My Thoughts on (The) Children of Men

“… both the movie and book are amazing in their own right, but they can’t really be compared.”

Sitting here in my bedroom at 10:40pm on a Wednesday having just finished reading The Children of Men, I am floored by just how much I liked it. Is it unlike me to enjoy books? Not necessarily. I suppose the stigma of having to read it for a class kind of clouded my initial thoughts on the book, and I had assumed that it wouldn’t be as enjoyable as it was. So why am I writing this? I figured that, being made to read this book, I might as well kill two birds with one stone and record my thoughts comparing the book to the film adaptation of the story. So I guess we should just get started then.

I remember having seen the movie, Children of Men, years ago, and one thing that struck me as I started reading the book was how different the two were. The movie, as I remember, was about a man having to care for and protect a woman who is pregnant in a world where such a thing is no longer possible. The latter part of the book had that plot, but really that was it. I spent the first half of the book wondering exactly what had happened to make the two so different, but I was never disappointed. See, the best thing about P.D. James’ The Children of Men is it is never boring. Even during the first half, which does little more than immerse you in the world of the story, I found myself hanging off of every word. This was a new experience for me: the feeling that I just had to know what was going to happen next. And don’t get me wrong: The Children of Men is in no way written in an exciting manner; most of the first half is reserved for rather dry world-building and character introspection. But despite that fact I couldn’t put it down. I would glance up at the clock and remark that I had already been reading for a few hours and that I should really stop soon, only to later glance up at the clock and found that I had been reading for a few more hours. Right from the start I was pulled into this book, almost against my will. And that is what’s going to make this piece hard for me to write: not knowing exactly what was so appealing about The Children of Men.

The Children of Men opens by introducing us to Theo: a history professor who has decided to start writing a journal. This journal walks us through the current state of England, where Theo lives, but also talks a lot about Theo’s past. It was never Theo’s intention for anyone to read the journal; he was doing it as a form of therapy (for lack of a better term). Introducing us to not only the character but the world this way was very interesting, and really got me into the swing of things pretty quickly. First of all everything was very direct. Theo didn’t beat around the bush when talking about himself because why should he? But what is really impressive here is the way that the world-building was tackled. Theo understands that something is wrong with the world (no kids are being born), but he addresses it in a way that is so commonplace. None of this is new to Theo, so none of it is presented as new to us. Despite the novel taking place in 2021 (still the future, although not so far now), every part of this world is presented as though it is nothing special; and that’s the mark of great world-building. As soon as the storyteller tries to show-off and point to new technology and go “Look what I made”, everything falls apart. The Children of Men never reduces itself to that and it makes everything about this world so much stronger. I also really liked how fucking dark things got in this terrible reality. Mass suicides, prison islands, people being treated like slaves: it was yet another factor that drew me into this world in a morbid sense.

So the world was great, but what about the characters? This will probably surprise you to hear, but I wasn’t all that impressed with them. There were moments of brilliance that were able to shine through for each character, but in large they were pretty basic. They were good enough to keep me interested, but not ones that will stick in my mind for very long. Once again, I’m not sure why this book engrossed me as it did. This isn’t me saying the book isn’t good, obviously it’s good if I read it in three sittings, I’m just genuinely perplexed. Anyway, one thing I like about the characters were how real they were. All of these people, especially Theo, all had these moments of weakness where their inner-human broke through. The easiest of these to exemplify would be Theo’s untameable sarcasm. Theo’s dry wit cakes the book, especially in the first half, and presents a character who is very realistic. This character trait also does a good job of painting the world, especially Theo’s generation, as very apathetic. There is this general sense of hopelessness that plagues this world, and things like Theo’s uncontrollable, often times mean-spirited, wit is a great example of this. As for other characters, like I said they were alright.  One thing that kind of bothered me throughout the book was the characterization of the Warden of England (and Theo’s cousin) Xan. We learn about Xan first as a boy, then we get to see him in action as the leader of England. One point hat kept being brought up was how evil Xan was. Now I understand that Xan is the personification of the government, and the government is this book is doing some pretty suspect shit, but I didn’t find Xan evil in the slightest. As a matter of fact it was kind of the opposite. Xan was doing all that he could to try and save not only England, but the world. I understand that the prison island isn’t exactly the most humane, but he raised good points when he said that the resources are better used elsewhere than to quell the unrest of convicts. I understand that the process of testing sperm may be demeaning, but once again Xan is trying to do everything in his power to fix this terrible problem. And the idea that Xan isn’t such a bad guy is made abundantly clear when Rolf, when asked a few choice questions, claims he would do exactly the same things as Xan if he were in power. So Xan isn’t evil. All is good, right? Well not exactly. What confuses me is why, when Xan makes his appearance at the end of the book, did his character change from one who was rather sympathetic to one who was so slimy. Instantly he springs into action claiming that everyone was killed and that he was going to marry Julian, but where was this in the rest of the book? This seems to kind of come out of nowhere, and seemed like a kind of lazy way to make you hate him right at the end; to give the book a definitive “bad guy”. Maybe we were just seeing Xan through Theo’s sympathetic eyes the entire time. Maybe he was always this evil but this, being the first thing that directly impacts us (the reader), is the first time that we see how callous his methods are. I’m not sure, exactly.

