Never Let Me Go is based on the acclaimed novel of the same title by a prominent British author, Kazuo Ishiguro. It is the second feature film for Mark Romanek, who is regarded as one of the most creative music video directors (Closer for Nine Inch Nails, and Hurt, a Nine Inch Nails classic, covered by Johnny Cash, as well as many other iconic videos for: Michael Jackson, Fiona Apple, En Vogue, K.D. Lang, Sonic Youth, Lenny Kravitz, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, to name a few), and led by Carey Mulligan (An Education, 2009; Drive, 2011; Shame ,link, 2011; Far from the Madding Crowd, 2015, link) as the protagonist, Kathy H. Despite that the cast generally delivers, and there appears to be nothing obviously wrong with its mise-en-scène, the overall impression of the film is strikingly different from that of the novel. In fact, the way in which the film betrays the novel is so significant that it prompts us to wonder if Ishiguro’s novel is a singular work that cannot be adopted at all.
Given the way in which the film project was conceived, the gap between the original and the film is all the more intriguing. The film script was written by Alex Garland, the author of a bestseller novel, The Beach (1996), and the future director of Ex Machina (2015, link). As a long time friend of Ishiguro’s, Garland served as a reader of the manuscript as well as a sounding-board for Ishiguro. Impressed by what he had read so far, Garland did not wait to finish reading the draft before asking Ishiguro a permit for the right to adopt the would-be-novel into a film. Enthused, Garland completed the script before the publication of the original novel, and Ishiguro eventually served as an executive producer of the film to which he offered a ringing endorsement upon its completion. The failure of this film is an interesting one, since the shortcomings are not of a technical nature. The script is generally faithful to the novel, and, even when the alterations are substantial, it is, at least initially, hard to find reasonable alternatives to the way in which the final cut was shot. Yet, if one spends enough time to examine the reasons why the novel and the film offer such different experiences, one is going to gain some useful insights into modes of artistic expressions. And, in this case, the difference lies between two different approaches to art.
Never Let Me Go tells a story of young protagonists, Kathy H. (Mulligan), her ‘best friend’, Ruth C. (Keira Knightley, Atonement, 2007; Anna Karenina, 2012; The Imitation Game, 2014), and their love-interest, Tommy D. (Andrew Garfield, Lions for Lambs, 2007; The Social Network, 2010) to complete a menage à trois. They are raised in a privileged ‘school’ called Hailsham, where a great emphasis is placed upon cultivating creative expressions, be they visual art or poetry. In this traditional English boarding school environment, children are taught all subjects, such as history, literature, art, and science by qualified tutors, yet no one but one comes clear about their raison d’être: they are clones to become ‘donors’, and will supply vital organs for the National Donation Program. Whilst they are taught self-care, no one makes explicit the reason why it is absolutely critical for them to remain healthy. For the most part, the ‘students’ are left on their own in order to get a grip on their existential condition as future donors. Shrouded in ambiguity, children of Hailsham live in the world of myth, oft fantastically dark and senselessly terrifying. Whilst most of these myths fade away once they ‘graduate’ and relocate to various locations where they, for the first time, mix with their less-privileged clones who are bred in the facilities located all over the UK, there is one notion that not only endures, but becomes very close to being a ‘fact’: if two Hailsham alumni are truly in love, they will receive ‘deferrals’, that is, up to several years of delay before starting the process of ‘donation’. To be clear, the ‘deferral’ does not spare them from untimely death as the sources of vital organs, or the ‘completion’ as they refer; the deferral only means the delay of the process, not the cancellation. Yet, this notion is embraced with a reverence of messianic proportions, and much of the story revolves around this myth.
The premise is indeed bleak and terrifying, yet it is also a thought-provoking one. At first glance, the most obvious line of inquiry into the story is the ethics of cloning, that is, to question whether our technological advancement will make us meaningfully better than without it when this ‘progress’ is achieved at the expense of others. Modern medicine is one of the disciplines founded on Cartesian metaphysics which regards the physical world as a separate entity from Mind (or Soul), and the practice of organ transplant is one of the logical extensions of this world-view, as it regards the human body as a machine, that is, the aggregation of replaceable parts. Alex Garland stated his interest in what he calls the ‘politics of cloning’, and, as a friend and a sounding-board, he may have had a decisive influence on Ishiguro in defining the premise of Never Let Me Go. Clones are bred and raised for one specific end en mass, and, it is assumed that there is no other reason d’être for them. In this sense, they are raised like cattle to provide ‘goods’ for humankind; in order to justify such an exploitation, it must be assumed that clones are devoid of a complex inner life. Whilst some, like the principal of Hailsham and her collaborator, Madam, believe that these clones do have ‘souls’, and advocate for humane treatment during the early years, they do not reject the legitimacy of the National Donation Program; the donation scheme is the paragon of ‘great progress’, and this belief is founded on the assumption that clones cannot be considered really human. Despite their recognition that clones do have ‘souls’, and thus capable of developing a complex inner life like us, they insist on the status quo, like many of us who recognise animals as sentient beings yet feast on their flesh. The film is squarely focused on conveying just how terrible this practice is, and it is intended to make us question the possible ethical implications of cloning. And, interestingly, the film actually suits this end better than the original novel.
