The Children Act raises complex ethical questions

“When a court determines any question with respect to … the upbringing of a child … the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.”  The Children Act, 1989.

Some months before the novel The Children Act was published in 2014,  Ian McEwan was discussing it with director and long-time friend Richard Eyre, and he mooted the idea of Eyre directing a screen adaptation.  Having worked together on their first film The Imitation Game in the late 70’s and then again on The Ploughman’s Lunch in 1981, the pair had hoped to work together again, and happily re-united for the big screen adaptation of The Children Act, with McEwan writing the screenplay.

Ian McEwan and Richard Eyre

“Both of those were very agreeable experiences and I thought we would work together again sometime soon, and we kept mentioning it again for the next thirty years – but never got around to it. The prospect of working with Richard again was a sheer delight and the focus of a lifetime’s ambition, so when I handed over the novel I said if this is ever made into a film the person to direct it would be Richard – it would be a very actor-centred piece. One of the great things about Richard is he’s had such long experience in the theatre which has given him a wonderful approach and touch, and actors love working with him – and I knew that with Richard directing we could probably get anyone he wanted to work with into the film.”

As her marriage to Jack (Stanley Tucci) founders, eminent High Court judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) has a life-changing decision to make at work – should she force a teenage boy, Adam (Fionn Whitehead), to have the blood transfusion that will save his life?  Her unorthodox visit to his hospital bedside has a profound impact on them both, stirring strong new emotions in the boy and long-buried feelings in her.

Five years before the novel was published, McEwan found himself at dinner with a handful of judges.

McEwan recalls: “They were talking shop, and I was politely resisting the urge to take notes. At one point, our host, Sir Alan Ward, an appeal court judge, wanting to settle some mild disagreement, got up and reached from a shelf a bound volume of his own judgments. An hour later, when we had left the table for coffee, that book lay open on my lap.  These judgments were like short stories, or novellas; the background to some dispute or dilemma crisply summarised, characters drawn with quick strokes, the story distributed across several points of view and, towards its end, some sympathy extended towards those whom, ultimately, the narrative would not favour.”

Ian McEwan

“These were not cases in the criminal courts, where it must be decided beyond reasonable doubt whether a man is a villain or an unlucky victim. Nothing so black and white. These stories were in the family division, where much of ordinary life’s serious interests lie: love and marriage, and the end of both, fortunes querulously divided, parental cruelty and neglect, the bitterly contested destinies of children. Here, in my lap, were realistically conceived characters moving through plausible, riveting situations, raising complex ethical questions.”

“Three years after my supper with that bench of judges, Alan Ward told me of a Jehovah’s Witness case he had once presided over. The character of the judge who was so compassionately and rationally intent on a good outcome, seemed inseparable from the story. When I heard it, I remembered my earlier impression – that the family division of the high court is rooted in the same ground as fiction, where all of life’s vital interests lie. With the luxury of withholding judgment, a novel could interpose itself here, reinvent the characters and circumstances, and begin to investigate an encounter between love and belief, between the secular spirit of the law and sincerely held faith.”

The novel’s title recalls the UK’s Children Act of 1989, which revolutionised the law relating to children by putting the welfare of the child above all else in cases brought to the family division.

The novel won widespread praise, with the Guardian calling it “hugely enjoyable…a triumph of imagination over research”, the Observer hailing it as “masterful”, while GQ said the novel “shows McEwan as a master of fiction who strives to teach us how to live”.

The novel’s protagonist is a woman: Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in the Family Division. Having recently presided over an ethically complex and emotionally demanding case involving conjoined twins, Fiona is called on to decide urgently whether or not to allow a hospital to transfuse Adam Henry, a Jehovah’s Witness boy with leukemia, against his wishes. Fiona’s personal life is at a challenging point: in her fifties, she is coming to terms with being childless just as her marriage to university lecturer Jack seems to be falling apart.

Stanley Tucci and Emma Thompson

“She’s an intensely private woman,“ says McEwan of Fiona Maye. “I suppose she’s another in the long line of characters of mine who try to live a rational existence but find that that’s not easy and that rationality doesn’t always protect you from the buffeting that life brings. She’s moving towards the end of her professional career at which she’s been a great success, having overseen decisions in the divorce courts for half a lifetime, and she’s devastated by the possible collapse of her long settled stable marriage to Jack. She’s a kind woman but not given to a great deal of emotional display and she finds she doesn’t really have the language to talk to her husband about their sex life so she’s not very well defended against this crisis that comes up in her life.”

“Fiona decides mid-proceedings to visit the boy in the hospital, which is quite unorthodox,” he continues. “She wants to find out exactly who he is and what he wants. Fiona’s judgment in favour of transfusion opens up a whole new, challenging, beautiful, terrifying world to Adam, whose life has hitherto been circumscribed by the dictates of his religion. With his new lease of life he is offered freedom, the right to believe what he chooses, and to think for himself: a world of learning, and wonder, and love.“

The novel‘s compelling examination of its two protagonists, the middle-aged judge, the teenager on the brink of death – investigating the moral choices they face, and the impact each has on the other’s life – resonated immediately with the director.

“Ian is a rationalist who examines, sometimes forensically, the characters he’s preoccupied with,” says Eyre. “But most importantly he endows those characters with a full-blooded humanity so you never feel you’re watching a chessboard of moral imperatives. They’re always people who have lives out of which actions emerge, sometimes benevolent, sometimes disastrous.”