That about covers all I wanted to discuss in regards to the book. One thing that I forgot to mention that did annoy me was James’ writing style, specifically the tendency to use long words, as well as use a single sentence with a whole lot of commas, not unlike this one, to break up thoughts, not unlike these, in what I can only describe as a form of, if I may, ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writing. This was far from any form of ‘deal-breaker’ for me, it was just something that was kind of annoying. Something else that I found interesting about both the writing and the story in general was the often times “beat you over the head” metaphors about God and the bible. These moments would have ruined the book for me, but I was fine with them because they weren’t (to me, at least) trying to say anything. I wasn’t being preached at, if that makes sense. And I’m also fine with them because for every mention of the bible you’d have the ever-sunny Theo to bring in another one of his quips that would instantly discredit and take down said mention. Oh, I guess I should mention that the second half of the book seems to be (at least in my memory) what directly influenced the movie. This is where most of the “plot” is, but even then it isn’t as dense as you would assume. Looking back I can plot this entire book with probably seven different bullet points, but it was the detail of those bullet points that kept me interested. The Children of Men doesn’t always have something going on in the traditional sense, but there is always something to keep you interested.

So it is now the future and I have just finished re-watching Children of Men, and I have to say that the differences between it and the book on which it is based are immense. As a matter of fact, these differences are so plentiful and so huge that I debated scrapping this comparison and not writing any more on the subject. How can I compare two works that are so different, it’s like they aren’t even based on the same thing. Sure the general idea is there: a world where no one can have babies, and then one girl gets pregnant; but apart from that I can draw very little by way of similarities between the two. So I guess I’ll have to spend this time talking about the differences. The biggest difference in my opinion was the feel of the world. In The Children of Men, the world was hopeless. Nobody could get pregnant, so the world was doomed to end slowly. There was nothing that could be done about this fact, so everyone who was still alive just kind of stopped caring. This created a very dark and depressing atmosphere, that to me was a commentary on aging in itself. The world was built-out by including things like Sojourners, prison islands, and mass-suicides; but for the most part it was a story that drowned you in hopelessness, until the second half came along and acted as the light at the end of the tunnel. The movie, Children of Men, didn’t really do this; and I understand why. Children of Men was released in 2006, and the book was released in 1992. What happened between those two dates? 9/11. Children of Men, instead of creating a hopeless world, created an angry one. Instead of roads being deserted and people moving listlessly from one place to another, the world was overpopulated and there was a general sense of unrest to put it lightly. The focus on the refugees in this universe was quite obviously a reaction to the issues society had with actual refugees of the time; the same issues that we are dealing with today. In the book, a large point is that the Sojourners don’t get treated with respect. They are brought in, they work for many years, and then they are sent home. This is because the life they can live in England is arguably better than the life they can live at home. In the movie we see a much more drastic version of that, one that is closer to the realities of today. England isn’t just a better place, it is one of the only safe places. People have no choice but to flee to England, and the general consensus of that people living there is not one that is welcoming. These people are hunted down, herded up, and put into these camps that treat them like prisoners. This was not at all a part of the book, but that’s because at the time of the book’s writing it wasn’t a big problem in the real world. Children of Men is trying to warn us, to give us a glimpse of this future that we are headed towards. The idea that there are no more babies obviously still holds relevance in this world, but no where near as much as it did in the book.

