I’ve been meaning to read The Children of Men by PD James for ages having seen the film when it came out. I finally picked it up the other day and noticed it was set in 2021, so now was the perfect time to dive in. James describes the story as a Christian fable and it explores the nature and abuses of power and what happens when people lose hope and meaning. There may be *SPOILERS* ahead…
The book is set in a dystopian future when the human race is facing extinction because no children have been born since 1995 – year Omega. Britain is under the dictatorial leadership of the Warden of England, the old are apparently choosing to kill themselves in ceremonies called Quietus, and the young are cruel, nihilistic and self-indulgent.
The protagonist is Theo Faron, an academic with a particular interest in Victorian history. This was the time when the myth of progress was really taking off in the industrial revolution and people still believed in the future. Theo lives a solitary life – his wife left because he accidentally killed their daughter a year before Omega. He doesn’t seem able to care much about that and is unable to feel anything.
It’s all a bit depressing but unnervingly relevant to our times. I was especially struck by the description of children’s playgrounds lying empty and abandoned, the swings chained up and unused – a common sight recently. In the book, nobody knows why men have become infertile. They tried everything to kick-start reproduction but nothing worked, and this failure led to a mass disillusionment with science, as Theo describes:
“We are outraged and demoralised less by the impending end of our species, less even by our inability to prevent it, than by our failure to discover the cause. Western science and Western medicine haven’t prepared us for the magnitude and humiliation of this ultimate failure.”
This also represents the failure of the myth of progress, or perhaps its revelation as empty and meaningless. Science has failed and so has religion – the churches are decaying, the buildings returning to nature. Some become angry with the animals who will soon inherit the earth. In one scene, a chaplain in a church chases a deer from the chapel crying,
“Christ, why can’t they wait? Bloody animals. They’ll have it all soon enough. Why can’t they wait?”
Theo’s life has a fusty, old-fashioned feel to it which makes the book feel dated, but this may be deliberate. It reflects his focus on the past as being more interesting than the future. He spends a lot of time hanging around museums surrounded by casts of old statues from long-dead cultures, a reminder that all civilisations die. The past is fixed and reassuring, unlike the future which now will never come. The only thing to look forward to is decay, dissolution and death, so the past burns brighter.
Even before Omega, Theo had given up on life and the future. He describes how he never really wanted children because he didn’t want to be responsible for another person, for their protection, happiness, and love. He came to this realisation after the death of his father from cancer. Now all he can remember of his father is the cancer that killed him.
Theo lives in death – he’s not really alive and doesn’t want to be alive because then he would have to feel. He’s the living dead. Perhaps this is why the human race can no longer reproduce. They gave up on life and love and embraced death, long before children stopped being born.
As the story unfolds, Theo slowly comes back to life. He learns how to love and how to consider others rather than always putting himself first. He finally takes responsibility for somebody else’s life when he vows to protect Julian and her miraculous baby. However, the book ends with a warning about the corruption of power that casts a shadow over the future.
The film, Children of Men, may be one of those rare examples of an adaptation being better than the book. The book has a sense of genteel decay, while the film is more dynamic and feels closer to reality. It’s horribly believable, full of chaos, rage and grief. It came out in 2006 and turned out to be remarkably prophetic. There are things in the background of the story that are happening around the world right now, such as the refugee and migrant crises, environmental collapse, and the rise of nihilism and authoritarianism.
Like the book, the film explores themes of hope and faith in the context of despair at the end of the world, the inevitability of entropy and how to face death. It flips the cause of infertility from male to female which reinforces the idea that humanity has lost touch with nature and Mother Earth. The midwife, Miriam’s speech about how it started is chilling in the context of falling birth rates in affluent nations and the rise of anti-natalism, not to mention the genetic experimentation currently underway 😱.
One of the things that makes the film so powerful is that it doesn’t waste time on exposition. There isn’t too much speechifying to explain what’s going on. So you need to pay attention to the background and sets which fill in the gaps and give context to the story. It also uses long takes for some of the sequences that put you right in the middle of action, making it almost unbearably intense and immersive.
