PAGE TO SCREEN: “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Posted by · 4:21 pm · June 29th, 2010

SPOILER ALERT: By necessity, this article must reveal some key plot developments of the novel, though no more than you might have gleaned from the film’s recent trailer.

“(T)hough the tears rolled down my face, I wasn’t sobbing or out of control,” writes Kathy, the young female narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel “Never Let Me Go,” on its final page. She’d certainly be entitled to a good sob: over the course of 31 years and 282 pages, she has had the possibility of real life – with its attendant romance and independence and uncertainty – dangled in front of her, only to be unceremoniously denied at every turn, a Pinocchio figure resigned to eternal wooden form.

That Kathy (to be played by Carey Mulligan in Mark Romanek’s upcoming film) remains so stoic and accepting in the face of even the novel’s most crushing revelations makes her very much of a piece with other Ishiguro protagonists; in many ways, she’s something of a modern-day sister (or daughter) to Stevens, the emotionally stunted butler later played by Anthony Hopkins in “The Remains of the Day,” the only other screen adaptation of the British-Japanese novelist’s work to date.

Stevens denied himself feeling, but the disability of Kathy – and her classmates at Hailsham, the plush private college where they spend their entire childhood – is less autonomous than that: if her responses aren’t entirely human, it’s because she’s not entirely human herself.

You may have heard “Never Let Me Go” described as a work of science fiction, and if you haven’t read it – and, say, are only going on the high-end, contemporary-set romance (albeit with mildly gothic overtones) of the film’s trailer – you could be forgiven for being a bit puzzled by that classification.

Certainly, the “science” half of the equation could scarcely be less present in the novel. After 80 pages of off-kilter behaviour oblique hinting, we’re let in on its key secret: that Kathy and her fellow students are human clones, farmed solely for the purpose of organ donation in early adulthood. Ishiguro, however, has no interest in the hows and whys of his fantastical (if highly topical) premise: with the story told from their perspective, we’re left as innocent as they are of how they came to be, and the novel is all the more frightening and plausible for its conceptual short-cutting.

Rather, Ishiguro focuses only on those aspects of his protagonists lives that are modelled on human experience, such as education, friendship, sexual awakening. In doing so, raises a tricky discussion of what it means to be human, one that is outwardly verbalized when Kathy and a fellow clone find themselves sincerely in love, and attempt to use this evidence of a human soul to escape the fate they were bred for.

With Fox Searchlight’s classy-looking film looming, internet wags have already dubbed it (not entirely without cause) an arthouse spin on Michael Bay’s tepid 2005 blockbuster “The Island,” perhaps not realizing that Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” (unhappily filmed in 1990) is an even closer cousin. Still, “Never Let Me Go” is more incidentally a fantasy than either of those: set in a bland corner of rural England in a slightly indeterminate period (human cloning was invented before CDs, it seems), the novel makes little attempt to expand or redream the world we live in, but nonetheless emulates the best sci-fi by using its departures from reality as a springboard for an immediate, relatable discussion of mortality and the human condition.

This fusion of the highbrow and the high-concept arguably faces less resistance in the world of literature than in film – indeed, Ishiguro’s novel was a multi-garlanded bestseller – and Romanek and novelist-screenwriter Alex Garland (who scripted both “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine” for Danny Boyle) have their work cut out for them finding a similarly broad audience for their film.

Even assuming the film replicates Ishiguro’s delicate tonal balance, fans of the lofty British heritage drama promised by its cast and literary cache might find themselves turned off by its cold strain of fantasy, while the material is surely too vague and character-oriented to please genre buffs. Structurally, too, the material presents challenges: it appears from the trailer than Romanek and Garland have retained Kathy’s narration via voiceover, but hers is an awkward voice to translate to screen, constantly interrupting and correcting herself as she plucks anecdotes from all across the timescale. It’d be exciting to see the filmmakers use this to their advantage to create a daring memory-based structure, but a more linear route might reap more mainstream rewards. Still, I’m far from convinced that this is the just-add-water prestige awards bait some imagine it to be.

Either way, the film’s A-grade cast has rich material to work with: as the central trio of friends gradually fractured by differing degrees of resignation to a mutual fate, Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield are ideally cast in relation to each other. Kathy lives in thrall to her more strident, socially adept friend Ruth, so the contrast between Mulligan’s gangly, reticent screen presence and Knightley’s more patrician serenity should be well exploited – though it’s Mulligan who is gifted with the more emotionally accessible character. Meanwhile, as the girls’ mutual friend (and, eventually, lover) Tommy, Garfield could benefit from having the most openly dysfunctional character to play, as well as the most complete (and tear-stained) arc of the three.

Elsewhere, it becomes harder to guess: the trailer suggests that the characters of the students’ minders have been swapped or amalgamated to an extent, though it would appear that Sally Hawkins – as a conscience-plagued teacher who provides the youngsters with the biggest clues to their fate – has the most to work with. (Casting Charlotte Rampling as a frosty but perceptive headmistress, meanwhile, is practically de rigueur these days.)

No name attached to the project, however, provokes more intrigue than that of Mark Romanek himself. He is, of course, a master of the music-video form, and the film’s trailer showcased enough of Adam Kimmel’s cinematography to suggest that his visual storytelling gifts are intact. Romanek’s two features thus far (“One Hour Photo” and his larely forgotten debut “Static”) suggest little auteur identity between them, but share a low-temperature eeriness that, if repeated, would serve Ishiguro’s self-concealing prose in “Never Let Me Go” very well indeed.

→ 17 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , | Filed in: Page to Screen

17 responses so far

  • 1 6-29-2010 at 8:09 pm

    Alex said...

