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Book vs film: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Book Corner season 5: Book vs film. Episode 5: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro’s sixth novel was published in 2005 and its film adaptation, scripted by Alex Garland, was released in 2010. Read on, and I’ll explain why the novel is a great example of bad storytelling that the film fails to redeem.

The Book Corner

The Book Corner is a regular break from critiquing with the writing group of my former MA colleagues. We work out a theme and everyone chooses a book that we’ll read and discuss. Previous themes have included literary genre award winners and books that shaped our writing journeys. This year, my goal is to review the books as we read them.

As usual, it’s an odd mix with a skew towards SF and fantasy, and in this season we’re comparing books to their screen adaptations. Catch up with Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion, The Dark Tower vol 1 — The Gunslinger by Stephen King, The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, and A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin vs Tales from Earthsea by Goro Miyazaki.

Coming up: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, The Colour Out Of Space by HP Lovecraft (vs the bonkers Nicolas Cage adap.) and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones.

Never Let Me Go: the story

I don’t usually give a detailed synopsis, but this critique requires it, so skip on if you want to avoid spoilers.

The cover of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

In the 1950s, human cloning is established for the purpose of supplying live organ donors. In the 1990s, the narrator Kathy H is a carer who looks after organ donors until they ‘complete’ — a euphemism for dying as their organs are removed. She looks back on her childhood at Hailsham, a boarding school for innocent young clones.

The students are taught to live healthy lives and receive a basic education from teachers known as Guardians. They don’t know about their fate, and their lessons include role-playing for adult lives in the outside world. The Guardians encourage them to create art for a visitor known as Madame, who selects pieces for her gallery. Kathy develops close friendships with two students: Ruth and Tommy. Other students bully Tommy because of his strange art and comically short temper, but Kathy’s friendship helps him to control his temper. Kathy develops a crush but she’s disappointed when Ruth and Tommy form a relationship. This lasts throughout their youth, but the trio remain friends.

The students are allowed to buy goods from the outside world at events called ‘the exchanges’. Teenage Kathy acquires a cassette tape that includes a saccharine ballad: Never Let Me Go. She often dances to it while alone, and on one occasion she notices the headmistress, Miss Emily, watching her.

When a sympathetic new Guardian arrives, she tells the students that they were created to be organ donors. Miss Lucy is swiftly removed from the school.

The world beyond

At 16, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy move to the Cottages, a former farm. They meet other clones and can visit the outside world. They mostly stay together, play games, walk in the countryside and have sex. Two older housemates invite Ruth on a trip to Cromer in Norfolk, where they have seen a woman who might be her ‘possible’. The clones have developed a myth about finding the people from whom they were copied, but the woman looks only superficially like Ruth. Afterwards, she angrily confesses her fear that they were all cloned from ‘human trash’.

The older housemates reveal that they’ve heard a rumour about Hailsham students: any couple who can prove they are in love can apply for a deferral of their donations. The Hailsham students don’t know anything about deferrals, but the rumour lives on.

Ruth goes off with the other housemates, so Kathy and Tommy visit second hand shops around Cromer, looking for a copy of the tape with Never Let Me Go, which Kathy has lost. They find the tape and he buys it for Kathy, giving away his affection for her. They agree not to tell Ruth about the tape, and Tommy suggests that the Madame’s gallery was to reveal their souls if they ever ask for a deferral. Tommy’s scared that he never produced any art that Madame liked.

When Ruth finds out about the tape, she becomes jealous. She spitefully tells Kathy that Tommy could never find her attractive because she’s had sex with too many other men. Kathy applies to become a carer so that she can leave the Cottages, and loses contact with her friends.

Til death us do part

Some 10 years later, Kathy accidentally encounters Ruth after her first donation and in deteriorating health. She becomes her carer and they reunite with Tommy, who has made two donations but is still in good health. Ruth confesses her regret for keeping Kathy and Tommy apart, and offers to make amends by giving them Madame’s address so that they can apply for a deferral. Soon after, Ruth makes her second donation and completes. Kathy becomes Tommy’s carer and lover.

They visit the Madame and find Miss Emily with her. The older women reveal that Hailsham was an experiment to convince people that clones are normal humans with a soul, who deserve better treatment. Nobody cared, Hailsham closed and clones are now treated worse than before. Deferrals were always a myth.

Tommy’s childhood temper returns and he berates Kathy for working as a carer. She resigns as his carer but visits before he completes at his third donation. The novel ends with Kathy in Norfolk, reminiscing about her life and the friends she has lost. Her donations will come soon.

Never Let Me Go: a writer’s review

There are two stories in Never Let Me Go: a strong love triangle and a weak alternative history.

The love triangle between Kathy, Tommy and Ruth could exist in any number of isolated mundane settings. It’s not an original love story: Ruth is a stereotypical mean girl frenemy, Kathy is weak and depends on her friend, while Tommy bounces like a puppy to whoever offers him the most affection.

The dystopian SF elements are irrelevant to this triangle. Ruth’s jealousy could force them apart in any circumstance and the pressure which brings them together could be any illness.

Ishiguro’s prose is beautiful, and it’s the secret sauce that makes his novel readable despite its multiple failures. Hailsham is a fascinating environment: the exchanges, the rumours of a terrifying world beyond the gates, Madame’s gallery and the detached caring of the Guardians set up an introduction to a fascinating world.

Yet it feels like Ishiguro is far more invested in Hailsham than the rest of his world. His notion of England and the English character appears to be rooted in a monotone postwar sensibility. It’s out of time and out of place.

