Thursday, May 10, 2007
Disappointing Adaptation: Alfonso Cuaron missed the point in Children of Men
As Europe's population ebbs dramatically these days, Children of Men's premise of inexplicable world-wide infertility takes on some added muster. Though not everyone is suffocating their parental instincts (Muslims seem to be cresting over Europe's boarders with even greater rapidity), I can't imagine the log line of total infertility carrying the same kind of metaphorical weight at any other moment in history. A culture steeped in secular narcissism cannot remain so without a slight amount of self-consciousness of the nihilistic consequences. Seinfeld, for example, spun this self-consciousness into humor; yet, despite our culture's penchant for distraction, occasionally a subconscious awareness of the consequences bubbles to the surface (what else can explain Anna Nicole's postmortem parade?). It isn't surprising that it took only a brief glance at the premise for publishers to agree to print P.D. James' novel Children of Men.
James' bleak nihilistic world is chilling because it is clean and well-ordered, efficiently administrated by a gentle despotism committed to easing England into its future of complete oblivion. Empty swing-sets, bereaved impotent mothers, euthanasia, pornography, and wild fascination with the younger generation are the constant reminders of the end of humanity and complete despair which cannot be glossed over by superficial cleanliness and order. Against this hopeless backdrop, James introduces us to Theodore Faron, a 50 year old Oxford historian who has drunk in the nihilism of the times too deeply, barely keeping himself going despite the diminishing therapeutic value of his work. Without giving too much of the story away, I will say that Faron unwittingly becomes involved in safeguarding the birth of new life on Earth. While the birth represents a renewed hope for humanity, it is only a symbol for the true source of rebirth in the book: Faron's conquest of his nihilistic narcissism by self-sacrificing love. James, a Catholic, was explicit in her prescription for nihilism; humanity's hope lies not in progress of history but in the logic of the cross.
Unfortunately, only character names and the bare bones plot skeleton remain in Alfonso Cuaron's recent film adaptation. All of James' penetrating insights were swept into his secular vacuum, and the nihilistic backdrop of the movie is distinctly different from the book. Cigarettes, mistreatment of immigrants, and general public disorder are the film's symbols of despair. Rather than being symbolic of something incisively deeper, the new birth which Faron safeguards doesn't point to anything past the surface event. In the documentary accompanying the movie on its DVD, a slew of profoundly incoherent European professors imposed a Marxist meaning on the birth. They stated (beneath a mass of superfluous jargon) that it was story of hope for Marxists living in a post-Communist era, teaching us to place hope in the progress of humanity and its ability to recover from its loss of utopia. I do applaud their ability to be intellectually excited by such a banal and boring movie, though I can't understand where they could have possibly gleaned those conclusions.
Visually, the movie was excellent. Cuaron created a convincingly apocalyptic vision of the not too distant future. Shooting with a hand-held camera and a documentary filming style add to the total disjointing effect. It's too bad Cuaron missed the insight of the book because he's a very talented filmmaker.