January 2021 – no child has been born since October 1995. Humanity is slowly dying out, the social contract has been ripped up, and an increasingly apathetic population has accepted totalitarian rule. This is the dystopian future portrayed in PD James’s Children of Men.
I’ve been a fan of the film, starring Clive Owen, since I first saw it, so I figured it was time to read the source material. Theo Faron, our hero, is an Oxford historian, cousin to the Warden of England, divorced, a loner. He sees the societal decay around him, but doesn’t care as long as can enjoy his routine and live out the rest of his life unbothered. A chance meeting with a former student of his, a woman named Julian, jolts him out of his slumber. She asks him to observe a Quietus (state-sponsored and -assisted suicide) and speak to The Warden on behalf of her group, who call themselves the Five Fishes, if he is troubled by what he sees. In doing so, Theo unwittingly puts himself in the crosshairs of the State Police and is forced to go on the run with The Five Fishes. Early on in the journey, Theo discovers one of the women is pregnant and has to decide if he wants to run with them, or turn the woman over to The State for proper medical attention.
Much to my surprise, they are very different animals. The book focuses mainly on the crushed human spirit, the questioning of faith, and how much society is tuned toward improving things for the next generation. The movie has these same themes, but focuses more on the reactions of people who find out that there actually is a pregnant woman and what Theo does to protect the woman and her unborn child.
Both the book and the movie feature indelible images. The key set piece in the movie is the assault on the Isle of Man (a location only referenced in the book), which is a nearly 10 minute single tracking shot; one of the finest pieces of cinematography in the past decade. The book on whole is a quieter affair, and so are its images. One thing that particularly sticks out is about 40 pages in when Theo encounters a deranged woman pushing a doll in a pram – just like she would have a real baby.
With society in such decline, a lot of people question and fall away from their faith in a God (any God). The believers and unbelievers are given worthy advocates in Julian and Theo respectively. Actually, the open struggle of the question of faith and Theo’s actions in the book’s second half (as well as the persecution angle) put me in mind of The Power and the Glory.
If you go into the book expecting the action of the movie, you’ll be disappointed. That is not to say, however, that the book is a disappointment. Dystopian science fiction has always been a good allegory, pointing out the flaws of present society. In that regard, Children of Men is a worthy, well-written example of the genre.