From Painted Faces to The Uprising: Children of Men’s Lessons for Revolution

James, P.D. The Children of Men. London: Faber, 1992.

Cuarón, Alfonso, dir. Children of Men. 2006. Film.


P.D. James’ The Children of Men tells of a dystopian future, 25 years after the last child was born.  Under this pretense, a totalitarian government forms under the leadership of Xan, cousin of the at times protagonist, at times diarist and Victorian Literature professor Theo.  The novel is written in response to Thatcherite TINAism and the Capitalist realism (to borrow Mark Fisher’s term) following the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union, by contending that an alternative does exist to the totalitarian state; and not just any totalitarian state, but one in which the end of history is literally in view, where the job of the State is merely to provide end-of-life comforts for a terminal society.  And naturally, considering this zeitgeist of raw power and collapse of counter-power, there is a third-wayism to the proposed solution, that of a humanist reform, akin to Dalton Trumbo’s belief, repeated by Howard Zinn, in a “socialism without jails.”  Theo gets brought into a plot, because of his relationship to Xan, by the “Five Fishes” to overthrow Xan and initiate social and political reforms, essentially in appearance democratization.  However, Theo becomes bound to the group due to his love for Julian and the secret she carries inside her womb.  As the secret comes closer to its point of revelation, Rolf, the power hungry father, who wants to leverage his child to gain control of England (and subsequently renege on the organizing points that brought the group together), himself neither understands how to actually seize power, nor that he is not the father after all.  The book thus closes with Theo killing Xan and taking control of England, not so different from the conclusion to Rupert Sanders’ take on Snow White and the Huntsman—i.e. with a devilish grin on the face of the righteous usurper.  Of course—as is implicated in both cases—the hero will betray the very values that made them heroic.  As Xan portends to Theo early in the novel: “If you did succeed, what an intoxication of power.”

The film differs in a number of key ways, probably too many to list or do diligence to, and in any case rather insignificant to purposes of analysis; but, in any case, these differences are deliberate to accomplish two goals: to modernize the film for release 14 years later, incorporating the post-2001 spiraling of security state, global civil war, and even Guantanamization of detention facilities and metropolitan guerrilla/terrorist attacks; and to make the film visually stunning to accommodate this retemporalization which these changes necessitate.  Thus, I think (and P.D. James has implied in interviews) that the book and the novel are essential to be taken together, to fully grasp the changes that have taken place in our society in—ultimately—the 20 years since the book was first published, but also, as can be imagined, the similarities that have persisted.

The film is faithful to the novel’s overall theme of “dystopia, here, now”: immigration problems, panoptic hypersurveillance, evangelical separation, and creeping totalitarianism.  The film also includes Theo’s process of conscientization, which, while individualized in both cases, wants to speak to broader practices of radicalization and recruitment.

There are, of course, some shortcomings in Cuarón’s visualization of the plot: most glaring is the omission of the narrative and discourse of power, especially the intoxication of tyranny.   As Caryn James writes in her review of the film,

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. [1]

In a similar vein, with the death of Theo at the conclusion of the film, the viewer misses Theo’s own dictatorial empowerment.

Additionally, Cuarón replaces the Painted Faces with a more anonymous band of thieves and pillagers; the Painted Faces, gangs of Omegas in the novel, provide a means to contemplate what it means to be in the last cohort ever to breathe air on planet Earth.  The Painted Faces—and to some extent Omegas in general—exhibit a crude, apolitical nihilism, alluded to in the film’s graffiti in one scene: “Last one to die please turn out the light.”  This pessimism and detachment is manifest in the ritualistic, feral violence of the Painted Faces, while more “civilized” Omegas in London behave akin to a caricature of American hipsters (in the latter case, more concerned with asinine diversions and an insidious but banal irony).  The Painted Faces demand recognition from society, brutally murdering one victim from groups of travelers and sending the survivors home to testify to their existence.  These are individuals who have withdrawn from society while also seeing nothing of value to be spared, yet apathetic to an extent of not actually launching attacks on the metropole itself—thus, they exhibit a proto-Jacobin tendency, acting out terror for the sake of terror, while lacking a radical democratic project to enforce, even lacking the sliver of hope for a better future that drove the Weather Underground, Red Army Faction, and similar organizations.  And, in retrospect of Theo’s grasp of power, one wonders which of the counterposed options is most rational or ethical: complacency with tyranny, Bolshevik replacement of one tyrant with another, or a primal desire to paint one’s face and dance while burning cars?  The question really becomes one of introducing politics and strategy to the final option, or perhaps bringing primitive ultraviolence into politics or strategy.  The Painted Faces, then, present an ontological challenge to formal politics and the unspoken, unanswered “then what?” of plans to overthrow Xan.

