The Children of Men by P.D James

by Hannah Leskosky

The Children of Men written by P.D James in 1992 is a dystopia set in 2021, England in a world that is now an infertile place.The story explores how the society copes.
The story is told switching between third person and first person in the form of diary entries from the protagonist, Theo Faron.

Author Background

P.D James, short for Phyllis Dorothy James, was born August 3, 1920, in Oxford, England. Before she became a full-time writer in 1979, she served on the National Health and Civil Services of England. Shortly after her transition to full-writerdom, she became a member of many literary groups and chaired the literature Advisory Panel at the Arts Council of England and the British Council. Her first successes were with detective stories (or as she calls them--crime novels). She has been awarded many honors for her writing (Prono, 2004).
James is very conservative and Christian in her beliefs and does not try to hide her beliefs, with her personal views on life often seeping into the novels she writes. Notwithstanding her personal political orientation, however, "her novels explore the darker and disturbing instincts of the human mind with a complexity that defies political partisanship" (Prono, 2004). She often tries to incorporate social messages irrespective of the specific setting of her novels.


The year is 2021 and there have been no new births since 1995--when mysteriously all the human sperm in the world went bad. Members of this younger generation are referred to as the Omegas. Theo Faron, the main character, documents all this in his diary. In 2006, Xan, Theo's cousin, gives himself the position of Warden of England. He imposes a tyrannical rule and gets rid of all vestiges of deomcracy. A radical group, which opposes Xan and his ideals, called the Five Fishes encounters Theo at a church he attends. A member of this group, Julian, asks Theo to talk to Xan about his governmental policies. Theo meets with Xan, but issues arise, causing drama in Theo's life. He takes a vacation and upon returning learns that the Five Fishes are going to go on the run after acting out against the government. Julian is not with them, for she is pregnant.


It is not a secret that P.D James was trying to weave Christian ideals into her novel. Much of the symbolism in the novel is related to Christianity. For example, Julian’s miraculous pregnancy is very Madonna-like. The Virgin Mary is probably one of the most recognizable Christian figures, so when James works a miraculous birth into her story, it is not hard to believe she is referencing the miraculous birth that occurs in the New Testament. As well, the name of the main character, Theo, happens to be the same as the Greek word for “god” and may be intended to evoke God. Theo’s dissatisfaction with contemporary society in the novel may thus symbolize the tension between religion and society in real life.

Another example of the Christian-related symbolism is name of the radical group that Julian belongs to--the “five fishes.” Fish are referenced quite a bit in Christianity, especially when Jesus was talking to his disciples and wanted to feed the poor. He asked for any food to be gathered and when only five fish and two loaves of bread were found, he managed to feed the whole crowd. I think it is no coincidence that the radical group of the few believers is called the Five Fishes.

Religious Interpretation

The first sign to indicate that there are some religious undertones to the story is the title of the book. “The Children of Men” comes from a biblical psalm: "Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men." It can be deduced that James was trying to comment on the lack of faith in the world and the over-reliance on science to solve and cure people’s problems. What created the dystopia in the story is that the human race is sterile and no scientist of any kind can figure out a cure or a reason why. Some of the inhabitants have turned to religion--but not true religion (Cunningham, 2003), a more commercialized, hollow version of Christianity. However, Theo attends one of the few ‘real’ churches; the Magdalen College Chapel, to give himself a “reason to care.” This is where he meets Julian, who is an adamant believer in God and devout Christian. The bible story that is most clearly seen in this book is that of the conception and birth of Jesus. This is actually referenced in the book when Theo sees all different types of women looking longingly at the Virgin Mary while on a summer trip to Rome. “Such scenes clearly move Theo, but he hardly sees how an extraordinary leap of religious faith would make things any better. Like so many modern readers of the Christian creeds, he can only imagine conception and childbirth in such circumstances as highly improbably medical events—not as spiritual or theological possibilities” (Cunningham, 2003).

When Julian (one of the last people to have true faith in God) becomes pregnant and eventually gives birth, the true message of the story is revealed. This society has relied too heavily on science to view life—that is, people have lost the true “ingredients” to life, spirit and love, and have tried to hard to see life as something one can “engineer.” Julian is middle-aged and semi-handicapped—not this society’s view of who should be fertile.“The remains of Western science searched for new birth among the candidates that it considered most likely: the young, the beautiful, the strong. But when fertility finally broke back into the world, it arrived among the weak, the lowly, the unlovely” (Cunningham, 2003). That the only thing causing the issue in this society is a lack of love is a very Christian ideal. This one miraculous (Virgin Mary-esque) birth restores Theo’s (among many others in the society’s) faith in a God and a restored belief in real love.