    “Ishiguro’s novel was a multi-garlanded bestseller – and Romanek and novelist-screenwriter Alex Garland”

    Great sentence. Kudos.

  • 2 6-29-2010 at 9:27 pm

    Rae Kasey said...

    One of my favorite books, and easily my most anticipated film of the year.

    The casting seems perfect, and I’m hoping the actors playing the youngins will be well suited to their older counterparts. Too often actors playing the same character at different stages in life don’t seem to be playing the same person, like they only read their half of the script.

  • 3 6-29-2010 at 9:31 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Is knowing that “revelation” going to hinder my enjoyment of the movie, or is it not that big of a deal?

  • 4 6-30-2010 at 12:25 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Alex: Ha! Didn’t even spot that. I should have shot for a Judy Garland reference while I was about it.

    English: The novel essentially shows its hand about a third of the way in, and I assume the film will do the same. (Hell, the trailer makes it pretty clear.) So you’ll be fine. There are more probing subtleties to the outcome.

  • 5 6-30-2010 at 12:27 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Forgot to mention that, depending on how Romanek deals with the fictitious song from which the novel takes its title — and which has a key plot function — there’s major Best Original Song potential here. A minor point, but an interesting one.

  • 6 6-30-2010 at 1:06 am

    Nigel Bridgeman said...

    I’d love to see an adaptation of “When We Were Orphans”. Such a great novel.

    Fun fact of the day – the only Ishiguro novels I’ve read are “Orphans” and “The Remains of the Day”, although I also have copies of “The Unconsoled” and “Never Let Me Go” unread.

  • 7 6-30-2010 at 1:43 am

    j said...

    I read it twice. The second time I disliked it less, but I still don’t want to see it. Especially with a cast led by 2 of my least favorite actresses.

    On the bottom of my list of possible Oscar contenders are this, Conviction, and a movie I just heard of thanks to the contender tracker, Next 3 Days, from the person who brought us something unspeakable. Possibly Hereafter but it doesn’t sound that baity.

  • 8 6-30-2010 at 4:34 am

    Bryan said...

    What a fantastic book, and I’m looking forward to this, but the day a successful film of The Unconsoled hits will be a momentous day.

  • 9 6-30-2010 at 5:00 am

    snowballa said...

    Too bad the script bored me half to death. I love Carey Mulligan but I’ll probably wait until this comes out on Netflix or DVD.

  • 10 7-01-2010 at 10:56 pm

    Nick Davis said...

    I’m concerned that the book relies too heavily on our automatic sympathy with the characters’ basic plight – taking for granted that their “humanity” is being outraged when Ishiguro writes them so flatly and, frankly, irritatingly that I wasn’t nearly as sorry for them as I think I ought to have been. And once you get that revelation a third of the way in, there’s not a lot to develop in terms of their circumstances, so the arc of the film could feel really flat. I’m guessing, given his other work, that Garland will rely on slightly Guignol flashes of surgery, either real or nightmarishly anticipated, to heighten the stakes and impact of the characters’ vulnerability, but that strategy could make the film feel like the strangest sort of shabby shocker. All very puzzling.

  • 11 7-01-2010 at 10:57 pm

    Nick Davis said...

    I agree with the other commenters, by the way, that The Unconsoled is a more special book than this one is. Haven’t got round to When We Were Orphans yet, loved The Remains of the Day (who doesn’t?), and don’t remember a single thing about An Artist of the Floating World.

  • 12 7-02-2010 at 12:06 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Funny, when I was 13, I had a whole screen treatment for “The Unconsoled” mapped out in my head. Jeremy Irons was to play Ryder. It was, as things tend to be in one’s head, a total masterpiece.

    My favourite Ishiguro remains “A Pale View of Hills.”

  • 13 7-02-2010 at 6:08 am

    Jim T said...

    After I read the book, I felt more sorry for myself than the characters. I didn’t empathize with them as much as I felt I had the same misfortune as they did. I’m still trying to believe it’s not true.

  • 14 7-03-2010 at 1:51 am

    timr said...

    Truth be told, I was also quite frustrated by this — it feels to me like Ishiguro trying to be Ian McEwan, and weak McEwan at that: the book isn’t sure how much information to let slip and when, and the Remains-ish retrospective tone feels thoroughly secondhand, almost as if Ish is semi-parodying his most famous narrative voice, and for no clear reason. “Looking back now, I realise that the incident with the [supply mundane noun] had far wider implications than we grasped at the time…” (I get that Cathy’s meant to be a fumbling and hesitant narrator, but this flat technique, for me, reduces rather than deepening our sense of who she is.) Still, I think the spikiness of the Ruth-Cathy relationship might pay off intriguingly on film in an Edge of Love sort of way, and Garfield looks very promising indeed. Though there remains a serious risk of Atonement II, I hold out some hope, and I’m glad to have read it!

    Also, count me among the Unconsoled fans, big-time.

  • 15 7-03-2010 at 1:54 am

    timr said...

    Kathy with a K, sorry…

  • 16 7-03-2010 at 7:28 am

    Jim T said...

    timr – I agree about the flatness of the writing but that is exactly the reason why I don’t understand the somparison to McEwan. I read On Chesil Beach right after (at least, I think) NLMG and I couldn’t help but notice how captivating each sentence McEwan wrote was as opposed to the simple writing of Ishiguro which (for me) was more about what he wrote about than how.

  • 17 7-28-2010 at 12:20 pm

    James said...

    The flatness of the writing is exactly the point. It’s a very clever way of writing so that the reader has more awareness of what’s going on than the narrator, which made the ending, in my opinion, even more emotionally devastating.

    I found myself annoyed and angry with Kathy for those reasons while reading but by the end, I was glad that Ishiguro had written the book that way.