From Novel to Film pt. 22: Children of Men


"We are outraged and demoralized 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. (...) Western science has been our god. (...) It has been my god too, even if its achievements are incomprehensible to me, and I share the disillusionment of those whose god has died."

Theo Faron is a historian who lives alone. He's divorced, his wife having left him for someone else, a few years after Theo backed over their daughter in the driveway with their car and killed her. Unintentionally, but nonetheless.

Theo of the film is younger, not a historian, and did not run over his daughter (who is changed to a son who dies from the flu.)

His former mentor, Jasper, lives in seclusion with his invalid wife, and his brother Xan is Warden of England. Xan and his fellow Council members rule rather aloofly, which isn't a concern of Theo's until he is contacted by a former student, Julian, who asks him to go to the Council and deliver a list of demands from the would-be partisan group, The Five Fishes, she and four others have formed. 

Jasper of the film is changed to a rowdy marijuana grower.
Xan is changed to Nigel, a government minister, and he is confined to a single scene. While we're here, I wonder what Roger Waters thinks of this shot.
And - most changed of all - the ex-wife becomes Julian in the film, who is the leader of an already-active partisan group.

These demands are a) a return to unrestricted immigration, b) an end to the Quietus: 

this is the state-sponsored assisted-suicide program.

c) a shutdown of the brutal (and sealed-from-public-scrutiny) Isle of Man penal colony, and d) a shutdown of the state-sponsored pornography shops. Theo is disturbed by some of what the group tells him, particularly about the elderly being forced into Quietus rather than volunteering for it, so he visits a seaside town to observe a Quietus ritual firsthand. When he recognizes Jasper's wife, Helen, trying to escape the Quietus ship, he tries to help her and is knocked unconscious. After this, he agrees to visit Xan and plead on the group's behalf.

He is conflicted about this for many reasons. First and foremost, he doubts it will do any good. Second, when we meet Theo, he's a character who has largely surrendered. Along with most of humanity. He is suspended between the sublimation practiced by many of his countrymen (elaborate birthday and baptism rituals for pets, dollmaking, All Is Love cults and a Church of England that has "moved from the theology of sin and redemption to a less uncompromising doctrine: corporate social responsibility coupled with a sentimental humanism", and the lawlessness of "the Omegas," the generation born in 1995/1996) and the outright denial of most everyone else, who are content to keep their gardens tidy and keep up appearances so long as the electricity stays on and the streets are kept safe. 

Theo is blasé about the real suffering the Five Fishes describe - are things really so bad? Even if they are, is it realistic to expect to win hearts and minds given the impending end-of-everything? Also, his training as a historian allows him to see non-altruistic historical parallels within the group, particularly in their leader, Rolf, whom Theo suspects, accurately, as simply wanting to take Xan's place as unchallenged supreme leader of England.

The movie significantly ratchets up the police-state/ world pandemonium aspect.

Theo's arc is one from cynical inaction and (an understandable) lack of forward momentum ("even when he killed his daughter, he was moving backwards," says one Council member. Ouch.) to engaging with the present, sluggishly at first, and seizing the future. Making him a historian ("someone who interprets the past to understand the present and confront the future - the least rewarding discipline for a dying species") serves this well.  

What I felt was envy and regret, not for something lost but for something never achieved. 

He is the embodiment of the civilizational malaise that has come fully out of the shadows in humanity's eleventh hour. What spurs him from this observer role is the reveal that Julian is pregnant. Rolf thinks he is the father and plans to leverage his world-saving sperm into becoming the new Warden. Theo thinks Rolf is rather foolish, but the miracle of a pregnant girl in a barren world - and the affection and protectiveness it stirs in him - weds him to their cause. He agrees to help them get to Wales, where they will hide out, have the baby, and then make their demands of Xan's Council. 

Quite a few changes in the film:

Julian is, as aforementioned, the name of his ex-wife, not the pregnant girl, Kee:
an invention of the film, played by Clare-Hope Ashitey.
Miriam (Kee's midwife and protector) is an important character in both book and film, though film-Miriam is more a composite of many characters from the book.
And there is no Rolf, though Luke, the group's leader in the film (Chiwetel Ejiofor) also wants to harness the miracle for the increase of his own power. Chiwetel is always good - no exception here.

As predicted, Xan and the Council reject all the demands as insensible and warn Theo of aiding any state-subversives. After commandeering food and a vehicle from an elderly couple watching Neighbours - a detail I loved - Theo and Miriam spirit spirit Julian to the estate where Theo and Xan spent summers together as children. There, Julian gives birth to her baby.

Xan and the authorities arrive, and he goes in alone to talk to Theo. They get into a standoff at gunpoint, and when the baby's sudden cry startles and distracts Xan, Theo shoots him. He takes the Coronation Ring of England from his cousin's finger and slips it onto his own before revealing the baby to the other Council members. Theo puts the sign of the cross on the baby's forehead. The end.

