After guest-hosting for Tucker and guest-hosting for Rush, I'm rounding out the week guest-hosting for our peerless film essayist, Kathy Shaidle. As most of you know, Kathy is going through a miserable time. If you'd like to drop her a line, you can contact her via the email address here. It is a terrible thing that two of of the trio I guest-host for have had such a crummy festive season:
As longtime readers know, I am a great fan of a certain P D James novel of the west at sunset. Xavier, a First Day Founding Member of The Mark Steyn Club from Ohio, writes:
Also, January 1, 2021 is the opening of P D James' wonderful novel, The Children of Men, which Mark has written about before.
Columns like Mark's 'A Baroness on Barrenness', is why I am proud to be a Mark Steyn Club member.
Thanks for all you do.
That is very true, Xavier. Baroness James published the book in 1992, when 2021 seemed a long way off. But it has arrived, and we are now living in the time-frame of a great author's dystopian future. As the novel begins:
Friday 1 January 2021
Early this morning, 1 January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being to be born on earth was killed in a pub brawl in a suburb of Buenos Aires, aged twenty-five years two months and twelve days. If the first reports are to be believed, Joseph Ricardo died as he had lived. The distinction, if one can call it that, of being the last human whose birth was officially recorded, unrelated as it was to any personal virtue or talent, had always been difficult for him to handle. And now he is dead. The news was given to us here in Britain on the nine o'clock programme of the State Radio Service and I heard it fortuitously...
Twenty years ago, when the world was already half convinced that our species had lost for ever the power to reproduce, the search to find the last-known human birth became a universal obsession, elevated to a matter of national pride, an international contest as ultimately pointless as it was fierce and acrimonious... After months of checking and re-checking, Joseph Ricardo, of mixed race, born illegitimately in a Buenos Aires hospital at two minutes past three Western time on 19 October 1995, had been officially recognized. Once the result was proclaimed, he was left to exploit his celebrity as best he could while the world, as if suddenly aware of the futility of the exercise, turned its attention elsewhere. And now he is dead and I doubt whether any country will be eager to drag the other candidates from oblivion.
In Lady James's 2021, man has lost the ability to procreate. The late Mr Ricardo's cohort are the last youth in a society that is old and will soon be dead. It's an ultimate dystopia, and yet the 2021 of her conjecture has odd resonances in our actual New Year:
Western science and Western medicine haven't prepared us for the magnitude and humiliation of this ultimate failure... I can clearly remember the confident words of one biologist spoken when it had finally become apparent that nowhere in the whole world was there a pregnant woman: 'It may take us some time to discover the cause of this apparent universal infertility.' We have had twenty-five years and we no longer even expect to succeed.
If "following the science" requires the total shutdown of life for a year, that too ought surely to be considered a "failure" and "humiliation", no?
There are other lines that resonate, too: An aging population prioritizes "security, comfort, pleasure" over freedom - for what is "freedom of movement" in a world where, the further you venture from your home, the less the roads are maintained, and who knows what you'll find? The simplest answer to why the western world has agreed to live in one-room flats for a year and surrender such basic aspects of life as haircuts is that we are, demographically, the oldest societies that have ever existed - and an aged nation is a risk-averse one.
In P D James's 2021 man is literally impotent. In our 2021 much of the west has simply chosen to be. But it leads to the same destination. If you've been in East German villages or parts of Japan lately, this won't seem so shocking:
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 in 1992, 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 a book about the demographic death spiral already under way in western Europe, Russia and Japan (with Canada just a step behind), and I quoted Lady James therein. I cited her again in 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's speculative fiction, pets are doted on as child-substitutes, and churches hold christening ceremonies for cats. In contemporary Japanese reality, Tokyo has some forty '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's 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's 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.
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 screen— though, in a sad comment on the way Britain's heading, not that much more.
But, as skilfully done as it is, it winds up with the same generic bleakness as any other dystopian thriller. Cuarón has entirely failed to grasp the specific situation P D James conjures. Let me give a small example. Many years ago I used to host a BBC arts show on which Baroness James was a fairly regular guest. We'd get her in to review the new Bond movie, that sort of thing. I remember her telling me she preferred Timothy Dalton's 007 because he pretty much forswore all the sex and double entendres (which is why he nearly killed the franchise). Each to her own. So I think it fair to say Lady James 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 is 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, notwithstanding the frantic promotional efforts of government porn stores. 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 gravefaced 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's dictatorship is a subtler one than Mr Cuarón's The "Warden of England" would win any election in a landslide: he knows an aging population wants all that "security, comfort, pleasure," not untrammelled liberties. Mr Cuarón's dystopia is a dreary, conventionally brutal police state with a state-of-the-art "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 sixty-year-old boomer rock.
Mr Cuarón thinks this will save the planet, because every other dismal movie says so. 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. Lady James's 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's 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's 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. Entirely accidentally, the ineptitude of Cuarón's movie makes James's 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.
~Mark will be back in a couple of hours with the first part of a two-part On the Town special for this New Year weekend.
If you're a member of The Mark Steyn Club, then feel free to hit the comments. Do please be respectful to fellow commenters, and stay on topic.
What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, it's an Audio Book of the Month Club. It's also a discussion group of lively people around the world on the great questions of our time. It's a video poetry and live music club. We don't (yet) have a clubhouse, but we do have a newsletter and other benefits. And, if you've got some kith or kin who might like the sound of all that and more, we have a special Gift Membership. More details here.
Comment on this item (members only)
Viewing and submission of reader comments is restricted to Mark Steyn Club members only. If you are not yet a member, please click here to join. If you are already a member, please log in here: