The Long View 2006-12-26: The Children of Men; Geopolitical Broken Windows

One of the most fascinating things about P. D. James’ dystopia Children of Men is that so many people invest so much time and effort into trying to make it a reality.


The Children of Men; Geopolitical Broken Windows

Once upon a time there were two goats that were eating old movie-film from out of a trash bin behind MGM Studios. One goat said to the other:

"Hey, this is a good movie!"

The other goat replied:

"Yes, but it's not as good as the book."

We should keep that cautionary exchange in mind whenever we suspect that a film adaptation has missed the point of the book on which it is based. We should in any case be cautious in commenting about a film we have not seem yet. Nonetheless, the laudatory review that Manohla Dragis wrote for The New York Times regarding the film version of P.D. James's novel, The Children of Men, gives me grave misgivings:

Based in broad outline on the 1992 dystopian novel by P. D. James about a world suffering from global infertility — and written with a nod to Orwell by Mr. Cuarón and his writing partner Timothy J. Sexton along with David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby — “Children of Men” pictures a world that looks a lot like our own, but darker, grimmer and more frighteningly, violently precarious. It imagines a world drained of hope and defined by terror in which bombs regularly explode in cafes crowded with men and women on their way to work. It imagines the unthinkable: What if instead of containing Iraq, the world has become Iraq, a universal battleground of military control, security zones, refugee camps and warring tribal identities?...heavily armed soldiers are ubiquitous. They flank the streets and train platforms, guarding the pervasive metal cages crammed with a veritable Babel of humanity, illegal immigrants who have fled to Britain from hot spots, becoming refugees or “fugees” for short...“Children of Men” has none of the hectoring qualities that tend to accompany good intentions in Hollywood.

Actually, to judge by that review, the film sounds pretty hectoring to me, but hectoring about the wrong things. The novel does mention the sorry state of guest workers in Britain in a world in which there had been no births for over 20 years, but they are barely an afterthought. In fact, violence (unless you count the semi-voluntary euthanasia program) is almost absent from the book. This is, after all, a world without young people. James was not writing science fiction, but she thought through very carefully the economic and cultural implications of a population in which the ratio of elderly consumers to relatively young producers grows ever larger.

James was more interested in making metaphysical than demographic points, as we see in the review of James's book by Alan Jacobs in First Things:

Does the Warden's apparently benevolent despotism give people even a modicum of genuine comfort? Not if they are anything like Theo Faron, who writes in his journal that "without the hope of posterity, for our race if not for ourselves, without the assurance that we being dead yet live, all pleasures of the mind and senses sometimes seem to me no more than pathetic and crumbling defences shored up against our ruins." But Faron is more honest and self-reflective than the majority, who prefer not to think hard thoughts or confront troubling facts.

Still, if you are looking for birth-dearth fiction, The Children of Men is a good place to start. (See also Brian Aldiss's Greybeard. This seems to be one case where, if you plan to see the movie, you should consider reading the book first:

I'm still cranky about David Lynch's adaptation of Dune, but don't get me started.

* * *

Meanwhile, Mark Steyn has more to worry about than cinematic adaptations of his ideas, as we see in this column:

Whatever the “realists” may say, nations talk to each other all the time. Unfortunately, when nation A opens its mouth, nation B doesn't always get the message, no matter how loud and clear it is. Syria and Iran, for example, have subverted post-Saddam Iraq for three years now. Rather quietly at first. But, like a kid playing gangsta rap in his bedroom, if there are no complaints, you might as well crank up the volume. So Iran began openly threatening genocide against a neighboring state. And Syria had one of its opponents in Lebanon, Pierre Gemayel, assassinated.

Syria and Iran are talking, but are we listening?

Likewise, Russia. These days, we talk to the Bear incessantly, to the point of holding the G8 photo-op on Vladimir Putin’s turf. The old KGB man’s pals are also back in the assassination game, not just in his backyard but in London, too...when it became obvious that there was no price to be paid for obstructing American aims, the world got the message. Yet at home too many Americans are wedded to an absurd proposition: that somehow the lone “superpower” can choose to lose yet another war and there will be no consequences, except for Bush and sundry discredited “neocons”; that no matter how America stumbles in the world it can stay rich and happy and technologically advanced even as it becomes a laughingstock in Tehran and Damascus and Pyongyang and Caracas and Moscow and on, and on, and on.

Not so. We are on the brink of a terrible tipping point.

Let me reiterate that I am not sure that Vladimir Putin has poisoned anyone. If you want to worry about Russia, worry about what they are doing to the customers for their natural gas. Still, Steyn's points are well taken, so much so that I am reminded of these words from Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties by Paul Johnson, pages 309-311:

During the 1920s, the civilized Western democracies had maintained some kind of shaky world order, through the League on the one hand, and through Anglo-American financial diplomacy on the other. At the beginning of the 1930s, the system -- if it could be called a system, broke down completely, opening an era of international banditry in which the totalitarian states behaved simply in accordance with their military means...In the 1920s the world had been run by the power of money. In the 1930s it was subject to the arbitration of the sword....A careful study of the period reveals the extent to which the totalitarian powers, though acting independently and sometimes in avowed hostility towards each other, took advantage of their numbers and growing strength to challenge and outface the pitifully stretched resources of democratic order.

(Incidentally, the book was first published in 1983, but the author revised it after 1989. Read the first edition.)

What we see here is not "re-balancing" against one power or alliance by other powers, but a situation in which it became clear that the rules no longer applied, so opportunistic behavior appeared. Call it a geopolitical version of the broken windows effect.

Don't worry, though. I'll try to have a solution by Monday.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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