Feminist Interpretation

Another way that this novel has been interpreted is from a feminine perspective. Feminist criticism tends to focus on issues of gender roles and reproductive activity. It is clearly specified in the novel that the men in society have become sterile and all sperm, even frozen, has become useless. This causes a slow decline in society and provides an answer to the question—what to do in a society with no future? Old people are killed off in mass murder/suicide rituals because they can’t bear to cope with the bleak future ahead. Those who were at reproductive age are distraught and overrun with “frustrated maternal desire.” Inconsolable with the idea that they can never have kids, they pour affection on expensive dolls. The Omegas (last generation to be born) are seen as separated—eerily perfect, “incapable of human sympathy,” and feared “with a half-superstitious awe” (Squier, 1999). These seemingly perfect people are sacrificed in fertility rituals (in vain), in superficial societies. This novel shows that we as a society are fascinated with sexuality, birth, aging, and death and James is trying to explore how growth, maturation, aging, and death would be viewed in a world with no birth. This shows that this novel sees a future of male sterility as a real threat but from the perspective of the story women are integral to addressing such threats to society in the future (Squier, 1999).

Film Adaptation

This book was adapted to the big screen in 2006 by director Alfonso Cuaron. Reviews varied greatly and reflected many reactions and interpretations. On a purely cinematic level, according to a contributor to a cinema journal (Cineaste), “Children of Men” is different from other action films. It has a uniqueness to it and clear political leanings expressed throughout. It does not just entertain, it makes its audiences think and question what they believe by employing cinematic techniques to validate the point the director was trying to get across. Gritty, realistic filming was used to drive home the message that the film’s dystopia could be our future. On-screen catastrophes and the destruction of urban settings are used to underscore this message, by exploiting the images and memories of such real-life catastrophes as the terrorist attack of September 11th. However, Cuaron uses heavy mythological connotations to explain the “messianism” in the story. “Children of Men” can also be seen as a New Disaster Film, one that has a humble hero amidst a world of apparent utter despair with surprising effects (Rowin, 2007).

“When one acknowledges the context in which Children of Men exists as entertainment, the question then becomes whether Cuaron strategically works subversive elements into a blockbuster or else renews the sci-fi/action hybrid by means of topical material. Even more than War of the Worlds, Children of Men will most likely split its audience into those who see it as a cynical exploitation of the present complex geopolitical situation for purposes of cinematic showmanship and those who see it as a genuinely provocative warning about our potential future. Such divisiveness proves the New Disaster Film's relatively more 'responsible' confrontations with death and destruction play out, purposely or innately, as radical esthetics, as rousing spectacles expounding on the very nature of spectacle” (Rowin, 2007).


For the most part, the novel was generally liked. A review of the book when it first came out by New York Times reviewer, Walter Wangerin, stated that the story starts out slow with the real adventure coming in the second half of it. The "real" action comes with the real understanding of the story, which is "No future, not because it has been canceled suddenly, as by nuclear war, but because it has been cut off at the source: no babies, no next generation. Those alive are thus granted their fullness of years but their deaths are made dreadfully significant. When they die, all die. Contemplating that, in Book One, is the more terrible adventure" (Wangerin, 1993).
Real transformation of Theo did not escape critiques--this aspect of the story as really appreciated and valued by literary reviewers.
The movie on the other hand had mixed review.

In a sense, there really should be no comparison between the book and movie because the movie is vastly different from the novel itself; according to New York Times reviewer Caryn James, the two should be seen as completely different entities and appreciated each in its own right. The film uses recent events, especially September 11th . September 11th imagery was added after Cuaron accepted the role of director in 2001, then went to direct “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” and then returned to “Children of Men” (James, 2006)). References to actual government aspects (such as a department called Homeland Security) were incorporated to make sure the audience feels that this fictional future could potentially be their own real future. However, the movie doesn’t use the prophetic social themes in the same way the novel does. While the novel plays up these themes to make the message profound and meaningful, the film uses them as evocative scare tactics. Other problems arise in the small details. In the film, Theo’s job is changed from a historian to a “minor bureaucrat” and in the film one character is created from a mix of two very different people in the novel. The film did not use Xan’s tyrannical rule to its full potential. The film really missed out in using the lesson “If you did succeed, what an intoxication of power” that Theo learns from talking with Xan about his self-delusional views on power (James, 2006). It also does not use all the social concerns that the novel brings up to their full potential. The endings to the two interpretations of the story are also vastly different.

