Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Children of Men by PD James

Alfonso Cuaron's film Children of Men, a loose adaptation of this novel, is a great piece of art: smartly written, perfectly acted, and very suspenseful. I hadn't heard of the novel before the release of the film, so I was hoping that by reading it some of the few plot holes of the movie might be explained better in the book. Not so, though--not only is the film so loosely adapted from the novel that it fails to help explain anything, by my measurement the book fails to measure up to the film.

Here's a short synopsis for those who haven't seen the film: In the near future, all of humanity has become infertile and there have been no children born for twenty-five years, and the world is coming to grips with humanity's upcoming extinction. Theo Faron, an Oxford professor of English, is approached by a would-be revolutionary group to help them gain an audience with his cousin, the Warden (Dictator) of England. Also, one of the revolutionaries is pregnant (though in the film it is a young black girl, in the novel it is the character played in the film by Julianne Moore, with whom Faron also falls in love).

Unlike the film, which has the gritty feeling of being just a short time in the future, the novel has a strange, backward-looking Victorian feel, in both style and subject. That would be all well and good if the whole thing were written from the first person perspective of the main character, Theo, whose background is in Victorian literature, but only half of the book is written as a diary; the other half as a straightforward narrative. And yet, the styles are regrettably identical. The first half of the book is numbingly slow, focusing mostly on Theo's loneliness and regret as he looks back on his own life and toward the extinction of the human race; the second half is a clumsily constructed suspense story in which Theo helps the revolutionaries escape, but where to and why are never clear (the film has this problem too, a little bit, but it's more crippling in the novel). The novel lacks also the best part of the film, the final chapter in which Theo has to help the pregnant character get to a boat off the shore of the vicious Isle of Man penal colony, during which time her baby is born. The love story between Theo and pregnant Julian (in the film, Theo and Julian are ex-husband and -wife) makes no sense, and all of the characters other than Theo are pretty thinly constructed.

This isn't a bad book, but I was really disappointed in it after seeing the film. I wonder if part of that has to do with having seen the film first, since the few films I've felt were better than the novels they were based on--namely, High Fidelity and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil--I saw before I read the novel, too. Who knows how much of an effect that has.


Nathan said...

I loved this movie, and was interested in the book. Sad to hear that it's a disappointment.

Christopher said...

You may still like it. I think the movie is just better.

Alyson said...

Alfonso Cuaron also directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Although I wouldn't say he based the film "loosely" on the book (it was pretty accurate), it's probably the most loose of the films in the series so far.