The story is considerably changed in the film but it still asks the same questions about religion, power, and faith. It’s set in 2027 and Theo is younger and an office worker rather than an academic. He’s a reluctant anti-hero, similar to Logan but without the superpowers, sleepwalking through his days, unable to feel and not wanting to feel. He’s an ex-activist who’s given up on life and barely seems to register what’s going on around him.
The film begins with the news that the youngest person on the planet has been killed by a fan for refusing to sign an autograph. The fan was then beaten to death by the crowd. Theo takes in the news as he buys a coffee. He pauses outside the café to add booze to his cup, and the café explodes in a bomb behind him. A woman wanders out clutching her detached arm. This is all done in one take and sets the tone well.
Theo bunks off work and goes to visit his friend, Jasper, and we get a good look at the state of the world. London is filthy (no change there then!) and rubbish is piled high in the streets. People throw rocks at a train as it passes, its windows covered in wire mesh. A billboard announces it’s a crime to avoid fertility tests, and graffiti says, “Last one to die, please turn out the light.” A screen on the train runs propaganda which everyone ignores:
When Theo gets off the train, there are people being held in cages on the platform, guarded by armed police. This is a common sight around London and Theo passes more cages later in the film. As Jasper drives Theo to his house in the woods, they pass a bus full of immigrants going to the camp at Bexhill, and Jasper bemoans their fate:
“Poor fugees. After escaping the worst atrocities and finally making it to England, our government hunts them down like cockroaches.”
Theo confesses that he doesn’t feel anything and didn’t even bother to celebrate his birthday. Jasper tries to cheer him up with tales of the Human Project, a secretive organisation looking for a cure for infertility, but Theo says it’s too late. The world has gone to shit and he reckons it was already too late even before the infertility crisis happened.
But then Theo’s ex-wife, Julian, reaches out and asks for a favour. She’s the leader of the Fishes, a resistance movement fighting for the future of humanity. They need transit papers for a refugee, Kee, so they can get her to the coast past all the checkpoints. Theo visits his cousin Nigel, a government minister who runs the Ark of the Arts and lives surrounded by the artworks he’s rescued, including the statue of David missing a leg.
He also has Guernica by Picasso which is referenced in the battle scene at the end of the film, along with La Pieta by Michelangelo, which he couldn’t save. He keeps the art in his heavily fortified home at Battersea which has an inflatable pig suspended outside the window, a reference to the Pink Floyd album Animals which was about Animal Farm by George Orwell.
Theo doesn’t understand how Nigel copes. In a hundred years there’ll be no one left to look at all the art he’s saving. He asks what keeps him going, and Nigel replies:
“I just don’t think about it.”
Theo meets Kee and Miriam and the group set off to the first checkpoint. But the car is ambushed and Julian is killed in an intense sequence all done in one shot (watch it here). Theo is barely holding it together by this point and wanders off for a cry while they bury Julian’s body. But then he discovers that Kee is pregnant – she reveals this in a barn full of cows, a nod to the birth of Jesus, and later she jokes that’s she’s a virgin.
With Julian gone, the Fishes erupt in a power struggle and argue over what to do about Kee. Theo realises the ambush was a set up and that the new leader plans to use the baby as a political bargaining chip, and he’s galvanised into action. He takes Kee and Miriam and they flee in another intense long shot trying to get the car started.
(I spent most of my time watching this film on the edge of my seat holding my breath…!)
Theo takes them to see Jasper who helps them to find a way into the refugee camp at Bexhill. From there, they can meet the Human Project research ship disguised as a fishing boat. Jasper also fills in the backstory for Theo and we discover when and why he lost his hope – and as in the book, it happened before the infertility crisis hit.
Jasper says everything is a mythical cosmic battle between faith and chance. Julian and Theo met by chance at a rally but they were there because of what they believed in – their faith. And it was their faith that kept them together. Then by chance, Dylan, their son, was born. But in 2008 there was a flu pandemic, and by chance, Dylan died. Theo’s faith lost out to chance, so:
“why bother if life’s going to make its own choices?”
