I Will Never Watch “Children of Men” the Same Way Again

How my feelings about this dystopian film changed after living through a dystopian time

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I was 23 the first time I saw Children of Men. I had graduated from college and was working an administrative job and trying to figure out how to be a writer. I lived in a little house with my boyfriend; we had a clothesline and a garden; sometimes I felt very old, but I was very young.

For those who haven’t seen it, Children of Men is about the end of humanity. Women have become infertile, so no new children are born; as the human race ages into obsolescence, society breaks down. Misery reigns and a suicide drug called Quietus becomes a popular way out. Amid all this, Clive Owen’s character, a disaffected former activist named Theo, takes on an impossible task: shepherding a young pregnant woman—the first in decades—past phalanx after phalanx of men with guns to a ship off the coast of Britain that will take her and her baby to safety. Along the way, nearly everyone he has ever loved is killed before his eyes.

It’s a dark film, to say the least. But I left the theater with a sense of lifting joy.

The apocalypse was a crucible, I felt, for heroism. I loved to write stories about ordinary people showing extraordinary strength at the end of the world.

Why did I love the end of the world so much? Part of it was the privilege, surely, of growing up white and middle-class in pre-9/11 America. I was safe in my home and my city as a child, my life was orderly, and so I had the luxury of seeing danger as excitement.

But there was also something specific about stories of apocalypse that appealed to me, starting when I was very young. When asked to explain it I would say that when civilization begins to fall, when humanity itself is on the brink, that’s when we will be morally tested as people. The apocalypse was a crucible, I felt, for heroism. I loved to write stories about ordinary people showing extraordinary strength at the end of the world. These people were always girls: girls riding through ruined cities on horseback, or captaining boats across a poisoned ocean.

Now I think those girls were the heroes I thought I could be, if called upon. Some part of me thought it would be thrilling to be called.

That thrill sizzled in my brain as I watched Children of Men in the fall of 2006. It was around that time that I began to write my first novel, about a girl who becomes a leader in a world ravaged by climate change. 

I knew the climate was already changing. That same year, I visited a research station in the rainforest and listened to a scientist talk about the trees he measured. As the nights grew hotter, the trees shrank, and as the trees shrank, the nights grew hotter. I asked him what he would say to people who didn’t believe in climate change. He looked at me like I was from outer space.

“I live in the rainforest,” he said. “Everyone believes in climate change here.”

But I did not live in the rainforest. I believed, but that belief was abstract to me. I went to graduate school. I wrote and dreamed and marched with the rest of humanity towards our end.

I can’t tell you exactly when I started being afraid. Maybe it’s not interesting: the moment when someone who’s felt safe all her life realizes she’s just the tiniest bit unsafe.

Maybe it’s not interesting: the moment when someone who’s felt safe all her life realizes she’s just the tiniest bit unsafe.

But what I can say is there came a point when my dreams of the end of the world began to change. A few years ago—it’s almost embarrassing to talk about 2016 but sure, around then—I started writing about farmers. 

These farmers lived at the edge of the forest, in quiet country. Far away, the cities lay empty, the highways overgrown. Sometimes my characters made mention of a great war. Other times the tragedy went unnamed.

But whatever had happened in their past, these people were not fighting any longer. They were growing vegetables and canning them for the winter. They were raising sheep and goats. Sometimes they had a dance with dandelion wine.

My farm stories were post-apocalyptic in a sense. But they were not dystopian. They described not a hell on Earth but simply an Earth, a place where, after terrible pain, people go on living. 

After a while I started writing a novel from those stories. As happens, almost everything I started with, I later winnowed away. But what I kept was an idea about fiction in dark times, or fiction about dark times—that it can serve as a laboratory of different ways to be. After the world ends, before it became the way it is. The infinite variety of ways to make a life, a town, a world’s worth of lives.

There’s a girl on horseback in my novel—old habits die hard. But I don’t know if she’s a hero. I’m older now and I’ve been, as have we all, morally tested by a pandemic and an administration that separates parents from their children and sends troops in unmarked vans to hunt down Black people in American cities. I don’t know how well I’ve done on any of these tests, and I’m certainly not excited for more of them, though they come every day. Living in what can feel like the end of the world, I have no illusions about my own heroism.

Living in what can feel like the end of the world, I have no illusions about my own heroism. But I do want to think about how we will survive together.

But I do want to think about how we will survive together, and how we humans might care for each other after modernity, or late capitalism, or whatever you’d call the blasted era in which we live. These are the stories I want to tell now, not dystopias but simply topias, stories of people making a place for one another in the world.

I rewatched Children of Men the other day. I’m 37 years old now; I have a two-year-old son. We put him in a little mask when we take him to the park, so he doesn’t give or get a deadly virus. My appetite for dystopia has never been lower—at night I want cooking shows, or dramas about the English landed gentry. Still, I was curious. I wanted to see how the end of the world hit me now.

Turns out I’d forgotten almost everything about this movie. Spoilers follow: the world’s youngest person, age 18, dies at the very beginning. His baby pictures, splashed across TV screens within the TV, nearly destroyed me. Also, the main character has lost his only child, a little son, to a flu pandemic. Upon learning this I had to disengage and look up biographies of the actors on Wikipedia. Clive Owen, it turns out, is a fan of the soccer team Liverpool FC. Julianne Moore writes children’s books.

As I acclimated, I could see glimpses of what I’d loved so much back in 2006—the intrigue of the plot, the code names, the way Theo makes contact with the underground through posters reading “Have you seen this dog?” I remembered the humor and ease with which Clare-Hope Ashitey plays the pregnant Kee, a light in the darkness.

And then there were things I’d never seen. I’d always thought of Children of Men as a movie about Theo and Kee, persevering against all odds, heroes saving a fallen—or at least falling—world. What I saw this time was the way that world comes toward them, gathering around them and embracing them, even and especially when the danger is greatest.

What I saw this time was the way that world comes toward them, even and especially when the danger is greatest.

There’s the old activist, Jasper—Michael Caine in long hair and a Fair Isle sweater—who gives his life to save Theo and Kee. There’s the midwife, Miriam, who cares for Kee and ends up giving her life, too. There’s Marichka, the woman in the refugee camp who helps Theo, Kee, and Kee’s tiny baby get into the rowboat that will take them to safety.

And then there are the men who pause in their shooting and shelling to let Kee and her child go past. The refugees who reach out to them in adoration even as a battle rages. The animals—cows and sheep and, in particular, dogs—who seem to draw near to them as though called.

Children of Men is a hero story, sure. And it’s a dystopia, most definitely. But it’s also a story about community—people who come together, even if briefly, to protect those among them most in need of protection.

I’m not going to be naive and say this kind of community is going to protect us, in the real world, from what’s coming or what’s already here. But it’s where my eye goes, as a writer and a person, at this time in my life and the life of the world. It’s what allows me to look at all that’s falling and try to see what might rise.

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