Isolating Tensions: Foreground & Background in “Children of Men”


The world in P.D. James’ novel The Children of Men differs vastly from the onscreen realm that we see in the 2006 film adaptation. The basic premise remains the same: widespread infertility has halted the birth of human babies for nearly twenty-five years and Oxford professor Theo Faron, along with the rest of humanity, calmly and apathetically awaits the end of the world. With some minor changes in characterization, the screenplay and subsequent film build from the same starting point but enact one striking change. In the film, futuristic England is transformed from the wistful and nostalgic hills of peaceful Oxford to the chaotic and explosive streets of a xenophobic London.

When it comes to adapting a novel for film, the power that screenwriters possess to transform a literary world into a visual one is uniquely limited yet extremely effective when used properly. Moving from the pensive, sorrowful world of James to the loud and destructive nation of Cuarón’s England requires quite a bit of subtle crafting and thought to ensure that the hauntingly beautiful tone of James’ novel carries over intact.

To convey the story, James divides the novel into chapters, alternating between diary entries made by the protagonist Theo, and an omniscient narrator. Theo’s journal passages allow James to explore the interiority of this world from a first person point of view. Theo describes in lengthy, pensive yet apathetic monologues his thoughts and feelings regarding the absence of children and the coming end of humanity. In the omniscient chapters, James’ speaker remains with Theo but describes his actions from a distance, transcribing the events that for practical reasons Theo chooses not to record in his diary. James’ decision to delve into Theo’s mind through the use of a diary format also provides access to an interior sphere that is denied to a screenwriter when drafting a story that is inherently visual. Instead, screenwriters Alfonso Cuarón and Timothy J. Sexton find a way to externalize the same thoughts and sentiments through text.

James’ use of dual narrators in a story about mystery and secrecy in an age of crisis calls into question issues of reliability. Why does Theo choose to record some events and not others? What else is he leaving out of his diary? As a result, the reader of James’ novel develops a dual image of the world imagined in The Children of Men. The first view asserts Theo’s insistence on the benevolence of Xan, England’s absolute ruler as well as Theo’s cousin. The second perspective presents a less biased portrait of fictional England as totalitarian and oppressive. Our only glimpses of the true state of the world come from reading between the lines and filling in the gaps in order to draw our own conclusions.

This practice of communicating between the lines works by allowing a reader to make connections of their own after being presented with minimal information in a certain context. Within the film Children of Men, this process is translated into a tension between what is actively shown in the foreground and what is passively seen in the background.

But for the screenwriter, how does one write background into a script? To simply state that something is in the background is to announce its presence to it and automatically push it to the foreground of a reader’s mind. In an interview about Children of Men, philosopher Slavoj Žižek discusses the artistic use of foreground and background in the film, and calls this phenomenon the paradox of anamorphosis. Žižek contends that to directly confront something would be to lose sight of it. In order for a screenwriter to adequately duplicate the viewing experience for a reader, a more subtle method of conveying information is required.

Because much of a screenwriter’s power derives from the arrangement of text on its page, the formatting of a script can reflect how images are supposed to come to the viewer. The following scene text passages are from a sequence that describes an attack by young “Zeds” on a train while Theo watches from inside:


The notation of “interior” focuses the action of the scene as occurring from the perspective of inside the train. Immediately the distinction orients the reader in a way that they consciously understand what is intended to be foreground and what will be background. However, to use only this approach would require the reader to rely on memory. To reinforce the dynamic of foreground and background, the writer employs the power of The Page. The positioning of the text when read from left to right causes the viewer’s eye to read the billboard information last, and effectively pushes it into the background of this mental image.


As the scene continues, the writer describes the action first with the “Pock! Pock” declaration. Following that, Cuarón and Sexton emphasize the location of the action as happening outside the train, reinforcing our previously established notion of imagined foreground and background. The final sentence “Theo looks:” refocuses the attention on our protagonist and removes the reader from the background of the text, aligning once more with Theo.


The final block of scene text inverts the work performed by the opening sentences in order to close the scene. We move once more from Theo’s perspective to outside the train as he watches. The last sentence of the passage conveys billboard text that is once again external to the train and to the action of the scene. The constant changing of the locus of action within the scene text conveys the same sentiment felt when watching the camera work onscreen and emphasizes the continual interplay of foreground and background. When translated to film, the effect is the same as shown below.



As indicated in the script, Theo looks out of his window upon hearing the sound of the projectiles. The camera follows the motion of the train to pan right. By the time we see the second frame, Theo is effectively removed from the scene as the background attempts to capture our entire attention. However, the barrier between foreground and background is represented in the form of the steel mesh that keeps us separated.
Through her use of dual narrators, James conveys an image of a world in which information is not easy to come by, and must be gleaned by reading between the lines. Alfonso Cuarón achieves the same effect through both his text as a writer and manipulation of fore and background images as director. In these moments of background imagery the viewer most vividly captures P.D. James’ literary world translated for screen.

Children of Men struggles with the question of how best to represent the lack of a prominent social element. The screenplay suggests that in the absence of children, society also loses its human connection not only to the future, but to its past and even to its present.

