Book Review – The Children of Men by P.D. James

Hey Blogland!

Today I’ve got a quick book review for you.  So buckle up!

The Children of Men book
How creepy is this cover?

You might have heard of P.D. James, famous for her extremely popular Adam Dalgliesh mystery series. I’ve never read anything from her before, but The Children of Men has been on my To Be Read (TBR) list for years. Why?

Because of the 2006 film adaptation, directed by Alfonso Cuaron and starring Clive Owen. I remember seeing it in theaters with my mother as a impressionable sixteen year old and just being completely blown away by it.

Cuaron’s interpretation was a bleak, dystopian world in which women were no longer able to conceive. Humanity fell apart in the face of its looming death as no children were born for over 20 years. Until Clive Owen’s character, Theo Falon, is tasked with escorting a young woman out of the harsh, Dictator-ruled UK. Why?

Well, because she’s pregnant.

The film was very war torn and grizzly. Military police are terrifying, refugees are shown in their total desperation as resources are kept from them in favor of UK nationals. People die horrible deaths, and the previously uninvolved, apathetic Theo finds purpose for the first time in his life.

The children of men alternate
Alternate film adaptation cover

It’s the ultimate hope in the face of adversity film. I couldn’t get enough of it. The story enraptured me, and played in loops in my imagination for weeks after I saw it (Side Note: my mother hated it). So, when I learned that it was based on a book, well, I knew I had to read it.

Fast forward twelve years and I finally found time, and a copy of the audiobook. I decided to finally give it a shot.

Um… Oops.

Turns out, P.D. James’ dystopian novel is so far removed from Cuaron’s riveting film that I consistently fell asleep during its narration. Theo is there, as is his Dictator cousin Xan Lyppiatt. But, Julian was never Theo’ wife, and she’s the one that’s pregnant. There is no character of Kee, no young girl being swept away from everything she’d ever known.

Instead, there’ s a group of five dissenters who plan to overthrow Xan due to a number of political concerns. Julian is the wife of their leader, and as the book continues, it’s revealed that she’s pregnant, but not with her husband’s child.

Which actually brings me to my biggest issue with book. The novel is told in two narrative styles, the first being first person as Theo writes in his diary. The second is a typical third person limited. Regardless, Theo’s opinions and viewpoints on women are made clear as he discusses his tiresome ex-wife, his lack of feeling for his mother, and his descriptions of the women he encounters throughout the book. Almost all of his depictions of women focus on their physical appearance and how dissatisfying he finds them.

But, Theo finds pretty much everything dissatisfying.

The Children of men explosion
Yeah, Theo’s diary never mentioned bombings!

Another interesting difference between the film and the novel is that in Cuaron’s film women are the infertile ones, while in the book it is men who have gone sterile. I’d like to think that it’s this global condemnation of men’s virility that fosters Theo’s dislike of women, that P.D. James played a long game in bringing about the conversation of the perceptions of masculinity’s role in the wielding of power.

But, by the end of the book, I’m not convinced. I’m more inclined to think that Mrs. James may have actually thought critically of women herself.

The narrative rambles, taking rests in places that don’t appear to really matter in any capacity other than to world-build. Which, isn’t really necessary. It’s 2021 in Oxford, UK. I know that the book was written in the 90s, but even then, you don’t need considerable setting description to bring it to life for the reader. It’s a near future UK setting. Cool. Got it.

Oh. We’re talking about the country again? Yep. Uh-huh. Ayup. That’s a copse of trees, you got it.

Now, I know that British storytelling traditions are different than American ones. Words aren’t/weren’t at such a premium, there’s typically much more description and contemplation of those descriptions by the narrator. But I feel that James sacrificed potential action and narrative interest in favor of long-winded musings of a 50 year old white male who doesn’t really have any skin in this game.

Oh, wait! Except he does. Because, obviously, he falls in love with Julian and his overflowing adoration compels him to remain by her side through it all. He’s literally spent a total of maybe three hours in this woman’s presence, but he’s risking everything to keep her safe until her baby is born.

Ok. Sure.

Anyway, the cuckold husband leaves them to report their whereabouts to Xan, so Theo, the midwife, and Julian make a run for it. The midwife is murdered by Xan, but he’s too late to witness the birth.

Full disclosure: These last ten minutes of the book were by far the best.

So, Xan and his cousin Theo face off, pistols drawn. Theo is ready to die to protect Julian and the child. But, the baby cries, distracting Xan with a sound no one has heard in over 20 years, and Theo takes the chance to kill him. Shocked, he takes the ring from Xan’s hand, basically crowning himself as Britain’s new leader. Then he returns to Julian’s side, only to reveal what I already knew.

Theo never had purpose. He never felt truly passionate about anything. He was never a full member of the five dissenters, he didn’t care about their causes. He only cared about Julian and her child. And as he returns to her, and she sees the ring, she realizes what has happened. When she asks what he’s going to do, he basically alludes that he’s going to do basically nothing different than Xan would have done. Except that they’ll be together and she will never want for anything ever again.

Which was never what Julian cared about. She had been an actual revolutionary, wanting more for the people of Britain.

So, I guess, in the end, men are proven to be redundant and incapable of change? I don’t know. I think I came to this book prepared to analyze and pick it apart looking for the meaning and the social commentary that was so abundant in Cuaron’s film. I can’t really say whether it’s there or not. I want it to be, but if it is, it’s as unorganized and unclear as the rest of the narrative.

The children of men Kee

Cuaron has admitted in interviews that, once he heard the original premise of The Children of Men, that humanity had become infertile and that society crumbled as a consequence, he absolutely refused to read the source material. He kept a couple character names, but switched their roles around, and really let the premise and the current political and social climate stew in his mind to create the film.

I am so thankful for that. This couldn’t be further from the novel. It’s the one case where I would absolutely say that the film is 100% better than book. I never say that.

It should be noted that P.D. James did enjoy and approve of Cuaron’s adaptation.

This book received my lowest rating on Goodreads. I’d suggest you just watch the film and call it good. Goodreads Rating: 2/5 Stars.

Luckily, my other reads in 2018 so far have been quite lovely. Keep an eye out for forthcoming reviews!



4 thoughts on “Book Review – The Children of Men by P.D. James

  1. I’ve never read anything by PD James, but do have a few of her books sitting on my shelf that I’ve yet to tackle. Hopefully they’re better than this one!! Thanks for the warning.

    • Her mysteries are very popular! This book is apparently the outlier from what I’ve heard. I don’t read many mysteries, so this was my first experience with her work. It did not make a good impression, unfortunately.

      • I just downloaded an audiobook of hers from the library. I’ll give that a try before devoting “real” reading time to the books I have. 😀

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