So, last summer I managed to read/watch both versions of Children of Men. My faulty memory has since swept most of the details away, but armed with some wikipedia articles as refreshers, I think I can get most of the important details back again. As an opener: this is one of those rare pairs of book & adaptation that are both totally incredible without being carbon copies of one another. And, any director/cinematographer/actor that can handle a single 5 minute shot of people dying, shooting, and blowing things up is totally out of Hollywood's league.
Children of Men deals with the same basic concept of "creeping infertility," as Prof. Fitzpatrick put it so well. In P.D. James's world however, this infertility was sudden and complete. Gilead's women can still get pregnant and occasionally pop out a healthy kid, but in Children of Men, all of a sudden, babies stopped coming, and 25 years later, there still aren't any. In most other ways, James's future society is pretty similar to Atwood's - crazy totalitarian regime, seriously repressive society, hate for non-whites, etc. etc. The crucial difference, though, is that everyone is living without hope. Essentially, the world is ending, and nobody's really handling it very well. People are rapidly descending to their most animalistic instincts and/or sinking into apathy.
Here, I think, is where these two books are so cool to compare. In Handmaid's Tale, there is still hope, people are still working toward some sort of purpose, though they are doing it in a pretty messed up way. Everyday society is fairly peaceful, and everyone has something to hope for and work towards, at least. The people of Children of Men are facing a world that, in 50 years or so, will straight-up have no people in it. When faced with that despair (which the film captures with SO much more subtlely and skill than the Handmaid's Tale movie), I'm not sure what I personally would do. What's the point of learning, writing, creating art, making money, doing anything, really, if anything new you manage to bring to the world will a) be buried under the far more important issue of the spieces's slow death and b) won't last past the final human's memory anyway.
Death is pretty flippin scary for most people, but knowing that a kind of immortality could be achieved, that you could improve or change the world somehow if you did something cool enough, is comforting. Knowing that you're going to become completely irrelevant in the near future no matter what you do is probably a motivation-killer for a lot of people. How James's society dealt with this impending doom is pretty depressing but, I think, definitely a possible scenario. People are basically living as animals, killing their elderly - heck, killing each other, too. With the end in sight, all of the worst bits of our nature come out into the open.
A scenario I like much better is in Alan Lightman's book, Einstein's Dreams. In one of the short stories, the world has a set day on which it will end - fairly similar to Children of Men. In Lightman's world, businesses and schools shut down, but knowing that everyone's going to die soon anyway, that they are all headed together to the same end, the world's population unites, more or less, and the world ends in piece.
What I wonder is which scenario is more likely, should some such event put us in some kind of similar situation. Will the worst of human nature come out, or the best? Or will we just toodle along, just as we always do, and just sort of fade unspectacularly away? I'm a pessimist who wants to be an optimist, so I'm curious about what other people think.