P.D. James’ novel represents a childless society as a world of eerie silence and crushing loneliness. Senior citizens elect to participate in mass suicides in an effort to avoid dying alone. Churches use the recorded voices of altar boys to carry out their ceremonies. Adults have taken to nursing dolls and newborn pets as replacements for children, and everyone plays along.

The silence of James’ childless world becomes translated into the explosive and discordant dystopia that we experience on film. The longed for child voices that Theo elegizes in his diary are heard as the angered and frenzied cries of caged illegal immigrants. The loneliness and isolation of James’ novel is expressed on screen through England’s insular state as an island disconnected from the rest of the world in the same way that in lieu of the bonds afforded by children, humanity has become disconnected from its future.

The most divergent change from the novel to the film is the choice to create an atmosphere of intense xenophobia that borders on outright racism. The very first lines of the film are delivered over a distancing and disorienting black screen, informing the viewer of several recent atrocities in the world and that the Department of Homeland Security has decided that England’s borders will remain closed to foreigners. Throughout the film, several cues alert the viewer to a new authoritative state that has come about as a result of the infertility crisis. The singular and interior experience of isolation is externalized to represent a larger and more public isolation as “Only Britain Soldiers On” in the wake of a fallen world.

Altering the narrative to contain elements that carry the same sentiments as personal isolation works for a writer who tries to convey external isolation to a viewer. But how does a writer create such an experience for the initial reader? The act of reading is usually an isolative process, however the act of reading a screenplay is often a less isolative task. The screenwriter will often communicate directly to their reader by breaking the fourth wall and offering authorial asides in the form of the comment mode. The use of direct address lessens the distance between messenger and receiver in a way that affects the experience of interpreting text. However, as the screenplay for Children of Men shows, a writer’s choice to limit their use of the comment mode has the opposite effect.

The entire opening scene for Children of Men is written entirely without comment mode, save for two sentences that convey a sense of Theo’s character. Theo, who is meant to be our guide during this disorienting and distressing journey, is our only companion. Within the rest of the world, the script works to create the same feelings of isolation and abandonment felt by the citizens of this bleak world.

In comparison to the film’s opening sequence, the corresponding script moment for the opening scene begins:


Cuarón and Sexton create a similar distancing effect by denying the reader a traditional scene heading and giving no scene clues as to the location of this report. The unnamed “TV Voice” disrupts any potential character identification within the opening moments and the reader feels the same isolation that pervades 21st century England.

In contrast to the narrative isolation conveyed on an informational level in James’ novel, the screenplay and film work to create emotional isolation within the reader and viewer. While discussing the filmmaking process of Children of Men, director Alfonso Cuarón related his desire to give the film a documentary feel, using long, unedited takes to depict continuous action. The result of a documentary approach is that the viewer becomes an explicit observer of this foreign realm, and even more isolated. The detached and external perspective is evident for the reader in Cuarón and Sexton’s equally detached and apathetic narration as they willingly abstain from emotional commentary.

The world of a science fiction story is never very far removed from our own. In creating a unique fictive realm, the novel or short story writer will draw from familiar features of typical daily life (such as societal structures, technology, and even history) and present them to the viewer in a distorted way that that creates a feeling of recognizing the familiar in something that is unfamiliar. In Freudian psychoanalysis, the term for feeling the familiar within the unfamiliar is known as the uncanny. It is this feeling of the uncanny that both allows a reader to accept the new laws of an alternate reality, while still feeling comfortable enough to maneuver within it.

As such, the science-fiction novelist completes the same action as the screenwriter—evolving one form to another. The novelist evolves a world while a screenwriter will evolve a story. Each of the three film adaptations feature worlds that differ vastly from the novelized forms that originally created them. The respective screenplays for these films depict the various stages of this transition between page and screen, but a common thread remains: the ghostly presence of an earlier history visible in the later form.

The sci-fi world is an imitation of our world, and the sci-fi film is an imitation of its screenplay, which is an imitation of the original novel. Production interviews and notes for Children of Men describe how the art team established a cultural timeline for the progression from our current technology to the state of the world in the year 2027. Writers will link the original with its imitation by drawing on emotional connections. The screenwriter picks up on these connections and then converts them into a more visually receptive form.

In The Children of Men, novelist P.D. James shows us our current world but transforms the sound of children’s voices into distant echoes that leave hollow spaces. With his film adaptation, director and writer Alfonso Cuarón uses sequences evocative of Holocaust imagery and detention camps to implicitly communicate a world rife with injustice and pain. In designing the look of the film, Cuarón told his art department that he did not want inventiveness, but reference, so that an audience would be able to adequately recognize a distorted form of their own reality.

For the reader and viewer who encounter this uncanny world, it feels all the more real because of its familiar elements. The writer and director work meticulously to shape our thoughts and emotions while we visit the foreign realm. When done effectively, the underlying narrative is all the more compelling; the creation of a sci-fi world will always feel close but inescapably distant to us. It is the home to which we will truly never be able to return.

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