Monday, September 12, 2016


Ever since I first discovered it on late night commercial television at the end of the 1960s, Joseph Losey's THESE ARE THE DAMNED (aka THE DAMNED, 1962) has been one of my favorite science fiction films, and a very high-ranking title on my list of favorite Hammer films. Despite its title, there is no official connection to VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) or its sequel CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (1963), both adapted from John Wyndham's novel THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS; the Losey film was based on an elusive 1960 novel by one H.L. Lawrence entitled THE CHILDREN OF LIGHT.

In 2016, if you want to read THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS, you can find it anywhere - as a first edition hardcover, as a Penguin or movie tie-in paperback, even as a digital download. But if you want to read THE CHILDREN OF LIGHT, and want to pay your gas and electric bill as well, you are just about out of luck. When I decided that it was high time I read it, I was frustrated to discover that - even with the global assistance of in locating a copy - used copies were not only scarce but priced extraordinarily high. $175 for a used hardcover was not an unusual going rate, and it seemed that most available copies would have to be sent from Australia, adding heavy postal rates to the cost as well as a weeks-long wait. But I can be persistent in my searches, and in this case, my persistence was rewarded when I found a Canadian seller offering the book for a reasonable price - reasonable, that is, in contrast to other prices I was seeing on parade.

I've now read the book, which is 191 pages, and thought that other admirers of the Losey film might like to know how the two works compare. The answer is that, while there is no mistaking THE CHILDREN OF LIGHT as the basis of THESE ARE THE DAMNED, they don't really compare. There is no way that the creative choices made by Evan Jones' screenplay adaptation don't improve upon the original, which is a masterful manipulation of human brutality and refinement, yet the original has a quality of its own that is hard to shake off.

Shirley Anne Field surrounded by all of King's men.
The story of the novel is quite different to that of the film. Here, Simon (played in the film by Macdonald Carey) is a cuckold on the lam after accidentally murdering his floozy wife, and his picture is on the front page of all the papers. King (Oliver Reed) is here called Caesar, and he's the crafty head of a strangely Elizabethan street gang that call themselves the Poisoners, formerly the Borgias, whose second in command is dubbed Brutus. (Yes, there is an "Et tu, Brute?" moment to anticipate.) The Poisoners jump Simon as they would any prosperous looking bloke, not knowing of his notoreity; they kidnap Simon, empty his pockets, and threaten him with a hanging - just out of morbid curiosity. Joan (Shirley Anne Field) is still Joan, but here Caesar's half-sister; they are the products of a broken home, raised by two different parents who gave them different gifts for survival. There's no suggestion of Caesar having a thing for her. Joan falls for Simon, no reason why, and helps him to escape the gang. They find an empty farmhouse and she watches over him as he recovers from a bad cold. There's no boat, though there is talk of eluding the authorities on a boat owned by Joan's uncle. This whole first third of the novel is surprisingly trashy, and a bit of a page-turner. None of the characters have the density of their film counterparts, and none of the dialogue is particularly resonant or quotable.

Macdonald Carey meets the radioactive children raised by the government to inherit the earth.
This changes once the radioactive children are introduced. The novel's debt to John Wyndham and THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS (published in 1957) is more evident here than in the film - instead of having remarkable eyes, these kids (one of whom is actually named George Orwell) have sparkling, platinum-colored hair. Their backstory, told in brief in a dead-center chapter, is very Wyndham-like, incorporating information not disclosed by the film, including a gradual sterilization of the human race from atomic fall-out that is on the verge of becoming known, as people living in higher elevations are already taking note of a suspended birth rate. In the novel, it's not the gang leader who pursues Simon and Joan into the secret school but a nosy reporter named Johnny Parks, who correctly believes they are alive, that the government has deliberately misrepresented their deaths in a mine field explosion. Whenever someone lights up a cigarette, the author goes into raptures describing how delicious they are.

The novel's concluding chapters have surprising impact for the very reason that it otherwise occupies a lower strata than that to which the film aspired. Lawrence's novel, though a bit cheesy at times, remarkably sketches the darkest portrait of any present-day government I've read in any novel from its time period - cold, calculating, secretive, downright wicked, capable of committing any crime against its own people to protect and promote its own sick, hidden agendas. Of course, many books fail in their hopes to become perennials, but Lawrence's characterizations of the secret power figures behind the British government and military are so convincing and effective, unusually so for a 1960s novel, that I couldn't help wondering if this facet might have something to do with why the novel seems to have disappeared and is now so hard to find, even though the film based on it continues to win new audiences. Also, there is a brief throwaway line somewhere in the middle of the book that violently shifts gears on our perception of the story, when someone mentions that the first atomic bomb detonations took place generations ago - setting the story somewhat closer to the new millennium though everything about its descriptions of its world and its characters screams "present day" (1960)! Might this reflect an editorial change imposed on the manuscript by a publisher not wishing to ally itself with such political candor? In a strange way, Lawrence's THE CHILDREN OF LIGHT ultimately - if inadvertently - offers a chillingly accurate forecast of 21st century "secret government" paranoia.

Though it wouldn't quite be THESE ARE THE DAMNED, I'm going to surprise myself and say that I wouldn't mind seeing this novel republished and a more faithful film adaptation made. It is not a great novel, yet there is something about its cold slap that feels far-seeing, even seminal. H.L. Lawrence knew that our public servants were in charge and that there was no limit to the destruction they would cause to ensure the perpetuation of the human race - and the end of its troublesome diversity.

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