Personal Reflection

There are so many interpretations of the message of this book. A good blending of all of them may create what James was really trying to get across. Whatever that may be, the theme of societal difficulties snakes through all interpretations, thus proving to be a substantial part of the message of the book. Though perhaps slightly unbelievable as dystopias go (a world of complete sterility), there is an inkling of thought of “what if,” and James paints a spectacularly bleak future revolving around that “what if.”

The idea behind the plot of The Children of Men is not an original one. The idea that a society goes completely sterile and how they deal with this issue appears in other dystopias. Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood deals with this same issue, but in a slightly different way. In Handmaid's Tale, there are still some people who can reproduce, so society functions (not well and fair, but better than in The Children of Men--in which the world becomes a bleak, devastating place).

A factor that made “The Children of Men” more interesting and different from many other dystopia novels was the cause of the downfall of the world, i.e., the forces creating the dystopia in which the book is set. Often in dystopias the issues arise from external sources such as extreme technological advances, as in “Player Piano” by Kurt Vonnegut. In “The Children of Men” however, the problem arises from internal forces—that is, the sudden sterility of all men. The internal origin of the challenge to the survival of humanity thus suggests the solution must come from within as well—that people must draw upon inner resources to solve the problems at hand. This idea presents another dichotomy—where exactly should the solution come from? If in actuality the population went sterile, scientists would be dedicating their time and efforts in trying to develop a medical solution. James suggests, though, that this problem is much bigger than science and the only solution comes from faith. All efforts of scientists to restore fertility have failed. It is one of the devout Christians that ultimately becomes pregnant, thus rekindling hope for the future of humanity.

P.D James sets her story in the future—2021. Because the novel was written in 1992, James would have had many opportunities to project new technologies for a society three decades in the future, but she doesn’t. The future is pretty much the same as London in the 1990s. There are no telescreens as in “1984” or anything like EPICAC form “Player Piano.” This is one of the problems with this novel. On the one hand, having a future that is very similar to reality could prove unsettling to a reader, because it seems so familiar and plausible. However, it’s ultimately unrealistic, because technology invariably advances with time. James obviously didn’t want science to provide the solution to the central problem in her story. She wanted to show that no matter how many scientific strides are made , faith will prove to be the ultimate answer. Even when the book was written, there were scientific advances that could have been employed as a possible solution. Cloning was a hot topic in the early 90s, culminating in the cloning of Dolly the Sheep in 1996, and yet there is no mention in the book of the availability of this technology even then. Thus James does her reader a disservice by not even suggesting that science has anything to offer to help humanity.


Cunningham, David S. "Explicating Those 'Troublesome' Texts of the Creeds: ThePromise of Realistic Fiction." Dialog: A Journal of Theology 42.2 (2003). Ebsco. 5 Mar. 2009 <>.

Heim, S. Mark. "The Children of Men. - book reviews." Christian Century (May 1993). 18 Mar. 2009

Heim, S Mark. "The omegas and the alpha: Wold with an end." Christian Century (May 1993). Ebsco. 5 Mar. 2009 <>.

James, Caryn. "Children of Differing Visions: Contrasting a P. D. James Novel and the Movie It Inspired." New York Times 28 Dec. 2006. 18 Mar. 2009

Prono, Luca. "P.D James." Contemporary Writers. 2004. British Council. 18 Mar. 2009

Rowin, Michael Joshua. "Children of Men." Cineaste 32.2 (2007): 60. Literature Resource Center. 4 Mar. 2009

Squier, Susan. "From omega to Mr. Adam: The importance of literature for feminist science studies." Science Technology and Human Values 24.1 (1999): 132-158. Ebsco. 4 Mar. 2009 <>.

Wangerin, Walter, Jr. "O Brave New World, That Has No People In't!" Rev. of Children of Men, by P.D James. New York Times 28 Mar. 1993. 18 Mar. 2009

Wood, Ralph C. "Rapidly Rises the Morning Tide: An Essay on P.D James's The Children of Men." Theology Today. Ebsco. 5 Mar. 2009

Zizek, Slavoj. "The Clash Of Civilizations At The End Of History." Rev. of Children of Men, dir. Alfonso Cuaron. Children of Men. 2006. Universal Pictures.
18 Mar. 2009 <>.