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Let's Repurpose/Son of Children of Men
2007-02-11 01:43
by Mark T.R. Donohue

We are all our own worst enemies. There aren't any rules for what I can or can't put in this humble little space, but the first several things I wrote were kind of meandering, overarching think pieces. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I don't wish to become a slave to precedent. In the interest of trying to get a more regular drumbeat of updates up here, I am resolved to start writing more and thinking less. Try and keep your sighs of relief to yourself.

Realistically no one ever bagged on me for wandering into non-baseball topics over at my baseball page, so I don't see how anyone would get mad at me for betraying the concept of my even more vaguely defined entertainment-y site. As I've tried to keep both sites interesting to myself, I've noticed how differently I absorb sports entertainment from music, film, and television. It's funny. You would think that the obsessive attention to scheduling required of all devoted sports fans would carry over into these other areas. If you always know where your team is and when they're playing, why can't you also keep track of what weekend a movie is opening or what the new timeslot of your favorite Wednesday night drama is? I'm always up to the minute with sports news, but I can't be bothered with Hollywood's schedule, which is quite rigid and unyielding in its own sense. I can't go too far into the psychology of this. I just said I was going to knock it off with the think pieces. But, you know, if you have some navel-gazing time, consider: isn't the most freeing thing about being a ridiculously obsessive sports fan the lack of choice? So many things on so many channels. Digital downloads, Netflix, and TiVo have completed changed the way we access most spectator entertainment. But during baseball season, if the Rockies are playing, I'm going to be watching the Rockies game. For two hours at least I don't have to think about the horrible array of options from which I'm going to have to choose to occupy my time after the game is over. I don't often consider it consciously, but that's a heck of a burden Colorado is lifting from me. No wonder I'm so much more stressed out in the offseason.

Well, what I'd really like to write about is the "Lost" relaunch, but guess what. I forgot to put Season Pass back on for the first new episode after the long hiatus. I'm downloading it now. It will give me something to write about tomorrow, which is good. For a couple of weeks last year I ran a blog at where I would just make a list of everything I watched on TV each day and then sort of spitball about each thing for a paragraph or so. Wildly self-indulgent (and damningly evident of just how much of my limited time I spend viewing and re-viewing "Simpsons" and "Buffy" episodes which I can confidently state without any hint of exaggeration I have seen at least fifty times before), perhaps, but the kernel of a good idea is there. I don't plan on letting you guys know my opinion on the scoring of each and every "Around the Horn" episode I will view from here on out, but rather than watching tons of things and waiting for major inspiration to strike, maybe I'll concentrate on quantity over quality. This is a website, after all.

I recently saw the film Children of Men for the second time after watching it once and then re-reading the novel, which I had read more than ten years ago but of which I remembered little. I was hoping that this process would give me a lot of insights for a long meandering post, but what can I tell you. You guys all know that movies are different from books, and you all know that the world has changed substantially since P.D. James wrote her only non-crime novel back in 1992. Children of Men is well worth reading, and is conveniently just about the length of a flight from Chicago to Denver. The film, as the reviews have noted, takes little from the book past the framing concept and some character names (though most of these characters have been hugely changed). This isn't a situation where the adaptation has either fatally wounded or ingeniously improved upon the vision of the original, leaving one or the other the definitive statement. The fact of the movie has neither diminished nor increased my appreciation of the source material. Children of Men is a book with big weaknesses in characterization and storytelling pace overcome by the resonance of its huge ideas. My familiarity with the book didn't play largely into how I responded to the film, which I liked but didn't love. I suspect that most liberal-minded people will prefer Alfonso Cuarón's scuzzy, violent take on mankind's twilight years rather than James' rather more static original vision of a near future where causes unknown have rendered the entire race infertile.

James' novel is overtly Christian and more than a little bit fascist. Cuarón chooses to smear the distinctions between good and bad more, as opposed to the novel, where a very clearly defined and obviously identified villain is the most interesting character in the cast. Crucially, the director also shifts the timeline, one of the several subtle ways that the film is imprinted by the fifteen years of real history that have passed since the book's debut in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. The exact years aren't important, but James' story is set 25 years after the birth of the last human. The film version dials this back to 18. Sure, it would have been a rare treat to see a science fiction movie with a bunch of middle-aged heroes. Protagonist Theo is a fifty-year-old Oxford don in the novel and a somewhat younger and more vital low-level government functionary in the film as played by Clive Owen. Well, that's just show business for you, but the change is about more than creating roles for sexier actors. Almost all of the action in James' novel takes place in pastoral spaces. With civilization retreating to large population centers, the world is just in the early stages of turning all of the lights off, and James' story takes place right on the line of retreat. During the book's first half almost no action takes place. Theo visits abandoned museums, churchyards and parks just falling into disrepair, and haunted seaside towns. James' gifts as a scenarist make these the most indelible passages in the novel.

The demographic change that Cuarón makes completely alters the reality in which the film takes place. James acknowledges the violent death throes civilization would go through after her sudden impotence scenario, but they have largely died out by the time her narrative begins. The surviving humans are too old and defeated to make it through any of the action through which Owen's Theo navigates in the movie. Children of Men the film is about a much more currently topical political space, a dystopian England and Europe where an increasing number of violent factions are fighting ever more viciously over control of a future of diminishing returns. All of the changes made from page to screen reflect this. Theo's ex-wife is a completely different person in the novel, depicted as a vacuous, unquestioning escapist who denies the reality of the world outside while obsessing over the decoration of her flat and the pregnancy of her pet cat. (One of the creepier touches from the novel that doesn't make it across to the film with its separate agenda is the tendency of middle-aged women to delusionally anthropomorphize animals and dolls.) In the film she's a freedom fighter who drafts Theo to her cause, which is somehow finding a safe haven for a miraculously pregnant teenaged refugee.

In that sense Children of Men maintains the same through line as a film as it did a novel. Both pieces are chase stories. Theo and the pregnant woman are on the run, and pretty much everybody is chasing them. Whom is being chased changes, since the pregnant character (Julian in the book, Kee in the film) is completely different from one version to the other. But that's ultimately less important than the terrain through which the heroes are being chased. If James showed rural England gradually devolving into Middle-Earth, Cuarón turns London into Beirut. Children of Men the film doesn't have the time to discuss all of the fascinating sociopolitical fallout of extinction that the novel has. Instead, it shows rather than tells, as Theo and Kee flee refugee camps, summary executions, and the constant threat of terror bombings.

The thing about the movie which I tend to praise most highly is how well it executes a vision of a world completely transformed while operating on a budget that's sub-shoestring for a typical action or sci-fi picture. Shooting almost entirely handheld, Cuarón brilliantly creates the impression that even more awful things lurk just out beyond the borders of the area his camera frames. (The charmingly anachronistic decision to shoot the picture in 4:3, old-school television dimensions, rather than widescreen is a wonderful application of the paranoia little black borders have always caused in less savvy movie fans. By which I mean my mother. "Mark, the bars are back! Make the bars go away!") I wish the last section of the film proceeded a little less obviously through the standard chase-against-all-odds film checkpoints, but the richness of the original and bizarre first third (which includes Michael Caine having more fun than he's had in years as a pot dealer and wannabe Gandalf and a beautifully shot, Kubrick-influenced sequence where Theo visits an appallingly rich apocalypse profiteer) and the expertly executed action scenes speak for themselves. Recommended, but probably not as a showpiece disc for your new 16x9 television.

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