Another social commentary that rears its head in Children of Men is terrorism. You can’t have  a post-9/11 movie without terrorism, because that is what is scary now. The Five Fishes were turned from a group of five people that were a little upset with the government (in a very British way, might I add), to a radical terrorist cell that actively fought the government. There was no subtlety here; they were known by literally everyone. Their faces were plastered all over the nightly news. But of course this wasn’t an unprompted turn of events, because we also see that the government itself is using violence as an answer. I can’t speak to which came first, but at the point when this movie starts we can see that it has already gone too far. Bombs are being planted, people are being executed in the streets, tanks are present to both kill and intimidate anyone who disobeys; once again the world is much angrier than the one that was present in the book. And something else that was different in the movie was the streamlining of the characters. In the book we are introduced to a wide cast of characters, each one having their own quirks and relation to our main character, Theo; but in the movie everything is a lot more watered-down. We don’t get to know most of these people because one character is always hogging the spotlight: the world. This angry, depressing cityscape takes up most of our time which leaves very little for other characters. This leads to us getting very simple characters traits that take precedence in the story. There are good guys and bad guys. Theo is a bit of a dick, but he is a good guy. There is some character study that goes on there, but for the most part what you see is what you get. The Five Fishes (or “The Fishes”) are the bad guys. What is there motivation? I don’t really know. They wanted the baby to… use it? I’m not completely clear on this, but I am clear on the fact that they are the bad guys. Also batting for the bad guys we have the government. Why is the government bad? Because they treat refugees like shit. That’s about where that ends. We don’t get to see the inner-workings of the government like we did in the book, so we don’t rightly know what they are or aren’t doing to solve various problems that may or may not exist. Another example of the streamlining of characters is the decision to combine Helena and Julian into the same person. Now Theo’s ex-wife is also the leader of The Fishes, which further muddles things if you have read the book.

Despite the characters being watered-down, what Children of Men did give us were fantastic performances. This sense of dread and danger was conveyed wonderfully by everyone who was on screen, and they really made the world come to life. But the performances aren’t what people remember about this movie. It’s not even how depressing it is that sticks in their brains. No, it’s the direction. Children of Men might be one of the best directed/shot movies of all time. Throughout the entire film I was in constant awe at what I was seeing. Every single shot in this movie is so detailed, so intricate, and at the same time so immersive. The idea to keep the camera largely handheld to allow for glorious tracking shot and ‘one-takes’ was a brilliant plan, and it payed off in spades. This direction managed to not only keep me invested, but also to keep me in the edge of my seat. Putting me right there in the action I had no choice but to flinch whenever there was danger or wince whenever there was pain. It was like I lived it, and that is an amazing feat to accomplish. The directing also did a good job of hiding a lot of the digital effects, although it wasn’t exactly needed seeing as they still hold up incredibly well. Even still this just makes sure that they will hold up even longer, because most of them are almost invisible. But, even disregarding the entire movie, the one scene that could convince anyone of this movies brilliant direction is the scene towards the end of the movie. Surrounded by chaos, a mother walks through a crowd with a baby in her arms. Slowly but surely this chaos comes to a silence, and we get to bask in the beauty of the scene. I’m not to proud to admit that this scene brought me close to tears. Just the beauty of everything, the culmination of everything that we had been working towards, it all came to fruition in this stunning scene. Words can’t do my thoughts on the subject justice, so I think I’ll call it here.

Overall it’s crazy to me to think that the movie is actually based on the book. Both are mazing in their own right, but they are accomplishing different things. The book has a heavy reliance on God and the loss of hope and the dread that is old age, but the movie adapts these fears and warnings into more present-day ones with the inclusion of terrorism and refugees. Like I said: both the movie and book are amazing in their own right, but they can’t really be compared.

I give both The Children of Men and Children of Men an A

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