The Children Act (2017)

Ian McEwan, a despairing and wonderfully artistic Naturalist–a latter day descendant of Hobbes and that dour philosopher’s summation of human life as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short and, most likely, leading to a sure collective disaster in an ominous human future–is without contemporary peers in fashioning pessimistic dramas with their special demands, especially in plotting and in the need for sponsoring early illusions that heighten the later Awful Revelations. In The Children Act, McEwan has written his simplest, most elegant novel of a universally miserable human fortune reminiscent of Zola and Dreiser, one exceeded in importance among his splendid work only by the massive, disheartening but magnificent Solar. (See elsewhere in the present blog for reviews of the novels, Solar and The Children Act.) 

The novel is better than the movie, and most interestingly because McEwan wrote the movie screenplay and has said that he liked the challenge of writing for a vehicle which, unlike novels, cannot much abide characters’ explanations and reflections on the significance of their actions: Action, pure and simple–the substance of most movies.

In his novel, The Children Act, McEwan brings the Bad News through the disillusionment of a most estimable and admirable British jurist in today’s London, the Honorable Mrs. Justice (Fiona) Maye DBE, a widely admired liberal heroine and still-fetching middle aged judge presiding over cases of child welfare, most notably dilemmas in which ill children–dying lukemia victims, Siamese twins who will both die unless separated, whereupon most probably only one will survive–have been sentenced to death by parents who are Jehova’s Witnesses or otherwise against medical intervention on superstitious grounds, often with the ill children themselves tragically converted to the deadly restrictions, and Maye must firmly order that the medical salvation take place at once in what is a clear ethical outcome.

Life over superstition.

As we meet her, she has become a heralded savior, an enlightened liberal spirit working for children, opposing ignorance and its murderous work, and proudly carrying on the civilized life to the applause and approval of many. Yet as the story opens, we learn that something is bothering Fiona. The first symptoms are discord between Fiona and her professor husband, Jack, complaining of their lapsed sex life, himself admittedly attracted to a pursuing coed, and essentially a simple, “natural” person who teaches Ancient History, stressing periods when religious superstition was comparatively subdued. (Note the brilliant metaphorical and symbolic set-up here by McEwan–the basis for a revelation of Fiona’s obsessive denial of the Darkness of the Intellect and the Weakness of the Flesh by comparison with Jack and his Simple Acceptance of Life, his guiding experience without illusion in the Vale of Tears, a Vale known from long ago in history, a shrewd irony to say the least.) Jack is almost blatantly a “normal guy” who loves Fiona and simply wants to be close again. If Fiona increasingly darkly worries about complex threats to the welfare of children, Jack is a natural “buddy” in horsing around in traditional games with his nieces and has a rapport with them that Fiona lacks, all of which begins to work against her liberal idealism and dramatize McEwan’s natural, low-keyed Hobbesian take on things as more realistic than her admirable determination.

Basically McEwan creates a sort of case study to dramatize Fiona’s disillusionment and realization of Cruel Naturalism: A boy with leukemia, Adam Henry, needs a life-saving blood transfusion but himself opposes it as a sin. After the Fiona’s court-ordered transfusion cures him, Adam (Dear Reader, what’s in a name? Yes, wear hard hats and watch out for falling symbols) begins to stalk Fiona because Adam, his superstitious comforts slain thanks to Fiona’s decision, wants her to give him a sophisticated, modern, Enlightened substitute for those superstitions, a Grand Rationale that things are Good. Fiona can’t, Adam becomes sick again and allows himself to die, and McEwan turns toward us and says, Well, disillusionment is something of a catharsis and besides, isn’t it better to know that Nature = Hell?

Fiona is shattered. Basically, that’s The End.

How specifically is she shattered? In the novel, she experiences the following Mindscape that becomes her decisive disillusionment:

At nights her thoughts returned to that photograph of the (Siamese) twins and the dozens of others she had studied, and to the detailed technical information she had heard from medical specialists on all that was wrong with the babies, on the cutting and breaking, splicing and folding of infant flesh they must perform to give Mark a normal life, reconstructing internal organs, rotating his legs, his genitals and bowels through ninety degrees. In the bedroom darkness, while Jack at her side quietly snored, she seemed to peer over a cliff edge. She saw in the remembered pictures of Matthew and Mark a blind and purposeless nullity. A microscopic egg had failed to divide in time due to a failure somewhere along a chain of chemical events, a tiny disturbance in a cascade of protein reactions. A molecular event ballooned like an exploding universe, out onto the wider scale of human misery. No cruelty, nothing avenged, no ghost moving in mysterious ways. Merely a gene transformed in error, an enzyme recipe skewed, a chemical bond severed. A process of natural wastage as indifferent as it was pointless. Which only brought into relief healthy, perfectly formed life, equally contingent, equally without purpose. Blind luck, to arrive in the world with your properly formed parts in the right place, to be born to parents who were loving, not cruel, or to escape, by geographical or social accident, war or poverty. And therefore to find it so much easier to be virtuous.

“Merely a gene transformed in error, an enzyme recipe skewed, a chemical bond severed. A process of natural wastage as indifferent as it was pointless.” The phone’s ringing–is that Hobbes?

And re symbols: “Matthew” and “Mark.”

About the above excerpt: The diction and the pace and the rhythms are superb. In the history of Naturalistic novelists, Zola, Hardy and Farrell on, you’d be challenged to find a more forceful rendering of Naturalism and its Bad News–poor weak-minded Homo sapiens is adrift in a place of dooming forces he and she do not really understand and to which they will inevitably succumb.

However, there can’t be such a passage in the movie–McEwan is too much a storytelling genius to attempt it. But if the movie lacks the punch of the novel, it is blessed with three marvelous actors: Emma Thompson as Fiona, Stanley Tucci as Jack and Fionn Whitehead as Adam Henry.

It is fascinating to watch McEwan wrestle with the screenplay.

I doubt many of you will share the Grand Pessimism of McEwan who, for one thing, seems entirely skeptical of the promise of technology. But if you want to watch an important storyteller at work in both a novel and a movie, don’t miss The Children Act.