Where Cuarón leaves out essential parts of James’ narrative, he also introduces new elements which are equally essential to understanding James’ project.  The first of these is the Uprising, the outward manifestation of opposition to Xan, the armed and offensive element of the Five Fishes’ withdrawal in the novel.  Of course, it is also the visual and cinematic utterance of the global (then) subterranean civil war, which anticipates and has now boiled over in the form of the Arab Spring, Movement of Squares, and both iterations of Occupy (the 2009 California student revolt and the more recent anticorporate-yet-branded wave of protests).

What is also introduced is a feature common to other revolutionist dystopian literature, that of the dichotomous “exotopia,” the territory (geographical or otherwise) from which threat to the regime is brought; in fact, this exotopia serves the function of antithesis to dystopia’s thesis, considering that these texts follow a dialectical plot.  Other examples include the spectre of Sanctuary in William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s Logan’s Run and Michael Anderson’s film adaptation; Malpais in Huxley’s Brave New World, or the MEPHI organization and the “outside world” beyond the Green Wall in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.  Cuarón, in this vein, introduces the Human Project, who seeks to smuggle the pregnant Kee out of England, to their facilities in the Azures Islands, where she—and indirectly humanity—will be safe.  Thus, exotopia at once serves as an existing alternative (a utopia), a place to escape to, and a staging ground for revolt.

This begs the question, at the risk of extrapolating too much from literature, whether revolutionary strategy really should be to include so many people in organizing, “livestreaming” meetings, posting minutes publicly; or if clandestine, autonomous action—outside agitation—is more effective to create change, rather than just manufacturing the appearance of a possibility of participatory change.  This isn’t to say that this excludes the possibility of authoritarianism or sectarianism; but those are almost guaranteed among “popular” movements and coalitions.  Blaumachen speaks to this reality when they write:

National coordination reflects the sterility of politics and essentially our weakness. Unionists and dozens of leftist groups offer platforms written in advance by their leadership. National coordination is a certain political power’s attempt to dominate the movement. We know that coordinating the actions of the various parts of the movement in a broader framework is necessary; so is the development of ideas within the movement. However, not only doesn’t the national coordination […] promote this, but it is also hostile to such a necessity. […]  In cases where only one political power dominates, content is self-evident; it is its political platform. In the rest of the committees discussion is always postponed in order for a so-called unity over the ‘minimums’ not to be disrupted. It is quite clear that under such conditions national coordination means the domination of the political platform of the organisation or the organisations that will dominate […] We must destroy their aspirations and coordinate our actions in an autonomous way. [2]

Rather than stand out as a unique position, this is one of the central tenets of Communization theory (of which Blaumachen is a central voice), along with Insurrectionary Anarchism and Illegalism (e.g. Alfredo Bonanno, Josep Lluís i Facerias, The Coming Insurrection).  These tendencies consciously attempt to avoid the path of those “urban guerrilla” movements of the 1970s, already spoken of above, but instead to honestly and critically answer that immortal question asked by Lenin: What is to be done?

It is from this starting point that we should think through broader movement strategy.

  1. James, Caryn. “Children of Differing Visions: Contrasting a P.D. James Novel and the Movie It Inspired.” December 28, 2006. ()
  2. Blaumachen. “Occupation, Not Democracy!” 2006. 

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