Perhaps we have made our Omegas what they are by own folly; a regime that combines perpetual surveillance with total indulgence is hardly conducive to healthy development. If from infancy you treat children as gods they are liable in adulthood to act as devils.
— The Children of Men, P. D. James
Assisted by the splendid cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, a superb performance by Clive Owen as Theodore Faron, and a lean script that throws us immediately into the midst of revolutionary activism against an oppressive political order, Alfonso Cuaron's film version of P. D. James's novel Children of Men is not so much a futuristic sci-fi film as a gripping meditation on what we already are. The stunning visual quality of the film provides access to a world much darker, but not completely other, than ours — a world in which humans have been rendered rapidly and bafflingly infertile and hence face the imminent extinction of their own species, members of whose last generation are known as the Omegas.
Cuaron, who has directed such solid films as A Little Princess and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, takes one of the many symptoms of malaise from the book — xenophobia about immigrants — and makes it the central issue of the film. For this streamlined film, the issue of immigration works as a dramatic framing device. But it also severely truncates, and in crucial ways inverts, the intellectual and political content of the story, so much so that the political and ethical implications of a "regime that combines perpetual surveillance with total indulgence" are completely absent from the film. In place of James's remarkably perceptive depiction of the modern threat of nihilism, Cuaron's film seizes on the most flawed part of the novel, its action sequences. Cuaron's dazzling action film departs from the book on two big themes: a) the human condition and the dangers of modern politics and b) religion and the raising of children.
In places of James's nuanced and multifarious dissection of the loss of purpose in modern society, Cuaron offers a simplistic rhetoric of revolution against oppression. He even introduces homeland security into the film to make explicit that which we are to fear. And he makes a minor character in the book, Jaspers (played by Michael Caine), into a central character — a laid back, drug-using rebel against the system. Caine has said that he wanted to play his character as John Lennon and, much to the detriment of the intellectual gravity of the film, he has done so quite successfully — all the way down to Lennon's condescendingly superficial embrace of Eastern thought. The context-less chant of "Shantih, Shantih, Shantih" is the best the film can do in the way of a response to the alienated state of mankind.
In James's novel, infertility operates as a symbol of mankind's despair, of the nihilism that lurks just beneath the surface of modern life. The questions made explicit in the infertile world are: For what are we living? Why do we have children? What do we want to hand on to them? Cuaron is simply incapable of even recognizing these larger issues, let alone dealing with them on the screen. The book dwells in compelling detail, not just on xenophobia, but also on the disorders of modern sexuality, the stultifying of human passion and feeling, the flourishing of the desire for death, and the narcissistic attitudes toward children. James describes a world in which dolls (artificial children) and pets (child substitutes) have become objects of fawning desire, christened in birth celebrations and buried in consecrated ground to satisfy "frustrated maternal desire."
Cuaron's hope lies in a revolutionary unrest for something new, but that is not, in the novel, a feasible way out, since human desire has been sapped of energy and focus. Indeed, governance in the novel is precisely what Tocqueville described as the new physiognomy of servitude, a world in which citizens willingly subject themselves to the complete control of a bureaucratic apparatus, here concretized in the leadership of one man. The book makes wonderfully clear that democracy is no threat to the new tyrant; instead, it is an abiding assumption of the new form of tyranny. Because he gives the people protection, comfort, and pleasure, Britain's leader would win any election in a landslide. As Tocqueville astutely saw, libertarianism and centralization — mirror images of one another — are not so much enemies as allies in the vanishing of a spirited public life and in the diminution of humanity.
For all of its promise of protection and pleasure, the new regime seems only to exacerbate the strange mixture of fear and longing for death, even as it serves to remove pleasure from our grasp. Officially sponsored group suicide, called the Quietus, allegedly allows individuals to choose when they die; yet the book makes clear that this is subject to abuse, as the government forces death upon those who have second thoughts and offers incentives to families to ease the elderly out of this life. Cuaron's film turns this critique inside out and deprives the Quietus of any problematic status; the film's only use of the Quietus is as a private and legitimate act of euthanasia. For the increasingly tepid pleasures experienced in this world of complete sexual freedom, there is government-sponsored pornography. As P. D. James puts it in the book, one might suppose that with the "fear of pregnancy permanently removed…, sex would be freed for new and imaginative delights." But that is not the case: "Sex totally divorced from procreation has become almost meaninglessly acrobatic," characterized by "painful orgasms, spasms without pleasure."
Cuaron reduces James's supple account of the human condition and the great political dangers of modernity to narrow ideological politics. That leaves Cuaron with nothing more to offer his audience than naïve, romantic-sounding, 1960s slogans about the younger generation. Cuaron has said, "I have a grim view not of the future but of the present. I believe evolution is happening and human understanding is occurring and that the young generation is the one that is getting some new perspective of reality of what's going on in the world. The new generation will prove that the Earth is going around the sun, not the sun going around the Earth." Sadly, that does not even rise to the level of John Lennon; instead, it is Whitney Houston, singing "I believe the children are our are future." Cuaron fails to see that this adulation of children is one of the greatest disorders in the world of the novel. James's book treats of this issue with great clarity, in the case of the Omegas, the last generation to be born. Both book and film begin with the fawning global media attention heaped on the death of the last person to be born, the youngest individual on earth. But, from this point on, Cuaron simply lets the theme drop out. James by contrast observes, "It was a generation programmed for failure, the ultimate disappointment to the parents who had bred them and the race which had invested in them so much careful nurturing and so much hope."
Cuaron realizes that for this film to have more than a superficial resonance, it must draw upon symbolic resources. In fact, in a recent interview, he argues that "our culture is over-narratized" and that "we are missing one of the biggest, probably something more powerful than narrative [to] humans — that is symbols. The ability to interpret symbols." Gleaned as they are from the popular press, Cuaron's symbols — prejudice toward immigrants and threats to homeland security — have a limited power. The "co-reference of things," as Cuaron calls it, is precisely what makes P. D. James's novel so powerful. In fact, what James offers is a set of symbolic clues to aid us in detecting the causes of our loss of a coherent symbology.
In the book, there is much speculation about the source of infertility, the story's central symbol. Scientists are hard at work trying to find the cause and a cure, even as statistical paleontologists face the end with a shrug; extinction is the rule rather than the exception for life on earth. And of course there are apocalyptic preachers ranting about God's judgment on sinful humanity. Cuaron includes the latter in one scene; they seem in the film as in the book to be yet another freaky sideshow in a world gone mad. But Cuaron fails to see that James includes the apocalyptic preachers as a warning against the modern, falsely sophisticated temptation to think that religion offers nothing more than an extremist freak show. Cuaron, it seems, took the bait.
In a more serious reflection on religion's near eclipse in modernity, the main character in the book, the skeptic Theodore Faron, observes that the "cross… has never been a comfortable symbol." By contrast, Cuaron selects the easy, comfortable symbol of a child — the mere fact of birth and innocence. Indeed, in a film from which all Christian referents have been systematically erased, the title itself, The Children of Men — a direct quotation from Psalm 90, a prayer in the burial service for the dead — is stripped of all symbolic resonance. It means nothing more than what it says. Yet, in the book, the recovery of the meaning of childbirth is inseparable from the discomfiting symbol of the cross. Cuaron's thesis about our declining ability to read and interpret symbols is sadly confirmed in his own failure to come to terms with a book whose complex symbolism escapes the limits of his own imagination — an imagination deformed by Hollywood's apolitical correctness.