03 September, 2007

The Children of Men

I don't think God bargains."

Oh yes He does. I may not be religious but I do know my Bible. My mother saw to that. He bargains all right. But he's supposed to be just. If He wants belief He'd better provide some evidence.

That He exists?

That He cares.
Imagine that humanity has been infertile for 25 years, and the hope of our species' propagation has evaporated like so much fog. Scientists have no idea why this is, although the fault appears to lie with men, who can no longer make women pregnant. Governments have spent enormous sums trying to solve this problem, to no avail. The youngest generation, called the Omegas, has been pampered and coddled, but they also turn out to be infertile. As a bonus, they turn out to be aloof, indolent, and wicked.
If from infancy you treat children as gods they are liable in adulthood to act as devils.
The oldest generation, meanwhile, manifests its loss of hope by committing suicides. The British government helps them along by organizing the Quietus, a ritual where people are rowed out to sea and collectively drowned. On his fiftieth birthday, the divorced, despairing Oxford historian Theo Faron sits down to write a journal. He begins by noting news reports that world's youngest person has just died in a barroom brawl.

This is the world of P. D. James' The Children of Men. Not the most pleasant of places. News of universal infertility—from which the animals were, maddeningly enough, exempt—at first prompted riots, but in Britain at least a sense of calm was restored by the ascension of the Warden, a certain Xan Lypiatt who promised peace, comfort, and security. He delivered on that promise, and Britons, for the most part, accepted the humiliations that went along with it. Humanity isn't perishing in a bang, but in a whimper.

Shortly after Theo begins his novel, he is approached by a small group of malcontents who eventually call themselves the Five Fishes. A more pathetic, laughable bunch of would-be rebels you could not assemble:
  • Rolf, the would-be leader and, perhaps, would-be replacement to the Warden;
  • Julian, his physically deformed, Christian wife, whose masculine name is attributed to a mixup at the hospital;
  • Gascoigne, a former Grenadier offended at the Warden's appropriation of the Grenadiers as part of his personal army,
  • Miriam, a former midwife of African descent; and
  • Luke, a priest.
(It is a sign of the times that people who read this book assume that Luke is a Catholic priest, James a Catholic author, and the novel has a Catholic theme. In reality, James is an Anglican and a Lady of Parliament to boot, Luke is an Anglican priest who reads from the Book of Common Prayer, and as for the novel... well, I would call it "catholic" in the sense of having universal themes, but not "Catholic" in the sense of being associated with the Church of that name.)

The Fishes want Faron to approach the Warden and ask for some changes: mostly democracy, but they also want the penal colony on the Isle of Man closed and the Quietus stopped. On this last part, they encourage Faron to attend an actual Quietus, so that he can see what it is really like. They hint that it is not so voluntary as the media suggest.

Faron visits a Quietus, and notices that most of the old people appear to be drugged. What sets off his alarm, however, is that one of the old women tries to escape. He runs out to help her, and is beaten by the police. Later, he find a bed and breakfast and asks the landlady if she saw the Quietus. The woman corrects him emphatically; there have been no Quietus in that town.

This convinces Faron to visit the council. He is actually cousin to the Warden, and spent a lot of time with him as a child, and later spent some time as his advisor, although none of his advice was taken. He has no trouble seeing the Warden and his advisors, but, as he expects, has no success and convincing them even to hold an election—which, he points out, the Warden would win anyway. The Warden and his advisors ask Theo who has put these ideas into his head, conceding only that the Quietus he saw was "mismanaged", and steps have been taken to ensure it won't happen again. They dismiss him with a veiled threat to keep out of trouble.

Theo, for his part, has no interest in becoming a revolutionary, but finds himself drawn to Julian. He tells her that if she needs anything, to let him know. He then leaves for an extended vacation in Europe, trying to escape thoughts of Julian, of the Fishes, of his former wife, and of the daughter he killed nearly twenty years prior.

From here on, the novel offers us the usual share of twists and turns. Some of them are not unexpected; others are. Julian gets knocked up by a man who is not her husband. This is, of course, a major event in human history, one that would interest the governments of the world, and she wants none of it. At her insistence, the Fishes urge Theo to help them get her to a place far from the Warden's propagandistic clutches. Omegas being Omegas, this effort is doomed. Rolf learns of the child's true parentage, goes bananas, and disappears, giving everyone cause for concern.

The story does not offer any new insights explaining the human condition, unless you think it particularly profound that people like having babies, even need to have babies so much that they will baptize kittens in their stead.

What the story does offer is a repeat of an old insight. Although the book never cites it, I was repeatedly reminded of this passage from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians,
Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God.
As I mentioned, the Five Fishes are a laughable bunch of incompetents. Theo himself laughs at them, yet he finds himself drawn ever closer to them. He even starts to consider the possiblity that God may exist.

It's a fun little novel. It's interesting how the characters. One can have fun with their names: the protagonist is Theo, from the Greek word for God; the midwife is Miriam, from the Hebrew name for Jesus' mother; the mother is named Julian, perhaps for Julius Cæsar, in whose adopted son's empire Christ was born; the priest is named Luke, like the author of the Gospel written for Christians who were not originally Jews; and so forth. That's probably all coincidence, but it's interesting at least that James was clearly not trying to come up with her own take on the Christmas story. I don't see why she would have made the names so misleading if so.

This isn't to say that the story isn't informed by traditional Christian ideas. I found it refreshing that James chose to use Christian themes to illuminate this story:
  • Humanity is flawed, and deeply so.
  • God has, apparently, chosen to start over, but he still loves his creation, and so uses it, flawed as it is, to create what is new.
  • Salvation does not come from those who hold power in this world. They are unable to admit their own impotence, seek to control and create anew, and fail.
  • The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (also from 1 Corinthians)
  • Every human life has both dignity and potential, even the lives of the ailing elderly, the deformed, and the unborn.
  • Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men. (Psalm 90·1, as prayed at one point by Theo)
This brings me to a note on the film based on the novel. Don't expect any exploration of these messages. People have referred to the film as changing the politics of the book. If only! The film dissects the book, turns it inside out, genetically modifies it, and spiritually empties it. A few of the changes are clever, but most are merely artistic self-gratification. If you rent the DVD, you get a few bonus materials, including a discussion of the film by a philosopher who apparently watched a different film. I say this based on his claim that the oppressive social realities are not thrust into the viewer's face, but kept in the background, and this demonstrates the director's mastery of his art. I shut off the interview at that point, since I recall repeated scenes of immigrants crowded into cages on street corners, abused by police and passers by, a bomb exploding in a café accompanied by insinuations that the government planted it, police brutality, the stark contrast between the dreary lives of ordinary folks and the opulence of the privileged classes, and so forth. In short, you lose all of the novel's development of oppressive social realities—and in the novel, they really are kept in the background—and instead you get a lot of modern left-wing dogmatism. Most telling, perhaps, is the director's statement that after he rewrote the initial script, he didn't want to "start second guessing things" by reading the novel. On top of that, he reveals in an online interview an impression that the film is close to the book. Only in the same way that A Wizard of Earthsea and Starship Troopers resemble the book: superficially, at best. If you're into that sort of thing, go ahead and rent the movie. I'm not saying that the novel is a work of great literature and this film is some sort of artistic crime, but the novel does deserve better treatment than this.


Anonymous said...

The film has more to say than the book...

jack perry said...

Having watched the film as well as read the book, I'm afraid you're simply wrong. The film has little to say, and none of it of substance.