Tuesday, 13 June 2017

P.D James's The Children of Men: Theme, Tone and Adaptation

Recently, I came across a critical examination of the 2006 film Children of Men - an adaptation of the 1992 novel The Children of Men by British detective Author P.D James, Baroness James of Holland Park. Those readers unfamiliar with either work had better head off to Wikipedia or similar sites for a plot synopsis. Speaking of which, it is at least somewhat telling that on TV Tropes, that barometer of cultural knowledge, no entry exists for the novel. Not that this is anything new, by any means - but it gals a little; especially as I deem the book to be the more interesting work. Thus, and in keeping with this blog's recent content of apocalyptic Britain I try to correct the balance a little.

The novel is set all over England; our protagonist is an Oxford academic and visits London, the Suffolk coast and beyond; a distinction from the film's limited scenery of London and the countryside.  This is an England of isolation and decay; of seaside towns barely visited anymore, with a dwindling population. There is a very palpable sense of things slowing down; of unvisited museums, gardens in public parks gone to seed - even in the heart of the capital. The film seems mainly to show bustling urban scenes; grim, tortured scenes, but still with a life to them.

Speaking of grim, torturous scenes, the government of the United Kingdom is rather different between the two. There is a moment in dystopian fiction and horror - do I repeat myself? - where everything is revealed or shown truly (if not necessarily in a comprehensive fashion); Emmanuel Goldstein's Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, Winston Smith's conversations with O'Brien. I rather enjoy this kind of moment as a tipping point in a narrative - apart from the heady rush of worldbulding that ensures! In rather convenient fashion, in The Children of Men, the protagonist's cousin is now the despotic Warden of England. I jest, but it does give the valuable opportunity for the chance of a self-justification by the villain of the piece. The great changes in Britain, aside from the lack of new births, are in part his doing as the small council he has assembled holds near absolute power.

Democratic rights have not precisely vanished, but rather diminished to an advisory role as exercised by regional councils. Parliament no longer sits; legislative procedure and the business of building a new future rather pall when there will be no future for humanity, let alone the United Kingdom. The regime lacks any real sense of nationalism or traditional values: this is not the Jackboot of National Socialism or anything like it. The King is kept under something like house arrest. It is a mark of social change and fractured religious faith that the Warden of England can appoint an Archbishop of Canterbury that is not only female (whatever side of the debate one stands on on woman bishops, this still would generate vast numbers of column inches and public discussion) but also a republican (International readers should note well the lower case 'r'!) and a self-professed 'Christian Rationalist'. At least one charismatic preacher even goes so far as to replace the Cross with an image of the sun.

A glimpse at P.D James's Wikipedia entry informs one that after her appointment as a life peer, she sat in the House of Lords as a Conservative.  The marking of a dystopia by the decay of traditional institutions may clue you into this, but it is also worth noting as an indicator of the power of the Xan Lyppiatt, Warden of England. This goes as far as an army loyal to him personally and a body of police dedicated to shoring up the new regime.

The social change wrought by Lyppiatt includes the mass suicides called the Quietus. These are described by his council as being merely the formalisation of a process that was already occurring. I am tempted to read this at face value - suicides in the bleak future of the Omega would doubtless rise; group suicides even - but the lie perhaps comes in to what degree the act is now encouraged. The Courts now function without a jury; prisoners convicted of major offences are sent to a penal colony on the Isle of Man. This colony is not overseen by the government, and the criminals there are largely from city backgrounds - unable to grow their own crops in order to sustain themselves, and have therefore devolved into a barbaric existence. Immigration has been restricted to existing as a 'sojourner' subject to repatriation once an immigrant is unable to work; even if the world of the novel is not so decayed as the film (Faren can take a tour of Europe between Acts One and Two). Finally, British subjects are required to undergo regular fertility checks; state pornography centres exist in an attempt to sustain sexual desire. Although unmentioned in the text, it might be speculated that cannabis has been legalised.

The professed values of the new regime are for security, comfort and pleasure -  this is not a regime that is, if you will, ideologically cruel. It is utilitarian without regard for another generation, for there will be no future generation - and therefore is practically hedonistic. It is not short-sighted; part of the business of the Warden's government is to prepare the country for the time when there will be very little in the way of effective infrastructure as the population ages. Nor might all its edicts seem unreasonable; however degrading the business of fertility testing is described as, it seems like it might be the reasonable response to mass infertility. Even the reduction of public political participation even has some sense to it - the temptation, under the circumstances of the Omega to withdraw into those things one deems most meaningful and contemplate eternity rather than to wade into the muck and fatigue of public service.

Xan Lyppiat does not even live a life of perpetual luxury; his comforts are those one might expect of a ruler - but he is still engaged largely with the work of government; a work that interests him, even if he professes no real love of power.

The cold comfort of the Warden's government - even for the Warden himself, let alone the melancholy, apathetic citizenry; the decay of British society (I haven't even mentioned the last generation of humanity, the monstrous Omegas); the quiet collapse of human civilization.

All these are left behind almost by the film; a well-crafted film, but a film that seems to place the decay and horrors of Britain at the doorstep of a nationalist government (the closest thing we get to a notion of their motivations being a brief propaganda short). The novel seems rather to link the entire thing back to the infertility and proceeds from there.

Some of my complaints perhaps derive from structure: the first half of the novel looks at the world without the sudden burst of hope that precipitates the conflict of the narrative. It vastly benefits from this examination of the setting, rather than having to stuff it all into background references. Of course, changes in an adaption, both due to the nature of the medium and the decisions of the creators are inevitable (for instance, the organised mass suicides called the Quietus is, in the film, literally re-branded as government issue suicide kits). Parts of the film change even more dramatically - that the United Kingdom of 2021 has in the adaptation a department of Homeland Security is a rather blatantly international touch for a novel that is so very rooted in British institutions and culture.

The adaptation has been widely lauded and explored (try a simple search of Youtube); it is not wrong to do so, however ubiquitous and trite some of these seem. But I resent how it has occluded the novel, to the extent that one website noted P.D James's passing in 2014 by commenting on the success of the film as an adaptation, rather than discussing her work. I have seen many a claim in my researches as to the sudden new relevance of the film. There has been no concommitant claim for the significantly more vital and wide-ranging novel, which is unfortunate.

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