“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. . . .