Note to the reader: This post contains spoilers, but not much more than what is revealed in the film’s trailer.
I apologize. It’s too easy to make a crack about whether or not a film adaptation of a novel about clones is a “good enough clone” of the book itself. But that is the question, isn’t it? As is with all film adaptations – they can either interpret the essence of the story in their own way, or they can mimic it almost page by page. Or, in the case of Never Let Me Go – do neither.
Let’s get the worst part out of the way: Never Let Me Go – based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and directed by Mark Romanek (whose last film was One Hour Photo in 2002) – feels like you put the novel into a meat grinder, then took a handful of the squiggly meat shreds and left the rest. The real meat of it – the essence, what really made it – is gone. But it remains at least recognizable from the random bits and pieces that are left. Now less metaphorically, the best stuff was probably left on the cutting room floor. Or even worse, left out of the script entirely. (It was written for the screen by Alex Garland.)
You know that creepy myth – or hopefully a myth – that if you had “organ donor” on your license, and you were in a terrible accident, the doctors might not save your life in order to get your organs to someone in need of a donation? That chilling notion we shudder at is the very world that main characters Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy of Never Let Me Go are brought into. These are clones, and from the moment of their creation, their purpose was to grow up to donate their vital organs, cutting their lives short in order for others to survive. The novel is heartbreaking, relatable, haunting, surreal, yet conceivable. It’s masterful dystopia – something so awful you can hardly imagine, but really, you can imagine it all the same. You can almost buy it as a truth, something within reach. (I commented more in detail on this aspect in a recent USA Today article by Maria Puente.)
Yes, it’s impossible for most of us to read a novel and then watch the film adaptation without being judgmental and biased. You know what makes the story good, so when it’s not there, it’s hugely disappointing. You already know the potential before it doesn’t stack up. And in this case, that has a lot to do with it on my end. But this is also the kind of movie that will feel disjointed and incomplete even to most viewers who know nothing about the story beforehand.
So instead of giving you a book report and telling you how amazing the novel is and that you should read it (just do it), I’ll focus on what I think the film adaptation’s biggest strengths and (more so) weaknesses were.
In the novel and the film, there are three phases: 1) childhood and life as students at Halisham – a sort of boarding school in the England countryside for future donors, where they are educated and heavily sheltered from the world; 2) departure from protective Halisham and gained independence in a remote place called “The Cottages,” where the characters go to transition into the real world and prepare to become carers (for their fellow donors) or donors themselves; and 3) the actual process of donating, and ultimately “completing” – a cold, distancing euphemism for “dying” once a clone’s body gives out after one or multiple donations.
Here’s the good of the adaptation: It’s beautiful with natural and delicate cinematography. It portrays almost all of the scenes from the novel as I had pictured them while reading. The acting probably isn’t to blame (starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield) – though it should be noted that Garfield is the best part of the entire film. He captures and understands who Tommy is as Ishiguro seems to have intended: youthful with a sort of naive childishness even in adulthood, but likewise a dark, thoughtful soul. He did his homework, and it shows. (And one of his scenes had me straight up in tears.) In these ways, the film moved me, reminding me how wonderful this story was and making me grateful to see some of it projected in front of me. This is a story of generation – our 1984, our warped Great Expectations. Our own dystopian sci-fi meets coming-of-age masterpiece.
One of the main points of the novel is to take the experience of life and speed it up in a way. As we grow older, we start to think at some point in a state of panic, “I don’t have enough time.” We wanted to do this and enjoy that before we died, but for these characters, they don’t have the luxury of waiting to find out if they’ll have that chance. Their future is laid out for them, and none of them have enough time; “having time” is simply not their purpose. A distorted and mercilessly cruel coming-of-age, it’s growing up fast-forwarded – childhood to teens to adulthood, and then it’s definitively over too soon.
In Ishiguro’s novel, you can feel the weight and anxiety and nearly drown in it. But the problem with the film is that it just feels like a rushed movie and nothing more. In merely one hour and forty-five minutes (a short length these days), Romanek touches on all three phases of life according to Never Let Me Go, but fails to engage the viewer in any of them. Thus, we feel distant and unattached to the main characters – we have little to go on. It’s too fleeting and almost careless, given the brilliant degree to which Ishiguro achieved this effect in his also relatively short, less-than-300-paged novel.
While there are several important themes within this complex book, ultimately the film zoomed in on the two big ones: love and art. The students at Halisham are highly encouraged to be creative and produce poetry, paintings, drawings, and essays. Through this, Never Let Me Go brings up many philosophical questions: Does art reveal our souls? Is it useful, important? Does it make us human? This is a truly fascinating topic, but one that the film seems to dwell on almost too much – the complex history behind art and what it means for the characters practically left in the dust. Instead, it feels stale and the characters come off as having little foundation to go on (when in fact, it’s quite the opposite).
The same questions of art nearly go hand-in-hand with love as the characters grow up and get swept away in one of the many theories in the donor community: that is, if two donors are really “properly in love,” they may be able to apply for a “deferral” and delay their donations a few years in order to be together. They still aren’t considered completely human, but the idea is that perhaps there’s a way for the world to have mercy on these clones once they reveal some kind of soul or profound feeling. Creativity and love are thought to be what determines which clones are human enough for such an opportunity.
Seeing these big themes portrayed in a unique light onscreen would have been powerful…if only we had been able to see more of these characters on film, get to know them, feel some kind of truth in their relationships. But with all the talk of “looking into souls” and finding out if clones “have souls at all,” ironically, the viewer leaves the theater knowing little to nothing about the souls of Tommy, Ruth, or Kathy. The characters live through three phases of life but the audience skips through them to the point where you think to yourself, “Just because the movie tells me you two are in love doesn’t mean I really believe it.”
And that, it seems, is the greatest tragedy of the Never Let Me Go adapted to screen. Whether it is the fault of the directing, the writing, the editing, or the acting, this crucial element that worked so well in the novel didn’t translate cinematically. These characters were never supposed to match the sterility of the cold hospital operating rooms they were destined for. They were supposed to prove the world wrong. They were supposed to feel human.