Children of Men redux

Children of Men is on DVD now, so Christopher Orr at the New Republic takes another look at it:

“Cinema,” Alfonso Cuarón told The Seattle Times in December, “[has] become now what I call a medium for lazy readers. … Cinema is a hostage of narrative. And I’m very good at narrative as a hostage of cinema.” He was referring to his film Children of Men, and he captured its strengths and weakness admirably. It is a frequently moving, occasionally harrowing tour de force of cinematic technique; yet it is also somehow hollow. It was simultaneously one of last year’s best movies (better, I think, than any of those nominated for Best Picture) and one of its larger disappointments.

The film, just released on DVD, is an adaptation of the 1993 P.D. James novel The Children of Men, and Cuarón’s alterations were not limited to trimming the definite article from the title. James’s novel was an explicitly Christian fable about faith and loss, love and solitude, our duties as parents of children and as children of parents. Cuarón hewed back these themes aggressively and substituted contemporary political references–to Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, to anti-immigrant sentiment in Great Britain and the United States, to firefights on the streets of Iraq. But while Cuarón’s changes add resonance to James’s story, they don’t offer meaning. Children of Men retains the shape of a parable, but lacks the message. . . .

The problem is that a world without children is clearly a metaphor, but Cuarón doesn’t quite seem to know for what. James is a devout Anglican, and for her the meaning of a world without children is entirely clear: It is a world without God. The creation of new life is, after all, not only the most palpable miracle to which most of us will ever be privy, but a form of afterlife as well (especially for those of us who, unlike James, are skeptical of the literal kind). Children give us hope and purpose that extends beyond our own spans on Earth and the knowledge that, after we’re gone, we will still be judged. For James, a world without God is an abomination.

For Cuarón–who is not, to my knowledge, a religious believer, or at least not one so fervent as James–a world without God looks a lot like, well, the world, perhaps with a few more internment camps dotting the landscape. Much of his film seems disconnected from the central fact of a childless society, which for him serves as little more than an explanation for public lethargy in the face of a repressive police state. At times, there is even explicit tension between Cuarón’s purposes and James’s original vision: Ross Douthat, for instance, smartly noted that the anti-immigrant fervor Cuarón has made a central element of the film makes very little sense in the context of a barren nation: Wouldn’t a tired and aging populace want to import immigrant labor (as it does in James’s novel) to help with society’s menial tasks?

Cuarón is a ferociously gifted filmmaker (among his accomplishments, he’s the only director to have brought anything resembling magic to the Harry Potter oeuvre), but he is not a polemicist, and The Children of Men is a polemical work. Dispensing with James’s Anglican allegory is fine; but Cuarón fails to develop an alternative animating premise that might have given purpose to his narrative. . . .

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his award-winning film column for that paper, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He has also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005) and The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of the Bible and Its Reception in Film (De Gruyter, 2016).

  • jasdye

    another question (having not seen the movie): why would a foreign people want to inhabit such an inexplicably barren land anyway?

  • Jo

    I read the book and was delighted with it and hope that P D James writes a sequel.
    I bought the DVD having little doubt it would be a great film – such was my confidence in an adaptation. However it was one of the poorest films/adaptations I have ever seen.
    After watching it twice to make sure I had not interpreted it wrongly I threw it in the garbage – I could not be bothered to have such a waste of time and money sitting on the bookshelf.