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.