I wonder whether it really was chance that Dylan was born and perhaps not even that he died, but that’s a whole other can of worms. Miriam perhaps would agree with me because she says that everything happens for a reason – a belief that’s put to the test later.
Theo, Kee and Miriam wait in an abandoned school for Syd, the psycho cop who’ll take them into Bexhill. The school is derelict and the playground is overgrown – a dinosaur stands beside the swings. Will humanity become the next extinct species?
While they wait, Miriam shares her story of being a midwife and how the infertility crisis unfolded. Three of her patients miscarried in one week but they managed to save some of the babies. Then it accelerated and started happening earlier and they couldn’t save them. Suddenly there were no appointments for 7 months ahead, and it was the same around the world.
“As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in. Very odd what happens in a world without children’s voices. I was there at the end.”
Theo says now she’ll be there at the beginning. Hope is starting to break through and change him.
Syd arrives and they set off to break in to the refugee camp. Now begins one of the most harrowing sequences in the film, along with the final battle. It becomes clear that Miriam doesn’t know if the boat will be there – they’ll have to do it on faith, and to make matters worse, Kee goes into labour.
As they drive into the camp there are people being held in cages, many on their knees with hoods over their heads, reminiscent of the torture of inmates at Abu Ghraib during the Iraq war. Miriam distracts a guard with a prayer to Gabriel and sacrifices herself to save Kee (watch it here, if you dare).
Theo and Kee make it into the camp where it’s a free for all – total chaos. At this point, I realised there are a lot of dogs in this film! And they all seem fond of Theo. It’s as if they’ve descended into hell or the underworld, so perhaps the dogs represent soul guides or psychopomps. Or perhaps they’re just there as man’s best friend – with us at the start of our evolution, and now with us at the end – or a new beginning.
Kee gives birth to a girl, assisted by Theo who is also reborn in that moment. He’s transformed by new life and hope for the future. Earlier in the film, Kee describes how alive being pregnant made her feel. Now Theo is getting a taste of that life.
The fact that this new hope for humanity comes via Kee is important. As in the book, the new beginning comes from the lowest in society, the rejected and the exiled. In the book it’s the people who were considered imperfect or deformed and so not fit to be tested for fertility. Kee doesn’t know who the father is and the implication is that she’s been raped or that she’s had to resort to prostitution to survive. She’s a black refugee, exploited, oppressed and powerless. And yet she’s the most alive of all the characters, full of joy and playful humour and a sense of fun.
The following morning it all goes to shit when the Uprising begins. Cue the final sequence shot in one take which starts with the reference to La Pieta, a woman holding her dead son in her arms and crying out to God. Theo and Kee have to make their way through the fighting, bodies dropping all around them. At one point, blood splatters on the camera lens (watch it here).
In the confusion, Theo loses Kee and has to find her again in the chaos. He follows the sound of the baby crying. People gather around them wanting to see and touch the miraculous baby. When the soldiers see the child, they shout for a ceasefire and allow Theo and Kee to leave. Peace descends. Some kneel or make the sign of the cross. But the fighting soon starts up again…
At the start of the film, Theo is like a zombie. He’s given up and thinks there’s no point in caring about anything. But by the end, his faith in humanity has been restored. The people in the camp have nothing, but they still help and are willing to die to protect the baby. Now he has something to believe in, something to live, and perhaps to die for.
He gets Kee to a little rowboat and rows her out into the sea to wait for the Tomorrow fishing boat. They come out of a dark tunnel with gunfire in the background, as if emerging from hell, into a hazy ocean. A buoy light flashes in the fog. Planes fly overhead and bomb Bexhill.
Kee worries that they’ve missed the boat but Theo reassures her and says it’ll be fine. Finally, he has hope. Then she sees blood and thinks she’s bleeding and panics, but again, Theo reassures her. The blood is his – he was shot, but says he’s fine. He tells her to keep the baby close, no matter what happens, and teaches her how to burp the baby.
Kee names the baby Dylan, saying it’s a girl’s name too, and Theo smiles. He’s happy at last, and at peace. As his arm falls to his side, he says, “Oh, Jesus…”, and the Tomorrow appears out of the fog…
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Images: film stills