Monday, January 29, 2007

Different children

My weekend centred on children: us depositing our child with her grandmother, me lounging in bed Saturday morning to finish reading The Children of Men (PD James), us wandering out later in the day to the cinema to see the film adaptation (and I felt like such a terrorist smuggling in a shawarma and a bottle of water).

I have a fondness for dystopian literature, so even while some call James's novel mediocre, or substandard to her usual genre output, my instinct is to defend the effort.

The premise here: the human race is infertile. (Fertility issues are also central to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, my copy of which inexplicably is nowhere to be found.)

Dystopian novels are not generally revered for their sublime prose. They often come in the form of a travel report from a distant place. They are above all novels of ideas. While some feature wonderfully developed characters, they generally offer us types (the docile, unquestioning citizen; a totalitarian ruler; a heroic, rebel element) fleshed out only enough to make the point and advance the moral of the story.

James's novel is about half and half traditional 3rd-person narration and diary entries, presumably to give us a glimpse into Theo's inner workings. Theo's not exactly likable, but he doesn't have the complexity of character I suspect James intended.

He'd had a child, once, but accidentally ran her over. In the movie, much more sensibly, his boy was victim to a flu pandemic — Theo has a normal, personal, emotional investment in the fate of the planet, not driven by the guilt of extreme and unusual circumstances.

Book: Theo's cousin is omnipotent Warden of England.
Movie: His relation has some not clearly defined position of power in the government (he also has a child).

Book: Theo is drawn into the intrigue by a relative stranger he's attracted to (roll your eyes here).
Movie: Theo's drawn in, much more credibly, by his ex-wife, who has a history of political activism, and the promise of monetary compensation.

Book: Theo needs to be convinced by an inept group of 5 that there are problems under the existing system.
Movie: There is chaos in the streets and known rebel factions. The system is obviously not working very well.

Book: Theo witnesses one of the state-organized mass suicides — some participants seem less than willing. Theo hears of the inhumane conditions of the penal colony form the sister of an escaped (allegedly wrongly convicted) inmate. The group of Five Fishes also demands a general election, rights for the immigrant workers brought to England to combat the labour shortage, and a stop to mandatory fertility testing (because it's degrading and pointless).
Movie: The Fishes are protesting the treatment of immigrants, who are denied full rights, routinely rounded up into refugee camps and deported. It is implied that the rest of the world has gone to hell, possibly the result of war.

Book: As the group travels, they are attacked by an extremely violent gang. The incident is an unfair surprise, the existence of such gangs having been mentioned casually just once.
Movie: The group is attacked, but it makes sense in the context of the unrest everywhere in evidence.

I won't tell you the respective endings.

Wikipedia summarizes the book and the movie.

The novel is flawed but enjoyable. Read it if, like me, you have a fascination with dystopian literature.

The film is astounding. The mood is perfect. The script improves on characters and back stories in ways I hadn't thought possible while reading the book. You don't need a stupid love story. You don't need for Theo to be an Oxford historian, or to have killed his child. You don't need for him personally to take control of the government for resolution.

We did question the logic of the depicted future, but only after we'd left the theatre and thought about it.

Theo's friend Jasper in the book points out some of the pluses of a world without children:

"It doesn't worry me particularly. I'm not saying I hadn't a moment of regret when I first knew Hilda was barren; the genes asserting their atavistic imperatives, I suppose. On the whole I'm glad; you can't mourn for unborn grandchildren when there never was a hope of them. This planet is doomed anyway. Eventually the sun will explode or cool and one small insignificant particle of the universe will disappear with only a tremble. If man is doomed to perish, then universal infertility is as painless a way as any. And there are, after all, personal compensation. For the last sixty years we have sycophantically pandered to the most ignorant, the most criminal and the most selfish section of society. Now for the rest of our lives we're going to be spared the intrusive barbarism of the young, their noise, the pounding, repetitive, computer-produced so-called music, their violence, their egotism disguised as idealism. My God, we might even succeed in getting rid of Christmas, that annual celebration of parental guilt and juvenile greed. I intend that my life shall be comfortable, and, when it no longer is, then I shall wash down my final pill with a bottle of claret."

Problems that stem from the premise, which neither book nor movie adequately addresses:

Is it long enough (book: 25 years; movie: 18) to feel the effects of a labour shortage? The youngest citizens are only just entering the work force; the lack of replacement workers shouldn't be felt for another few years. (The disappearance of child-centred industries would first result in massive unemployment.) If there is indeed a labour shortage (and since people continue to die without being replaced), shouldn't immigrants be welcomed? Any strain on resources by immigrants should just about equal the resources freed up by the unborn numbers. While it's natural to want to protect and preserve resources, given the infertility scenario, it's for a finite period.

I'd have thought one of the biggest and most immediate effects of mass infertility would be sexual violence, combining a lack of fear of consequence with a sense of desperation. The book addresses this: the instinct loses out to disinterest, a sense of pointlessness and depression.

Would the effects be quiet and hidden (book) or massive and obvious (film)?

The book covers some of the side effects of the crisis: for example, how pets are treated like children. It's typical of dystopian novels to include details of fairly mundane goings-on. This is rightly kept out of the film.

Book: Excerpt.
Movie: Official site.

J-F says, not that his opinion counts for anything, that it's one of the best movies he's ever seen, to which I raise my eyebrows. He says, "Yes, better than Pulp Fiction."


Carl V. said...

I've heard so many good things about Children of Men. I need to get out and see it.

Tim said...

Like you Isabella, I’m a huge fan of dystopian fiction. Having seen the film and not read the book, I thought Children of Men was a fairly gripping action film (with an incredibly rich artistic backdrop), but not such a great dystopian flick. The political and social context of its backdrop was so riddled with holes, problems, and (above all else) questions, that the only way to go along for the ride was to just divorce myself from the world they were attempting to construct and treat it like 16 Blocks with a pregnant woman.

marydell said...

I really liked Atwood's book (not the movie) and have wondered how similar Children of Men is to it. After reading your review, I might have to find some time to see it and/or read it.

danielle said...

The Handmaid's Tale is one of my very favorite books--dystopian or not. I'm glad to hear you liked Children of Men. It is not a perfect novel, but I still thought it was quite good. I am looking forward to seeing the movie eventually.

David U. said...

One of the most striking features of the film (from my perspective) was the role animals played in the lives of some of the characters. I believe that the treatment of pets as children was at least made implicit through the imagery and scenes showing the relationships between people and their pets. I haven't read the novel yet, but your post has convinced me to pick up soon. Thanks!