The reason why the film is a better thought experiment for a seminar or a classroom is not the relative convenience and accessibility of a movie as a medium. It is due to its lack of certain aesthetic opaqueness; the film singularly focuses on ‘politics of cloning’. To this end, the film explicitly shows the brutality of the practice, and even dramatises it with some clichés commonly used in movies and TV shows. For example, unlike Ishiguro’s original, the feature focuses on the love-triangle of three young people in order to highlight the cruelty of denying the future for them. Garland’s intention is clearly expressed from the very beginning of the movie; in the first sequence, Tommy, on his operation bed, heroically smiles upon Kathy as if to promise his safe return, like a soldier heading to the front. This scene establishes the tone for the rest of the movie, which advances Garland’s argument with ample use of melodramatic scenes. For example, Ruth’s death is very graphically documented; the film shows her corpse on the operation table to maximise the terrifying effect. Whilst none of these events are explicitly, or graphically, described in the novel (they in fact only get passing mentions), Garland made these alterations in order to express a singular point; his opposition to the potentially inhumane consequences of cloning. He turns to melodramatic clichés to represent the horror of the National Donation Program, and to induce the rage against the objectification of the Other. Like in his debut feature Ex Machina, Garland is relentlessly focused on his thesis, and he uses the movie as a device to represent and support his argument; for Garland, cinema provides the affective appeal to bolster his argument, and it appears that Romanek was given no choice but to go along with this approach.
Ishiguro’s approach marks a stark contrast to the one described above. His novel is much more than a thought experiment that conveys the author’s view about a specific subject. Ishiguro demonstrates a far more nuanced understanding of his characters’ plight; for Ishiguro, the terror is not only about what is done in this story, but also how it is dealt with. True, the film does deal with how the society at large justifies cloning for organ harvest; it flatly denies clones’ right to life either by denying their capacity for a complex inner life, or by reinforcing an arbitrary distinction between humankind and its clones. Yet, the film fails to capture how clones themselves deal with this horror, which is one of the most important aspects of Ishiguro’s story; he painstakingly crafted Kathy H.’s narrative in order to express the extent to which clones internalised the institutionalisation of their existence. Throughout the story, there is no mention of rebellion; there is no resistance in any form or scale against the National Donation Program. Just as ‘normal’ children expect to someday become ‘grown-ups’, clones expect to become donors. It appears that they simply see this process as a ‘coming of age’, and approach it with curiosity, hesitation, expectations, and dread. They are indeed far more ‘reasonable’ than ‘normal’ adolescents; there is absolutely no mention of escapism such as substance abuse, running away, or suicide. With ‘Stoicism’ and ‘self-respect’, they simply carry on until they ‘complete’. As the notion of ‘completion’ masks the cruel reality of their existence, clones comply with societal norms and never disturb the carefully maintained equilibrium of the system. This silent conformity to the society which ruthlessly exploits their actual existence is where the most horrible effect of this novel lies. Ishiguro masterfully brings out the voice of Kathy, who is independent, observant, yet in total denial of her fear, grief, and loss. At the beginning of the story, Kathy mentions in passing that she is ready to make a transition from a carer to a donor. She simply tells us that the time is somehow ‘right’ to make the step forward. What she doesn’t say is: she wants to die. She lost all of her friends, and she experienced a terrible heart-break when Tommy rejected her in the end. Unlike in the movie, there was no loving smile from him to Kathy. Instead, Tommy requested to replace Kathy with another carer before his final operation. Yet, how Kathy really felt about these horrible events is completely absent from the narrative.
If one thinks that this silent complicity, the way everyone ‘looks away’ from the horrifying reality and carries on, is the Leitmotiv of Ishiguro’s novel, one is only half-right. This novel is an exemplary art which can stimulate one’s thoughts, theoretical or otherwise, and requires multiple readings, for there is a certain opaqueness about the narrative that allows a multitude of interpretations for any aspect of the story. Ishiguro’s masterfully sculpted narrative is not nebulous, however; each sentence carries clear meanings and performs certain functions for the story. Ishiguro was able to achieve this because he does not regard his story as a means to an end; unlike Garland’s script, Ishiguro’s novel does not advance one thesis or another. As it is certainly thought-provoking, it is far richer than a thesis disguised as literature. Case in point: the final distance Tommy wedged between him and Kathy could be interpreted in at least a few ways: He was with Kathy only to obtain deferral; he wanted to protect Kathy from the terrible end of his; or, he simply surrendered to all consuming despair. And, most importantly, we will never find the definite reason for his decision, for Tommy himself probably didn’t know exactly why he chose to be alone in the end. This is one of many examples of Ishiguro’s splendid opaqueness; in his story, the opaqueness that makes each of us a proper individual are not only retained, but also carefully cultivated. It is Ishiguro’s acute appreciation for this ambiguity that sets him apart from his peers.
Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne, Miller’s Crossing, 1990, Cohen Brothers) used to utter: No one knows anyone; not that well. And Ishiguro appears to have a special respect for this uncomfortable wisdom. Whilst it may be easy for some to dismiss this statement as a smart expression of cynicism, the way Garland comes up short to Ishiguro might suggest the reason why imposing a theory to the world for the sake of clarity is never a good idea. For the world, and every human being in it, is far more complex than a clever speculation can account for. And thus, we must take note: When studying humankind, less is not always more.