Never Let Me Go

Many consider Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go a modern classic.  It was the last entry in Peter Boxall’s momentous 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  Despite all the praise though, the book is cold; Ishiguro doesn’t give us enough to truly connect with his characters or the world around them.  It isn’t a bad book, but it isn’t one anyone truly must read before they die either.  It is competent without being extraordinary (which any book someone tells me I have to read before I croak should be).  I’ve heard it described as a dystopian novel, but that never rang true.  The book isn’t about a dysfunctional future (or, in this case, alternate history), but a listless melodrama following the lives of clones bred solely for the purpose of organ donation.  Ishiguro seemed to think that there was no need to consider the world that produced these children because he feels it isn’t all that different from our own.  But, of course, it is.  People in the world he created accept the idea that cloning people and mining the offspring for organs until they die is acceptable, we don’t.  Whether we could or will get to that place is another question, but when Ishiguro failed to address some of these basic questions, when he failed to have one donor question their fate or contemplate escape, when he tossed out the precedents of other great dystopian novels (like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower or Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and The Year of the Flood), he sacrificed the depth and consequence the book could have had.  He may have been trying to avoid explanation to cleverly force us to consider the self-destructive practices in which we all participate – like if we don’t want any more glaciers we should keep driving three blocks to the supermarket – but that hardly makes for a compelling story.

The movie adaptation turns out to be a mixed bag.  It is sumptuously photographed and well acted, but the script marches us through the events of the story as economically as possible without characters to latch onto.  It is emotionally chillier than the book despite some good work from stars Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Kiera Knightley.  In the end, the screenwriter and director didn’t sense that the characters of the book (with the possible exception of Tommy) weren’t well developed and didn’t make any necessary corrections.  The critical praise was enough for them to assume they had all they needed.

The early scenes of the picture recount the lives of three young organ donors at a boarding school in the English countryside.  Of course they don’t know that their future is mapped out and terminated earlier than most; that knowledge will come later.  Kathy is a sensitive young girl drawn to the shunned and volatile Tommy.  The other children pick on him, mostly to goad him into absurdly frenzied outbursts.  As Kathy develops a tender relationship with Tommy her friend Ruth swoops in and dazzles Tommy’s attentions.  Pretty and popular Ruth is jealous that a plain girl like Kathy could have grown up romantic and sexual experiences before her.

This is the dynamic that will define their relationships for much of the rest of their lives:  Kathy pining for her lost love, while Ruth jealously maintains her emotional hold over clueless Tommy.  And this romantic triangle will dominate the rest of the picture to the exclusion of much else.  (With the exception of the final scenes as two characters race to try and get a legendary deferral bringing them face to face with a familiar face from the past – the best scene in the movie.)  It is difficult to believe that no one will seriously question the way things are or the ethics of creating and sacrificing life in order to save others.  These considerations could have overwhelmed everything else in the picture, but Ishiguro is a good enough writer to integrate them with the story.  Mary Shelley balanced the consideration of similar ethical issues in Frankenstein with the demands of her gothic horror story.  But Shelley gave the Monster more emotional depth than these characters have; it’s as if screenwriter Alex Garland has implicitly acknowledged that these characters are soulless.  They go through all the paces of a human being, but with little curiosity, inquisitiveness or instinct for rebellion.

Mark Romanek’s direction trots along at a deliberate pace, without creating or capturing the potential emotional impact missing from the book (which so many people seem to think was there).  There are many elegant close ups of mundane, everyday objects that are simply gorgeous, but they feel like afterthoughts, visual comments unrelated to the drama of these three character’s lives or the themes of the story.

The performances are uniformly good, especially when the story moves to the characters in adulthood.  It was either A.O. Scott or David Denby who said the quality of acting in movies today may be the greatest of all time, but the scripts may be the poorest we’ve ever seen.  Though the screenplay for Never Let Me Go isn’t bad, it isn’t strong either.  We have some fine actors doing their best with the thin script.  Carey Mulligan and Kiera Knightely command their characters with confidence, but Andrew Garfield – one of our finest young actors – really stands out.  His awkward jitteriness captures the insecurities and emotional instability of Tommy perfectly.  And in supporting roles Sally Hawkins and Charlotte Rampling steal a couple of scenes.

