Two nights ago, I watched Children of Men (2006) for the first time. Both harrowing and uneasily resounding to our post-Brexit-Trump-presidency era, the film follows Theo Faron (Clive Owen) in a dreary 2027 London where women are no longer fertile. Director Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki create a murky, hopeless vision of a not-so-futuristic London in which refugees (‘fugees’) are herded into cages and guerilla activists, known as ‘Fishes’, fight to free them and provide them with asylum. Amongst these immigrants is a young black girl named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), whose importance to the film’s outcome and overall premise becomes increasingly apparent.
As I watched the credits roll, staring gobsmacked at my computer screen, something immediately caught my attention: ‘Based on the novel by P. D. James’. This sent me on a rapid Google hunt for more: the film was based on a book? Was it faithful to the book? What was James’ original vision? In attempting to answer these questions, a number of realisations hit me concerning the respective visions of director and author, the relationship between the film and its source material, and the implications of Cuarón’s auteurship in interpreting the so-called feminist messages of the film.
James vs Cuarón
Phyllis Dorothy James was a renowned British crime author, whose novel The Children of Men was published in 1992 – a noticeable departure from her previous works. The novel, like the film, follows the story of Theo in a futuristic Britain – here 2021, not 2027 – which is run by dictator Xan Luppiatt, Theo’s cousin. Integral to James’ writing are themes of male power, faith, and religion – the latter two are particularly salient given James’ devout Anglican status (the book itself is so-named after a quote from Psalm 90:3).
Alfonso Cuarón, in contrast, is best known for films such as Gravity (2013), Roma (2018), Y Tu Mamá También (2001), and the third instalment of the Harry Potter franchise, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). Cuarón’s take on James’ novel is saliently rife with contemporary political references, from Abu Ghraib to British anti-immigrant sentiment. Whilst these references do much to elucidate the haunting relevance of the film’s events, they have been criticised for a lack of meaning or true purpose in the context of the film’s overall message – which itself seems unclear. For me, this can be explained by one simple, and irredeemable factor: Cuarón never read James’ book.
Cuarón’s apparent dismissal of the source material is not without its attempts at justification. Cuarón has previously stated that he neglected the book in a bid to avoid a narrative-heavy ‘explanatory’ film at the expense of larger symbols and meaning, instead choosing to “find out what elements are relevant to what we’re doing and…disregard what we think is irrelevant” (Nelson, 2010).
Unfortunately, I would argue that such larger symbolism rests upon an understanding of events and their context – without their explanation, much of the film loses its resonance and, frankly, its sense.
Book vs Film (SPOILERS)
There are a number of key differences between book and film that affect our interpretation of events, though some are more important than others. For example, in the film, the young, black fugee, Kee, is pregnant and gives birth to a baby girl in an abandoned refugee shelter. However, in the book, it is a white woman, Julian, who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son.
Changing the race and subsequent status of the pregnant woman was a clever alteration that attempted to make a political point about the importance of the baby’s existence. In a key scene, the Fishes debate the future of Kee’s child, stating that if she were to go public with the birth, the government would take her child and parade it as belonging to a ‘posh black woman...’ the first child born in over two decades could not be known to belong to a fugee.
However, this change and its resulting emphases are reflective of the contrasting messages of Cuarón’s film and James’ book. Whilst James’ book alludes to the patriarchal power structures of a corrupt society, Cuarón packs his adaptation with rich political commentary on race, belonging, and identity politics.
These thematic differences are apexed by one key distinction: in the book, infertility runs in males, whereas in the film this is shifted to females.
the film falls short of poignant statements surrounding the gender roles and responsibilities communicated within James’ book
Such changes – and the distinct messages they reflect – justify earlier claims of the film’s resonance with contemporary politics, tacking issues such as anti-refugee sentiment. Nonetheless, ultimately, the film falls short of poignant statements surrounding the gender roles and responsibilities communicated within James’ book; in Cuarón’s retelling, placing the burden of infertility onto women ignores their struggle for reproductive rights and recognition outside of their role as mothers.
Moreover, here is where certain elements of the film begin to lose coherence altogether: the film closes with Kee and her child escaping via rowboat to The Human Project, a research facility for infertility. However, before this we had previously seen militia abruptly cease their fighting to bow in reverence to the miracle baby.
If the implications of Kee’s pregnancy were so great, and this baby provided such an overwhelming beacon of hope – why would Kee have to flee the country to be safe? Was the significance of Kee’s pregnancy undermined by her leaving? Therefore, whilst Cuarón tries to make powerful statements regarding the status of refugees in the UK, which are scarily relevant, they ultimately become too ambiguous – and to me, this is the result of springboarding a film from James’ vision without fully understanding what her concept entailed. Indeed:
“The problem is that a world without children is clearly a metaphor, but Cuarón doesn’t quite seem to know for what”.
The implications of Cuarón’s auteurship
All of this criticism culminates in my understanding of Cuarón’s self-presentation as the film’s director, and his conceptualisation – or lack, thereof – of the film as an “adaptation”.
Cuarón positions himself as the film’s author; the story’s author
Film theorist Patricia Elise Nelson describes how, in the branding and promotion of Cuarón’s film, the source material and James’ vision was ‘largely ignored or diminished’. In interviews, for example, Cuarón neglects to mention the film’s status as an adaptation. In this way, he positions himself as the film’s author; the story’s author… effectively denying credit to the source material written by a woman, which acted as inspiration.
Ultimately, then, I feel that Cuarón’s message and vision for his film – no matter how far it differs from James’ original vision – is immediately weakened by his disregard for the female author from whom his story originates.
One can view this as parallel to the film’s marketing, with the poster tagline reading “This fall, one man will fight for our future”. In Children of Men, the woman’s role is solely reproductive, and one heroic man is required to step in and save ‘our future’.
Whilst James herself expressed approval for the film, even appearing as a cameo in its opening scene, and Cuarón is lauded for his “love…even worship” for women, I can’t help but feel that refusing to read the book was an act of ignorance, which ultimately misses the point.
Children of Men is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Cover photo: still from Children on Men (2006) used under fair use.
If you are interested in learning more about Cuarón’s auteurship of ‘Children of Men’, I’d encourage you to read Patricia Elise Nelson’s MA Thesis, ‘The Politics of Film Adaptation: A Case Study of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children on Men’