As she does so gracefully in her mysteries, in “The Children of Men” Ms. James creates a beautifully realized world, making fine points the film has no time for: childless women push dolls in baby carriages, and couples hold christening ceremonies after the births of kittens.
And Theo recalls boyhood summers as the poor relation visiting his rich, supremely self-confident cousin, Xan, a character who as an adult holds the title warden of England and is, in fact, the country’s dictator. On screen this character, called Nigel and played by Danny Huston, has only one scene, when Theo tries to use this connection to get a travel visa for the pregnant woman.
Moviegoers may wonder why this character pops up at all, or why such an elaborate set was created; we see that he owns Picasso’s “Guernica” and Michelangelo’s “David,” whose leg has been damaged. The episode feels shoehorned into the movie, which isn’t surprising in a work with five credited screenwriters and a nine-year gestation. Even after Mr. Cuarón became interested, in 2001, he went off to direct “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” before returning to the project, which was then altered to suit the post-9/11 world.
Despite those topical additions, Xan is a huge lost opportunity for the film, because he is the vehicle for Ms. James’s astute exploration of how certain kinds of tyrants come to exist. The social disorder and pessimism that Ms. James defines so sharply — science has failed to explain, much less cure, the infertility, and religion is a solace to some but a gaping hole to others — has allowed this despot to seize control. Parliament is a sham that, as Theo says, “gives the illusion of democracy,” and the members of Xan’s ruling Council never disagree with him.
This poisonous rule is presented to the public and accepted as a strong, desirable response to threats to the country. The government justifies abuses in the name of a smoothly run society: it condones the forced, slavelike labor of immigrants and encourages the mass suicides of the old. As a Council member explains: “What we guarantee is freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom from boredom. The other freedoms are pointless without freedom from fear.”
That line becomes even more haunting now that the world feels more threatening and freedom has become a buzzword applied to everything from the ludicrous anti-French Freedom Fries to the sober Freedom Tower planned for the World Trade Center site.
The personal motives behind Xan’s tyranny are also shrewdly analyzed. Theo asks the once apolitical Xan why he became Britain’s ruler, and Xan answers in the cavalier manner we recognize from his boyhood, “At first because I thought I’d enjoy it,” adding, “I could never bear to watch someone doing badly what I knew I could do well.” By the time power had lost its thrill, he claims, no one in the Council was competent to take over.
When Theo calls him on this self-delusion, Xan replies, “Have you ever known anyone to give up power, real power?”
Theo fully grasps this explanation and carries its lesson to the underground group that hopes to overthrow Xan’s tyranny. “If you did succeed, what an intoxication of power,” he says.
That warning comes back to haunt the entire novel, and it’s a theme the film could have put to fuller use. In its second half the screen version of “Children of Men” all but abandons its social concerns. (We see that immigrants have been forced into camps, but how and why?) It becomes a thoughtful chase movie. And even with Mr. Owen’s tough yet stirring performance, Theo is more conventional on screen. Like the film character, the book’s Theo has also lost a small child, but he has been responsible for the death, no state for a movie hero to be in.
When the film loses its energy for politics and its taste for ambiguity, that makes the difference between a good movie and an exceptional one. (There are lesser reasons; was it necessary for twocharacters actually to say, “Jesus Christ” when learning of the near-miraculous pregnancy and birth?)
The ending of the novel is brilliantly ambiguous and entirely different from the film’s, as the potential for the “intoxication of power” falls into unexpected hands. As Ms. James said in an interview when the book came out: “The detective novel affirms our belief in a rational universe because, at the end, the mystery is solved. In ‘The Children of Men’ there is no such comforting resolution.” It is comforting for both moviegoers and readers, though, to have Clive and P. D. as the season’s best odd couple.Continue reading the main story
“I won’t describe what I look like,” 10-year-old Auggie says on the first page. “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Instead, we get to know him by hearing his thoughts about his family, and his fears of going to school for the first time after being home-schooled by his mom, and the stories of his heartbreaking attempts at making and keeping friends over the years. It’s not until page 88, when the narrative voice shifts to his teenage sister, Via, that we get some specifics about his face. His eyes “slant downward at an extreme angle,” with top eyelids “always halfway closed” and lower eyelids that look “like they’re inside out.” He has “tiny cauliflower-shaped ears” as well as a “severe overbite and an extremely undersized jawbone.” There are a few more specific descriptions there, and seeded throughout the book. Still, even after reading the book several times, and reviewing it for The Times, I felt an abiding uncertainty and a kind of tender curiosity about Auggie’s face. Not only was it difficult to imagine how such unusual features cohered visually, I somehow didn’t want to hurt his feelings by wanting too badly to know the brutal reality.
Yet just a few minutes into the movie “Wonder,” the tantalizing central mystery of the book is over. We see Auggie jumping on his bed, then walking to the first day of school with his parents and Via, all the while wearing an astronaut helmet. They arrive at his new school, he takes off the helmet, and there it is: the nonnegotiable truth, or rather the filmmakers’ version of it. (Which, by the way, is not nearly as drastically different as I think most readers of the book will have imagined, but that’s another story.) In the theater, I looked at the reveal with a peculiar mixture of satisfaction and letdown.
Here is where I encourage anyone whose child has not yet read the book, or seen the movie (and let’s remember that with children’s literature, an entirely new audience ages into a book every year): Try to get hold of a copy that is not the brand-new “movie tie-in edition.” As the cover trumpets, this new edition “includes full-color movie photos and exclusive content!” No, no, a thousand times no. Those full-color photos of Jacob Tremblay in his makeup will make impossible the experience of creating, each child for him or herself, a private image of Auggie.
In the book, when Auggie does comment on his appearance, his words focus on what it is like to live in his body. Take this short scene about dealing with his ears, which are the feature “I hate the most,” because they’re “like tiny closed fists on the sides of my face,” and they’re “too low on my head.” But his hearing has been getting worse, and he constantly has an “ocean” sound in his head, “like I was underwater.” So after a short protest he lets the doctor put in the hearing aid. What comes next is one of those perfectly pitched passages that makes you soar each time Auggie’s life gets a little better. “The ocean just wasn’t living inside my head any more.” He could hear “sounds like shiny lights” in his brain. “I don’t know if there’s a word that means the same as ‘bright’ in terms of hearing, but I wish I knew one, because I was hearing brightly now.”
Moments like that one, when Palacio steers us toward feeling, rather than seeing, what it is like to be Auggie, help explain why, when there are so many books about kids with disabilities, this novel is the one that has inspired a movement. It’s called “Choose Kind” and its aim is to help children develop empathy. Along with the Children’s Craniofacial Association, schools and communities have embraced the book as a cause, more than just a reading experience, with “Wonder” “Community Reads” events and schools establishing “certified choose kind classrooms.”
Many of those classrooms, and others too, have been making field trips to see the movie. I hope more will follow. In its quiet way it’s a tremendous movie, and along with the book it has important work to do. But there is still this strange situation to contend with: The movie does justice to Auggie’s story, but it doesn’t — it can’t — do justice to the book.Continue reading the main story
An earlier version of this article misspelled part of the title of the film based on Roald Dahl’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” It is “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” not Willie.