Tuesday, December 02, 2014

A Baroness on Barrenness

By Mark Steyn
Mark at the Movies
http://www.steynonline.com/November 29, 2014

P D James (pictured above) died on Thursday, the undisputed heir to Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers as the "Queen of Crime", although she did not care for either comparison ("Such a bad writer," she sniffed of Dame Agatha). But in her 94 years she did a lot of other things, too: She was a Conservative peeress in the House of Lords, and her time in the bureaucracy (she was a Home Office civil servant) made her an effective chairman of things - whether of the Booker Prize for Fiction, or committees concerned with more earthbound endeavors. I had a slight acquaintance with her during my time at the BBC's "Kaleidoscope", where we used to call her in as a celebrity reviewer. I can recall being slightly skeptical of her judgment only once, when she told me how much she enjoyed the Bond film The Living Daylights because, unlike Sean Connery and Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton eschewed double entendres and gratuitous sex. Whatever his other gifts, Mr Dalton's earnest approach to the role almost killed the franchise. What appealed to Baroness James about the performance was, in fact, the problem.

When she started out, she figured she'd write a couple of crime thrillers and then move on to "serious" stuff. But Adam Dalgliesh caught on with the reading public, and then with telly viewers, first on ITV and then in America on PBS. So her non-detective novels were few and far between. The enduring one - the one that will ensure her place even if she'd never written a single murder mystery - is her 1992 book, The Children Of Men. It is a book of our time, an elegy of the west at sunset. I've mentioned it a lot over the years, and it turns up toward the end of my own latest tome, The [Un]documented Mark Steyn:
To western eyes, contemporary Japan has a kind of earnest childlike wackiness, all karaoke machines and manga cartoons and nuttily sadistic game shows. But, to us demography bores, it's a sad place that seems to be turning into a theme park of P D James' great dystopian novel The Children Of Men. Baroness James' tale is set in Britain in the near future, in a world that is infertile: The last newborn babe emerged from the womb in 1995, and since then nothing. It was an unusual subject for the queen of the police procedural, and, indeed, she is the first baroness to write a book about barrenness. The Hollywood director Alfonso Cuarón took the broad theme and made a rather ordinary little film out of it. But the Japanese seem determined to live up to the book's every telling detail. 
In Lady James' speculative fiction, pets are doted on as child-substitutes, and churches hold christening ceremonies for cats. In contemporary Japanese reality, Tokyo has some 40 "cat cafés" where lonely solitary citizens can while away an afternoon by renting a feline to touch and pet for a couple of companiable hours. 
In Lady James' speculative fiction, all the unneeded toys are burned, except for the dolls, which childless women seize on as the nearest thing to a baby and wheel through the streets. In contemporary Japanese reality, toy makers, their children's market dwindling, have instead developed dolls for seniors to be the grandchildren they'll never have: You can dress them up, and put them in a baby carriage, and the computer chip in the back has several dozen phrases of the kind a real grandchild might use to enable them to engage in rudimentary social pleasantries. 
P D James' most audacious fancy is that in a barren land sex itself becomes a bit of a chore. The authorities frantically sponsor state porn emporia promoting ever more recherché forms of erotic activity in an effort to reverse the populace's flagging sexual desire just in case man's seed should recover its potency. Alas, to no avail. As Lady James writes, "Women complain increasingly of what they describe as painful orgasms: the spasm achieved but not the pleasure. Pages are devoted to this common phenomenon in the women's magazines." 
As I said, a bold conceit, at least to those who believe that shorn of all those boring procreation hang-ups we can finally be free to indulge our sexual appetites to the full. But it seems the Japanese have embraced the no-sex-please-we're-dystopian-Brits plot angle, too. In October, Abigail Haworth of The Observer in London filed a story headlined "Why Have Young People in Japan Stopped Having Sex?" Not all young people but a whopping percentage: A survey by the Japan Family Planning Association reported that over a quarter of men aged 16–24 "were not interested in or despised sexual contact." For women, it was 45 per cent.
That's from the "Sex at Sunset" chapter from The [Un]documented Mark Steyn. As I observed, the Japanese are rather more faithful adaptors of The Children Of Men than Alfonso Cuarón, whose 2006 film managed to spend a ton of time and money, hire a fine cast, lavish inordinate care and attention to detail on the film's design and cinematography – and yet completely miss the point of the story in an almost awe-inspiring way. So I thought we'd dust it off for our Saturday movie date almost as a masterclass in mangled adaptation. Mr Cuarón's previous films (including A Little Princess and one of the groovier Harry Potters) were perfectly fine, and certainly different directors will approach the same property in entirely different ways. But, with Children Of Men, the particular and revealing way in which Cuarón misses the point underlines the thesis of the book and portends a difficult future for Hollywood in the years ahead.