Fantastic book. I don't think the Xan/Theo stand-off makes a great deal of sense, nor is it exactly clear why we're led to believe people would follow Theo simply for having the Coronation Ring on his finger. But it's also an ambiguous ending, perhaps suggesting that that miracle aside, Theo, changed or not, can only become only a kinder, gentler dictator. Is it an ironic gesture or an act of reclamation? The human comedy, after a brief intermission, perpetuates itself?

Pessimistic? Perhaps. But it's not really written that way. First off, it's much more explicitly religious than the film. Not in a preachy way, just that Theo's fall-from-faith is explored more, and the prose (which is quite beautiful - I'm highly motivated to read P.D. James' other work, which while I understand to be quite different, likely is still just as eloquently written) is definitely concerned with how faith and the supernatural might play out in a world where both the religion and science of procreation are so bewildered.  

"'I don't think (God) bargains.'
'Oh yes He does. I may not be religious, but I 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.'"


Where to start? What a fantastic film, easily one of the best the 21st century has produced thus far. Alfonso Cuarón has proven to be an ambitious director, and the long tracking shots (excellently augmented by CGI that never overwhelms) are as good as any out there. Not to mention the sets - the London and England of tomorrow look suitably familiar-yet-alien, majestic-yet-foreboding.

Cuarón grounds the fantastic premise with great little moments, too, such as the dreadlock-guy's bungled wrath, Theo's difficulty finding shoes that fit him once he and Kee begin their run, or the ongoing tease of Kee's baby's name (tied up so beautifully in her last moments with Theo.) While bleak and violent in spots it's a transcendent work: epic with a personal touch, moving without surrendering to cliches, and big-production-impressive without seeming ostentatious.

And the performances are stellar. First off, Clive Owen as Theo.

Brilliant performance. His best? Some say Croupier. I say this. On one hand, he's an Everyman-reluctant-world-savior; on the other, he's a self-medicating, broken mess.
His journey from anguish to redemption is brought home especially well at the end, where his face and whole body slowly unclench as Kee reveals what her baby's name is.
Throughout the film we see Theo smile and laugh quite a bit, but it's always with a remote sadness and detachment, never quite reaching the eyes. Compare those smiles to his face here in the boat, not necessarily this screencap but next time you see it.

Jasper's role is significantly expanded, and Michael Caine makes the character his own. The Jasper of the film and novel are wholly different.

Caine says he based his stoned-mannerisms on how John Lennon used to act when he was stoned. I have no way of knowing if that is accurate or not, obviously - just passing it along.

As a tangible presence of a sort of stubborn (if chemically induced) and zany optimism of humanity, irreverent in the face of disaster, defiant in the face of fascism, Caine is pretty much pitch-perfect. Theo clearly loves him, but the death of his son has rendered him too emotionally inert to be swept up in his energy. (It probably would have been one-bleak-bridge-too-far to retain Theo's infanticide from the book.)

I mentioned Chiwetel and Clare-Hope, above - they essentially play characters invented for the film, but both rise to the occasion well. There's no slack in the line - this is a great cast doing great work on the set-to-end-all-sets.

The Omegas of the novel are nowhere to be seen, but they aren't really missed.

Their symbolic "preciousness" and alienation are encapsulated quite well in the scene where Theo visits Nigel. (And yes, that's Chuck Bass.)

The ending is changed significantly. No Theo's taking the Coronation Ring for his own, no sign of the cross, no Xan. Theo and Kee go into Bexhill - the Isle of Man from the novel augmented considerably - where she gives birth, then there's a massive shootout set piece between the authorities and Luke's insurrectionist army. (If Cuarón wasn't chanelling Kubrick here, then it's the happiest accident in cinema history.) 

In one of the film's most memorable sequences, the sound of Kee's baby crying cuts through the air and brings all action to a halt.

The whole escape plan hinges on being picked up by the Tomorrow, a boat from The Human Foundation, a seed-vault of personalities sequestered on an Atlantic island.

I wonder how the film would come across without the shot above? Just Kee in the boat, and fade to black, draw your own conclusions? More like the novel, perhaps, but I'm glad they didn't elect to find out. As it is, it ends with John Lennon's "Freda People" over the end credits. (A song that usually ended up on mix tapes I made for anyone 1994-1998. Another? "In the Court of the Crimson King," also in the film, when Theo is driven to see his brother. Guess Alfonso Cuarón and I would do okay on a road trip.)
The film (timely for 2015) casts a withering eye on immigration paranoia, even within the heightened tension of the barren future. This is amplified from the book, but it's there, too:

"People became tired of invading hordes, from countries with just as many natural advantages as this, who had allowed themselves to be misgoverned for decades through their own cowardice, indolence, and stupidity, and who expected to take over and exploit the benefits which had been won over centuries by intelligence, industry and courage, while incidentally perverting and destroying the civilization of which they were so anxious to become part." 

You hear plenty of variations of that in 2015.

Final Verdict: As a novel: solid A. As a film: A+, maybe A++. As an adaptation: quite a fascinating mix of subtext from the book, intelligently transcribed to the screen. It's a great example of how a reboot / reinterpretation can both illuminate why and how the original was great and also create something new and original.