“Fiona’s intervention, and her ensuing judgment allowing the blood transfusion, lead to a relationship of mutual dependency between the judge, who has been, in a way, in the position of playing God, and the boy whose life she saves,” continues Eyre. “Meanwhile her husband accuses her of opting out of their marriage. It’s not a conscious opting-out, it’s just that her very important and all-consuming work has preoccupied her to the extent that she’s become increasingly insulated from the world of emotions and from her relationship with her husband. All the while, she becomes increasingly attached to, or obsessed by, a boy whose life she has saved, and she has become to him a kind of luminous intelligence and calm and tranquility – everything that doesn’t exist in the rest of his life.”

McEwan was not initially keen to write the screenplay

“It started with maybe a rather negative impulse as I didn’t really want to revisit the material, but I didn’t want anyone else to do it either, and so it was an agreeable surprise that I found the process fascinating. A novel gives you access to people’s thoughts, a screenplay does not, and finding the transcription from what is thought or implied in a novel to what has to be said and done between people in a film is an intellectual and emotional challenge. Once I found it was really enjoyable I got deeply into it and spent as much time writing this screenplay as I did the novel.”

“The beauty and pleasure of Ian’s writing is in its precision – in his ability to absolutely nail every idea and emotion,” says Kenworthy. “He loves research and investigates the milieu of his stories with complete diligence. This all translates seamlessly to the screen. There’s a wonderful clarity and almost an inevitability about his screenwriting which draws you on, and in.”

Kenworthy was clear that the creative partnership of McEwan and director Richard Eyre would yield rich rewards. “Richard and Ian are close friends and each clearly knows and values the strengths of the other. Even if that had not been the case, Richard would always have been the ideal director for this film because it’s the territory that he’s inhabited so perfectly before in Iris and Notes on a Scandal. He’s also a consummate director of actors, and in addition to its narrative strengths this film was always going to depend on some great performances.”

It didn’t take long for Thompson to agree to join the project. It wasn’t just the finesse of the writing but the fact that the role allowed her to immerse herself into an entirely new and fascinating world.  “The book is so spare and beautifully written,” she explains, “but I think what really bit into me with this project was learning about the female judges in family court and doing the research to prepare for the part. The work they do, the life they lead, the drudgery of it and the responsibility took my breath away – I was so impressed with these women.”

The character’s having to negotiate a difficult personal life and a challenging professional case was an irresistible draw. “The film starts just as this massive crack appears in Fiona’s marriage, which has been rocky for a while, and you see her having to step over it straight into the court room and work, work, work. She returns home to this chasm and she can’t address it because she’s got to do the work. She’s dealing with the fact that she and her husband haven’t had sex for 11 months and he’s acting out because she won’t talk.”


“A truism about this kind of work is that it leaves very little space for anything else,” continues Thompson. “They have to take in so much information and then extrapolate what they need for a judgment that they have to make very quickly because someone might die if they don’t. Playing a character who has to handle that kind of intellectual hurdle-jumping was inspiring and invigorating because there’s a great energy from that kind of intellectual capacity which is perhaps that’s why they can carry on beyond normal.”

The role of Adam, the teenager who is prepared to die for his faith, is played by rising British star, Fionn Whitehead, who played the lead role of Tommy in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.


As a young man, Whitehead recognized the truths in the way the character was drawn and the pressures he is forced to confront. “Adam is being opened up to the world around him,“ he says. “All the wonder as well as all the bad things that face him are things most teenagers can relate to. That was an interesting theme to explore. Being a teenager is often talked about as the best time of your life but no one really talks about the craziness of it all, how you’re suddenly expected to be grown up and how overwhelming it all is.”

It was also, says Whitehead, a joy to savor the elegance of Ian McEwan‘s writing. “The way Ian writes is so vivid and descriptive of the characters, and the setting of the whole story is so rich,“ he says. “He uses one word where another writer might use twenty – his writing is very precise so when you read it every word is meant to be there.”

Novelist, playwright and screenwriter Ian McEwan was born in Aldershot, England.

He studied at the University of Sussex, where he received a BA degree in English Literature in 1970, before receiving an MA degree in English Literature from the University of East Anglia. In 2012 the University of Sussex presented McEwan with its 50th Anniversary Gold Medal in recognition of his contributions to literature.


McEwan’s works have earned him worldwide critical acclaim. He won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976 for his first collection of short stories First Love, Last Rites; the Whitbread Novel Award (1987) and the Prix Fémina Étranger (1993) for The Child In Time; and Germany’s Shakespeare Prize in 1999. He is also the recipient of The Helmerich Award (2010) and The Jerusalem Prize (2011). McEwan is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the Royal Society of Arts and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was awarded a CBE in 2000.

McEwan has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction six times, winning the award for Amsterdam in 1998. His novel Atonement received the WH Smith Literary Award (2002), National Book Critics’ Circle Fiction Award (2003), Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction (2003), and the Santiago Prize for the European Novel (2004). In 2006, he won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel Saturday.

McEwan’s work has been adapted for the screen to great acclaim. The Cement Garden won the Silver Bear at Berlin in 1993, and was followed by Enduring Love (2004) and Oscar award-winning Atonement (2007). Sweet Tooth, McEwan’s 2012 novel, is currently in development as a feature film. His own feature film adaptation of On Chesil Beach finished shooting earlier this year starring Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle and is currently in post-production. A television adaptation of The Child in Time, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, will be broadcast later this year.

McEwan’s most recent novel Nutshell was published in 2016 to critical acclaim.