Now Showing: Children of Men

John Turner

I was told by a member of my family that the film Children of Men is more good than enjoyable. And, that's right. It's a skillfully constructed movie, gripping, well acted and full of jolting emotion. Yet it can leave a terrible emptiness in the stomach. It's determined to tell us what humans really are and that's not something most of us want to know.

The film was taken from a novel by P.D. James, who writes mostly mystery stories but who occasionally detours into other forms. It's hard to say exactly where she has gone here.  It's not exactly into science fiction, though her tale is set in the near future. It's a love story of sorts, but one with most of the romance stripped out of it.  The love has to erupt out of deep nihilism, a condition created not by philosophy or personal psychopathology but by a worldwide seizure of infertility. As the story opens, no baby has been born anywhere in the world for the past twenty-five years. Major scientific efforts have been launched to find out why, but to no avail. The youngest persons alive are a quarter-century old and the populations of most countries have declined by about forty percent.

In England where the novel is set, many villages have shut down as people relocate into urban areas where services can be maintained, at least for a while. Government sponsored mass suicides for the elderly are becoming ever more common. And the country is governed by a dictatorial warden and council of advisors who have pledged to make life as comfortable as possible, but who are determined to do it on their own terms with no deviations from their decisions.

The background conditions for the novel and film are similar, but the plots diverge from one another markedly. The film creates major characters who are not in the book, whereas one of the novel's principal figures is barely mentioned in the film. Furthermore, characters who bear the same names in both book and movie don't much resemble one another. And the principal events in the novel and film are completely different, all except for one. In both stories a baby is born.

It's not easy to decide that one version is superior to the other. But dismal as the film is through most of its development, the novel is more bleak. And more horrifying. That's because the psychological effects of a childless future are laid out in starker detail in the text.  Cynics may say they don't care what happens to humankind after they die. I've heard that very remark several times on TV over the past few weeks. But, it's a sentiment we are incapable of actually supporting.

The message of Children of Men is that we are all functionaries in human evolution. And if we become convinced that humanity is about to grind to an end the meaning and pleasure of our own brief phase will be drained away. We will, then, have little reason for doing, or thinking, anything.

That being the case, these stories should deepen our understanding of what to do in the slice of time allotted to us. And they should help us step away from the notion that smashing our way to material success, leaving a debris of human aspirations in our wake, is the proper course for really shrewd men and woman.

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Harvard Square Commentary, January 22, 2007