The original novel by P D James was published in 1992 and set in the near future – 2021 – in a world that is impotent, literally: The human race can no longer breed. The last children, the "Omega" generation born in 1995, are now adult. Schoolhouses are abandoned and villages are dying as an ever more elderly citizenry prefers for security reasons to cluster in urban centers. As the narrator writes:

The children's playgrounds in our parks have been dismantled. For the first 12 years after Omega the swings were looped up and secured, the slides and climbing frames left unpainted. Now they have finally gone and the asphalt playgrounds have been grassed over or sown with flowers like small mass graves. The toys have been burnt, except for the dolls, which have become for some half-demented women a substitute for children… The children's books have been systematically removed from our libraries. Only on tapes and records do we now hear the voices of children, only on film or on television programmes do we see the bright, moving images of the young…
I read the novel two decades back, enjoyed it, and thought about its eerie vision from time to time. The best dystopian novels hinge not on some technological gimmick but on some characteristic of our time nudged forward just a wee bit. In 2006, I wrote America Alone, a book about the demographic death spiral already underway in western Europe, Russia and Japan, and I quoted P D James' novel therein. And, as a result, when Cuarón's adaptation came out a few weeks later, I got a bunch of e-mails from folks furious at me for stiffing 'em out of eight bucks for a lousy movie. Whoa, hold up, I was trying to stiff you out of 30 bucks for a book. Who said anything about a movie?

Where does Alfonso Cuarón go awry? Well, let's first credit the film with what it does well. It looks like a fully realized world – London's suburban trains, the double-decker buses, the terraced houses, a familiar landscape with a futuristic veneer imposed on it by way of a pervasive police state. More cages and wiring, more security warnings on large video screens – although, in a sad comment on the way Britain's heading, not that much more.

But, as skillfully done as it is, it winds up with the same generic bleakness as any other dystopian thriller. Cuarón has failed to grasp the specific situation P D James conjures. Let me give a small example. As I mentioned, in our BBC chit-chats, Lady James made it clear she didn't care for superfluous sex and violence and swearing. So I think it fair to say she would not enjoy the way Cuarón's film translates her protagonist's restrained Oxford English into standard Hollywoodese: "F--k!" "F--k!" "Jesus Christ!" "F--k!"
F--k f--ketty f--ketty f--king f--k. That's how glamorous leading men like Clive Owen are expected to speak, but it's not how his character, a middle-aged civil servant, talks, and it's not how P D James writes. There is one lonely F-word outburst in the novel, all the more effective for its isolation.

So the author would not regard the reflexive expletives as an improvement. But more importantly she might wonder about their accuracy. In the book, as noted above, the infertility of man has been followed by a declining interest in penetrative intercourse. Government efforts to rekindle the spark do not work. In such a world, would "f--k" survive as an epithet? As for "Jesus Christ!", that too would be less likely to pass their lips – because in a world with no future, whether one regards global infertility as evidence of God's anger or that He is indeed dead or (for a third group) that this is a kind of slo-mo Rapture, very few are as careless about faith as we turn-of-the-century profaners are.

But Mr Cuarón's movie is careless about quite a lot of things. As one might expect from Godless Hollywood, he de-Christianizes the movie. A scene in which a fawn is happily loping round the altar in the chapel of Magdalen College in Oxford is replaced by one in which a nervous deer skeeters through the corridor of an abandoned elementary school. It's not quite the same. "Bloody animals," rages the Magdalen chaplain. "They'll have it all soon enough. Why can't they wait?" The movie's image is sentimental. The book's is one of utter civilizational ruin – of faith, knowledge, art and beauty, all lost to the beasts and the jungle:

The choir of eight men and eight women filed in, bringing with them a memory of earlier choirs, boy choristers entering grave-faced with that almost imperceptible childish swagger, crossed arms holding the service sheets to their narrow chests, their smooth faces lit as if with an internal candle, their hair brushed to gleaming caps, their faces preternaturally solemn above the starched collars. Theo banished the image, wondering why it was so persistent when he had never even cared for children.
You can still hear boy choristers in the chapel: they play them on tape. You can still see christenings in churches – for newborn kittens.

Lady James' dictatorship is a subtler one than Mr Cuarón's. In the book, the "Warden of England" would win any election in a landslide: he knows an aging population wants "security, comfort, pleasure", not untrammeled liberties. Mr Cuarón's dystopia is a dreary conventionally brutal police state and its "Homeland Security" (geddit?) apparatus. Free spirits are represented in the usual way: Michael Caine plays a minor character called Jasper, who once protested Bush and the Iraq war and restrictions on illegal immigration. He has a John Lennon fright wig; he smokes dope and listens to 60-year old boomer rock. This will save the planet?

In the novel, this reductive notion of retro self-absorption masquerading as iconoclasm is certainly not the solution and in many ways a big part of the problem. P D James' short book is a meditation on loss of purpose in society: the symptoms are already well advanced in real-life Europe - convenience euthanasia, collapsed birth rates, wild animals reclaiming empty villages on the east German plain. Cuarón can't even grasp the question, offering by way of substitution only hippie anthems, package-tour Eastern spirituality and other cobwebbed cool.

The film looks like a film – which is to say that, apart from Michael Caine, everyone in it is young: young transgressive leaders of young gangs pursued by young cops and young soldiers. But that's exactly what the novel has in short supply: roads crumble to tracks because the employees of the state are too middle-aged to maintain the rural districts.

What of "youth culture" in a world without youth? I remember the first time I ever visited a Viennese record store - waltzes and operettas as far as the eye can see, with rock'n'pop confined to a couple of bins in the basement. P D James' book is like that: it is a world of the middle-aged and old, a society on its last waltz. Would it have been too freaky to show that in a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster? Entirely accidentally, the ineptitude of Cuarón's movie makes James' point: A society without youth is so alien to our assumptions about ourselves that we can't even make a film about it. Which suggests that Hollywood itself – at least in its present incarnation – will be one of the casualties of the coming of age.

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