All in all, Never Let Me Go is a competent if unsubstantial film.  There was so much more to be mined here, but Romanek and Garland were too confident in Ishiguro’s source material.  By being too reverent to the original book they let too many opportunities pass by and produced a picture with the same flaws as the book.




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10 responses to “Never Let Me Go

  1. “Mary Shelley balanced the consideration of similar ethical issues in Frankenstein with the demands of her gothic horror story. But Shelley gave the Monster more emotional depth than these characters have; it’s as if screenwriter Alex Garland has implicitly acknowledged that these characters are soulless. They go through all the paces of a human being, but with little curiosity, inquisitiveness or instinct for rebellion.”

    Very intriguing comparison here Jason! And I must say I’m sorry to hear of the failings here, as I was hoping -despite the generally mixed reviews – that I’d still find an emotional connection. The author’s great novel THE REMAINS OF THE DAY yielded one of the best films of the 90’s -and the best performance of Anthony Hopkins’s career – and the trailer looked lush and involving. You have written a masterful essay here in every sense (truly impressive!) that has certainly given me things to ponder when I see the film in the very near future (maybe even this weekend, I’m not sure yet.)

    • Thanks Sam. I will be curious to hear what you think of the picture. I love Ishiguro’s book “The Remains of the Day” and the movie that came out of it too. That is another story about repressed emotion, but that was so much more poignant and emotionally resonant than this story. I wish Romanek had found a way to add some of what I found missing in the book. It is an emotionally distant book and the movie fails in the same ways. But I hope you do find an emotional connection and enjoy the movie. I will be looking forward to hearing your views.

  2. I really loved the book. I did connect with the characters, and I felt that the sense of emotional distance the book gave actually added to the atmosphere. Erik and I had a good talk about its dystopian-ness and whether it says anything about our own society… Erik didn’t see it, I thought it did. Definitely made me miss our book club as I think we could have had a good time with this one. 😦

    I’d forgotten the film version was coming out this month, so I’m glad to see your review. We’ll probably go see it if we have time, and if we do I’ll let you know what we think. I wonder how our different responses to the book will inform our response to the movie.

    Hope life is treating you well! I miss you!

    • I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that if you connected with the book, you will probably appreciate the movie more than I did. It would have been a good book to discuss because I know Mrs. Fisher liked it even less than me. But the movie is worth seeing for some wonderful performances. Unfortunately they didn’t save the film for me completely. (And it isn’t like I completely hated the movie… I did give it a B.) I think it could have been so much more moving than it was and had much more to say than it did.

      Everything is well here. Hope Tisha is doing OK.

  3. I’m a big Ishiguro fan and liked this novel although I didn’t think it was one of his very best (I loved his previous book, ‘When We Were Orphans’). I’ve been looking forward to the movie so am very interested to read your review, if a bit disappointed to hear you found it so flawed. I still want to see it, though.

    • Ishiguro is a fantastic writer. I think “The Remains of the Day” is a great modern novel, though I haven’t read “When We Were Orphans” yet. I would be interested to hear what you think of the movie. Apparently Ishiguro was happy with it, though I wasn’t exactly happy with the book so I wonder how that affects my view of the picture. I certainly didn’t go into the theater in a negative mood. I wanted to like it, but I realized about 30-45 minutes into it that I really didn’t care about these people. It’s a topic with tons of potential for emotional impact, but I missed it. Let me know what you think about it.

  4. Pingback: ‘Waiting For Superman,’ ‘Buried,’ Woody Allen and Ozu on Monday Morning Diary (September 27) « Wonders in the Dark

  5. jake

    It concerns me when you describe them as “three young organ donors.” Are you unaware of what the Hailsham students actually are? Or are you just trying to refrain from spoilers? Just making sure.

    • Jake, I think using the term “organ donors” implies they have willingly volunteered. Of course, this isn’t the case so you are right to point out how that might cause some confusion. I should have found another way to describe them. Thanks for pointing this out to me.

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