  1. If I had to give this review a rating, I'd say A +++.

    I did wonder, for a moment, if the film had dated in any way. What made me ask that question was because it was released at a time when the "Iraq War" was going on, and I, like many Americans, was pretty well wrapped up in it at the time. Cuaron seemed to be too, so I wondered if this film should be looked at as capturing a moment in time.

    Thankfully, the more I thought about it, the more I don't think this film can date, cause I don't see the issues it tackles going anywhere anytime soon (not that that's a good thing). Also, I doubt the really good stories ever date (otherwise how do you explain Sherlock Homes?).

    As for the book, this review has gotten me interested in reading it now.

    Finally, that's just great hearing Caine is essentially playing John Lennon. I don't think that's "anyone" (and I mean "no one") can do. Some genuine articles you just can't touch because they were too uniquely themselves (Dylan and Cash are two other examples). Still, it's one of those tidbits that are just great to know. Also, for clarification's sake, the version of "Bring on the Lucie" that many audiences heard for the first time (hello!) at the end is not, I repeat, "not the finished "Wall-of-Sound" album version", but rather an outtake. I sadly don't know which one, though. I had to literally hunt down that exact sound on YouTube.


    1. Thanks for the kind words, Chris - glad you enjoyed. I don't know which version of Bring on the Lucie / Freda People is played over the end credits - definitely an outtake but from the Lennon box set? My version(s) sound a little different, but I haven't lined them up to figure out which one. What a tune, though. Lennon's solo work is quite interesting.

      (And just because it's something I'm happy to have occurred to me - and I think we've even gone over this before - but Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" is the greatest solo album Lennon never made!)

      I agree on good stories never dating. Worlds may change, galaxies disintegrate, but a woman always remains a woman, as Captain Kirk once said. (As applied to stories, it makes more sense than as originally stated, maybe!)

    2. I've had to be so conservative with my money that I couldn't tell you which Lennon box-set either. Though I have to admit, while I've never listened to Bowie all that much, Lennon do a version of Ziggy brings to mind an old saying "I'll buy "that" for a dollar!"

      As for applying Capt. Kirk's words to books, well, according to Neil Gaiman, some books can have genders (because of course he'd say that).


      And since the window of opportunity presents itself, it turns out none other than Bruce Timm (Batman: TAS) once did some sketches of a pasty faced guy and his sister who manages to be charming while still creeping the "living hell" out of you, literally.




      Note his signature on all the drawings. As far as I'm concerned, if they ever do a Sandman movie, it needs to be an animated film by Timm. The best part is now maybe Clive Owen could play Morpheus. He doesn't look the part, but for some reason I always thought he had the best voice for the character.


    3. Clive's voice WOULD be good for Dream, I bet. Not an obvious choice but I can see it. (I guess I can hear it, I should say.)

      That Bruce Timm drawing of Death is instantly one of my favorites. Are you familiar with Jill Thompson's "Lil' Endless" drawings? They only made one appearance in the series itself (it's collected in Fables and Reflections) but she put out a couple of other stories on her own.

    4. I don't have anything by Jill Thompson, but I have indeed seen the "Lil' Endless" collection in my copy of "The Sandman Companion". It's interesting, but I'm not sure this would sell as a toy line (or that it would be a wise marketing decision, as it would give parents and kids the wrong idea; the stories themselves are fine, but, well, Vertigo isn't labeled an adult imprint for nothing).

      Sadly, those are the only three drawings by Timm that I was able to find of these characters, which is a shame because just those three samples are enough proof that he could do probably most of the characters.

      Happily, the upshot of all this is that now Guillermo Del Toro now has someone he could contact if he ever gets serious about that "Death: the High Cost of Living" adaptation he's mentioned before. In fact, since he's an illustrator as well, it would be nice to see a Sandman animated feature that was a collaboration between Timm, Del Toro, and Mike Mignola. That would be pretty cool.

      The only criticism I have for Timm's Sandman art would be to scrunch Dream's face down a bit. He' sallow and gaunt, but not exactly what people think of when they use the term "horse-faced". Just sayin'.


  2. Great work, McMolo. I love the film and you do it justice. I couldn't agree more with your appraisal, and I found your diagnostics on the book informative and useful! cheers, mate. JZ

  3. I've never read the book, but the movie is great. I only saw it once; I'm way overdue for a revisit.

    Personally, I think the best Clive Owen performance I've seen is in "Closer." Based on that movie, he was the guy I wanted to get the James Bond role in "Casino Royale." Things worked out pretty well for 007, but in some ways I think Owen's career hasn't measured up to what it ought to have. Not everyone can be a superstar, though, even those who are probably deserving of it.

    I've heard good things about his tv series, "The Knick."

    1. "The Knick" looks cool.

      I wrote something similar about Clive's career trajectory in the original draft of this post. He and Gerard Butler both - it's difficult to pinpoint exactly where I thought they were headed or what the misstep was, if there was a singular one, but I perceive it having happened.