, overcrowding, and oppression as everywhere else. In James’ novel, Theo is useful to the terrorists because his cousin is the dictator Xan¯the Warden of England¯who has created some semblance of order, some functioning economy, some hope (however illusory) that the government has things under control and is working to solve the infertility problem. In Cuarón’s film, chaos reigns and madness rules: Shots of Fleet Street show a garbage-ridden city covered with blankets of smog punctuated only by the smoke from errant bomb blasts, threatening life at every turn. In the film, Xan is gone, but there is Nigel, a minister of culture who ransacks art museums (who does that remind you of?). In fact, what we’re supposed to believe is the original Guernica adorns the minister’s dining-room wall¯a bit of set design as overblown in its ideological pretensions as the photograph of General Nguyen shooting a Vietcong prisoner that appears as wallpaper in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories flat. (At least Allen’s film was supposed to be a comedy.)
Just in case you didn’t catch Cuarón’s "We’re living in a fascist state" message with every graceless swing of his cinematic axe handle, we’re introduced to Jasper (Michael Caine), another refashioning of a James character who is now a pot-smoking Methuselahian hippie. A quick survey of Jasper’s and his literally catatonic wife’s memorabilia shows a lifetime of political resistance, including posters and bumper stickers protesting Iraq and Bush (but, interestingly enough, not Tony Blair). Jasper’s political philosophy consists in tuning in, dropping out, and flipping the bird to the fascist pigs. (He also engages in what passes for theological reflection in these apocalyptic times: a meaningless juxtaposition of "faith" and "chance" that is supposed to be penetrating in its flippancy but only betrays the banality of both the character and the film.)
It is Jasper who informs us that "every time the government gets into trouble, a bomb goes off." So we’re supposed to believe that the threat of terrorism that gave rise to a "Homeland Security" in the first place is a hoax. But then we learn that Julian’s cadre of terrorists/freedom fighters did, in fact, engage in terror bombings but gave it up for PR purposes. The novelty of nonviolent resistance gets old fast, though, as the terrorists/freedom fighters turn sinister again, with their own murderous agenda that entails sacrificing its own members to the cause. We’re never to assume, however, that the terrorists/freedom fighters are really responsible for their actions: What can you expect when Bush¯er, the British government¯reduces illegals to the status of animals and robs them of their proper dignity? Oh the moral ambiguity of it all!
Why is Kee never brought to the government authorities for protection, given her absolutely unique status, but instead is endangered at every turn in Theo’s desperate, bullet-dodging efforts to get her to the Human Project? It seems the government would never permit a fugee to be the mother of the reborn human race, and so presumably would kill her¯and its own future, if you think about it (which is probably not wise). This "explanation" has no place in James’ novel.
In her novel, James never answers the question why women can no longer have babies, although the possibility of divine judgment skulks throughout. In Cuarón’s rendition, that was never really the question to begin with. In the novel, for example, we know who the father of Julian’s baby is, and we’re tempted to ask whether her faithfulness has been rewarded. In the film, Kee couldn’t tell you who the father was if her life depended on it: She admits that, once fertility was no longer an issue, what did it matter about getting names? At first I thought Cuarón might be contributing something countercultural here about the separation of sex from reproduction; instead, this admission is simply left to lie there, lest prolonged contemplation lead one to believe that The End may be related to just such a disconnect. In fact, the miracle of Kee’s pregnancy is never presented as more than just an accident¯just another one of Jasper’s chance occurrences.
Were Cuarón’s Children of Men rooted in some larger moral vision it might be tolerable, but the director isn’t even on to the irony of his own incoherent propaganda: It is an increasingly nihilistic West, severed from its Judaeo-Christian roots, that is the target of a militant, authoritarian ideology that some have no qualms about calling fascistic¯thus giving rise to a "Homeland Security." P.D. James saw as one response to the rising tide of moral sterility the still, small voice of a Christianity that invests even the alien and the stranger with dignity, because it defends the preciousness of life from conception to natural death. It is just such a Christian worldview, however muted, that informs even James’ crime novels; in fact, as Ralph Wood has written , what makes the crimes in her mysteries especially thought-provoking is that they’re often committed by the "pitiable" who never intend to "wreak misery in sheer nihilistic perversity," and who thereby evoke a human solidarity that makes blanket condemnations difficult and Christian forgiveness possible.
The director’s feint at human solidarity, on the other hand, in the form of unified, armed resistance, simultaneously dehumanizes swathes of people by simply dismissing them all as fascists, thereby exhibiting the same moral obtuseness as those he sees as the enemy.
The only hope offered in Cuarón’s film is the existence of the Human Project, which of course is exactly what the world needs in a time of inconceivable degradation¯a committee . James’ novel knows of no such project; in fact, it’s too smart for such a contrivance. Let’s face it, the last group of intellectuals assembled from around the world to end a global crisis and usher in peace on earth was the Manhattan Project. I sincerely doubt their solution is quite what the filmmakers here had in mind.
Grant Cuarón the license to make a film about current events as he pleases, whether about the war in Iraq or immigration policy. What’s insufferable is his pressing into service someone else’s vision as a commercial vehicle for a personal political screed. Children of Men wants to be a grown-ups’ Brazil but never transcends a student-film sensibility ("They’re all fascists, man!"), despite hat tips to the cinema-vérité street-fighting styles of Saving Private Ryan and Full Metal Jacket . Cuarón pulls off the battles between the terrorists and the government troops with deft and disquieting verisimilitude, obviously attempting to approximate American soldiers’ battling of insurgents in Baghdad, even leaving the splatter of the Kayo syrup that is Hollywood blood on the lens of his camera for a little extra grit. He’s learned much from Spielberg and Kubrick. It’s a shame he’s learned nothing from P.D. James.
Anthony Sacramone is the managing editor of First Things .