Never Let Me Go


Novel: Never Let Me Go by Japanese-born British author Kazuo Ishiguro

Premise: A group of friends discover the dystopian truth that awaits them beyond the walls of their boarding school.

Adaptation Status: The film Never Let Me Go premiered at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. It stars current British It-girl Carey Mulligan alongside Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield. Never Let Me Go was released to American audiences on 15 September 2010.

What’s the Story?

* SPOILER WARNING: Major plot points are revealed in this section.*

Protagonist Kathy reminisces about her youth as she works as a carer for the dying. The novel is divided into three parts that chronicle her path from childhood to adult life.

Part one takes place in Kathy’s childhood at a rural British boarding school called Hailsham. Hailsham is an unusual school where physical exercise and arts are highly emphasized. The best art pieces are kept by mysterious benefactor Madame and showcased in a gallery. Kathy befriends two other children at the school named Ruth and Tommy. Kathy and Ruth compete with each other for the Tommy’s affection.

Part two takes place when the three friends are young adults. Finished with school, the teenagers are moved to a place called the “Cottages” where they live in residential complexes and have contact with the outside world for the first time. Here they learn that they are clones created for the sole purpose of donating body organs. Devastated by this discovery, they run away to Norfolk in pursuit of the truth. In Norfolk, they are told that the only way they can escape organ donation is if two people can prove that they are in love. Consequently Kathy decides to leave Ruth and Tommy behind to work as a carer.

The final section deals with Ruth and Tommy’s call to serve as donors. Ruth is the first one to “complete”, the euphenism for dying in this novel. Before she dies, she requests that Kathy and Tommy appeal on the basis of their true love. Kathy and Tommy pay a visit to Madame in order to fulfill Ruth’s dying wish but discover that what they were told in Norfolk was only a rumor. Madame reveals that the whole school was a social experiment and that its fixation on art was an attempt to prove to the outside world that clones had souls. After Tommy dies, Kathy is resigned to her fate and awaits the day that she will be called to donate.

Why Adapt It?

Never Let Me Go was short-listed for the 2005 Man Booker prize and named best book of 2005 by Time magazine. With its controversial subject matter and critical acclaim, a film adaptation seems inevitable. My only surprise is that it’s taken this long to get made.

I first discovered this book back in 2006 while studying abroad in the UK. When I returned to the States, I immediately passed this book around to my friends and marveled at the dystopian themes. Ishiguro is a well-respected UK author who remains relatively unknown to mainstream American audiences despite winning the Man Booker prize in 1989 for Remains of the Day.

The adaptation was written by Alex Garland who also served as one of the executive producers of the film. This script made the 2008 Brit List, a film industry compiled list of the best unproduced screenplays.

The film was directed by Mark Romanek and produced by DNA Films, Film4, and Fox Searchlight Pictures. Carey Mulligan plays the main protagonist Kathy while her two friends Ruth and Tommy are played by Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield respectively.

Does This Adaptation Work?

Late one evening, I sat down to watch this film with my English boyfriend. I had read the book several years prior, he had no knowledge of the story. I admittedly had high expectations as author Kazuo  Ishiguro was one of the executive producers on this film, a rare opportunity for the original writer to be involved in the adaptation. By the time the credits rolled, I had mixed feelings about the overall success of this adaptation.

The movie does an excellent job in conveying the somber and haunting atmosphere that permeates the novel. The world of this novel is a strange, alternative science fiction where the horrors of society are eerily quiet. Instead of passionate pleas for a chance at life or rage against the system, the mood of this film is one of desolate acceptance.

When watching this film, I kept pondering what the screenwriter was trying to say about England. No one argues for or against the cloning system on either side. Although the non-clones are repulsed by clones, they don’t petition the government to end cloning. It is strange that the clones are not good enough to associate with, but their organs are perfectly acceptable to take. Is society’s fear of dying greater than our fear of “unnatural” beings? And as for the clones, why is there never any sense of changing things as a group? If everyone has a clone for harvesting body parts, surely there’d be enough clones to form a perverse version of Occupy London. There’s something endearing and rather bohemian at the characters’ belief that art can literally save lives. That love will change everything. But for all the talk about art and love, the audience doesn’t really see these core elements in action. If art and love are what separate humans from animals or laboratory experiments, I want to see how these define each character. It’s not enough that Ruth demands Kathy and Tommy argue the case. The audience needs to believe in their love.

Carey Mulligan shines as the adult Kathy, the caregiver throughout life. As a book character, the parallels between her desperate want to be a mother when she was a child and her eventual role caring for the dying are beautiful but rather cruel. The film chose to focus more on her competitive role with Ruth over Tommy’s affections and thus missed out on fully exploring Kathy’s nurturing side. Knightley does cruel and haughty like no one else (guess all those period films were useful training) so she carried Ruth’s sense of entitlement throughout the film. Ruth is sexy and manipulative yet doesn’t grow as a person at all until she is dying. In this sense, the adaptation is very close to the book. Garfield is not particularly memorable as Tommy, but truthfully, he’s not so memorable in the novel either. The character is awkward as a person and angry at the hand he’s been dealt yet does nothing about it. He serves as a mirror for the two girls, reflecting their successes and failures in their attempt to have a “normal” life. There is never any sense of him defined outside of his relationship with the girls.

Ultimately, this film lacks the heart of the novel. There is such disconnect between the audience and the characters that it is hard to feel much sympathy towards any of them.

Final Score

0 What were they thinking?!

Needs improvement

0 A respectable adaptation

0 Better than the original

Lesson of The Day: When adapting material from one medium to another, be sure to keep to the heart of the original material. If you had to break down the story into one essential question, what would it be? In Never Let Me Go, the main question that drives the story is “what does it mean to be human?”  The acting and atmosphere in Never Let Me Go was excellent but the film itself lacked soul because none of the characters really answered this question satisfactorily.


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