Alt history, without the alt

Alternative history is like throwing a pebble into the pond of time and seeing how the ripples spread out. Ishiguro’s alt-history isn’t weak because it fails to explain how the cloning-donor technology works, although when he stumbles into the science, he fails hard. It’s weak because of a basic inattention to the social and human effects of the world he creates. In this two-dimensional history, society is utterly unchanged by the existence of clones or an endless supply of acquiescent donors.

There are ways to get around this. Isolating the narrator from society is the easiest, and that’s why the Hailsham section works far better than the second and third acts in the outside world. If you acknowledge the implications of your world, it’s both possible and often necessary to hand-wave some of them away with cursory explanations. Ishiguro barely attempts this level of plausibility.

The most difficult route is to follow the ripples. As time moves away from your initial change, they will bounce off the real world and interact with each other. Most authors choose to follow the ripples that interest them and hand-wave the rest, but for Ishiguro, the world is a static setting of no consequence. His protagonists aren’t isolated from the world; they’re simply unaffected by anything beyond their tiny bubble.

Harvest-friendly humans

This bizarre lack of affect infects everyone.

Miss Lucy tells a class full of teenagers that they will be harvested for their organs. No one cries. No one is angry. No one is scared.

Ruth almost meets her Possible, and when it turns into a false hope she’s briefly angry that she might have come from “human trash”. This revelation doesn’t seem to go anywhere except mistreating her best friend. When their lovestruck housemates in the Cottages learn that deferrals are just another rumour, they shrug and fade into the background, narrative function completed.

As a carer, Kathy watches her donors experience slow, painful vivisection, and it makes her a bit sad, but never enough to question the programme. When Tommy discovers that the deferrals are a myth, his anger flares and evaporates before he submits to harvesting.

Death becomes them

The donors’ acquiescence confused the hell out of me. History shows you can make people do terrible things to each other and to themselves. Yet Ishiguro makes no attempt to show how his donors become so willing to die or why they never question their fate.

They’re not coerced, brainwashed, bullied, indoctrinated, terrorised or emotionally manipulated. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why they would agree to have their organs removed, again and again. No one in the wider world seems grateful for this sacrifice, or even aware of it.

It’s like 1984 without the Three Minute Hate, the Big Brother cult, the ubiquitous surveillance or the constant rewriting of history. Even Madame and Miss Emily, when they reveal the failure of their Hailsham experiment, don’t seem horrified by the world they live in. Kathy and Tommy’s arrival is an inconvenience to Madame’s imminent furniture delivery, and her sickness hints that she’s likely to benefit from the donor system.

Kathy: the angel of death

Kathy is an even more contradictory and unsympathetic creation. After the donors learn that they’re incapable of having children, the titular song inspires a moment of teenage wistfulness and desire for motherhood. This never goes anywhere, unless her maternal instinct sublimes into her success as a carer — but Isiguro never makes the connection.

This is a classic opportunity for an SF analogy to contemporary social questions. These women (and men) are denied basic reproductive rights, but it never earns a second thought.

As a carer, Kathy spends her life ensuring that the system extracts maximum value from the donors with the least trouble. She’s an angel of death at best, at worst she’s a Holocaust internee volunteering to help Dr Mengele. Her actions make her far more evil than Ruth’s petty jealousy.

Never let Me Go has been described as a horror story, but Ishiguro hews too tightly to the euphemisms of ‘donation’ and ‘completion’. Kathy never describes the suffering of her donors, even when they’re her own friends and lovers. I came to assume that what actually made her suitable as a carer was a psychopathic lack of affect.

Kathy completes the novel with lines of philosophy so vacuous that they can’t be taken at face value. They only make sense as evidence of someone incapable of comprehending the level to which she has been abused by the state.

Kiera Knightley, Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan in 2010's adaptation of Never Let Me Go
“We should run away and live free.”
“Sorry, can’t, I’ve got an appointment to be murdered tomorrow and it would be rude to cancel at short notice.”

Don’t mention the facts

As for the world beyond its protagonists, Ishiguro’s attempt to dismiss it is laughably bad. I referenced the Holocaust because the alternative history in this story begins in the shadow of that atrocity. The West was generally against large scale human slaughter for a few decades after World War 2 but in this history, Britain has industrialised murder without any of those nasty concentration camps.

It doesn’t feel unreasonable to wonder how religions or other nations have reacted to the British cloning programme. There’s a fleeting mention of debate around cloning and souls, but Ishiguro shies from it as though philosophy might dirty his pages.

Ishiguro said that he wanted cloning in this history to have the impact that nuclear power has had in our own. Yet it’s had no apparent effect, for better or worse. There’s no equivalent of Greenpeace or CND. All debate has been settled. Clones are useful, disposable unpeople, but at the same time the people whose lives have been saved don’t seem any happier for it.

When Madame and Miss Emily reference the ailments that the donor programme has banished, it’s almost as if Ishiguro is trolling any reader with a morsel of medical knowledge. Motor neurone disease is a progressive illness that would require whole brain transplants. Cancer is notoriously cancerous and the challenge isn’t transplants, it’s metastasis.

It’s all about the feels

Fans of this novel might object that it’s about “the feels” of its insipid protagonists. Even their emotions seem entirely separated from their existence, as though they’re in a different story.

Never Let Me Go stayed with me, but in the worst way possible. There’s far more humanity in Philip K Dick’s doomed replicants and better worldbuilding in thirty seconds of Monty Python’s live organ donor sketch.

Ishiguro might claim that he wrote a novel about cloning, but he didn’t. Science aside, he deals competently with neither the social nor the personal implications of his alternative history.

Never Let Me Go is an insult to every literary dystopian who has not flinched at the consequences of their creations: Mary Shelley, EM Forster, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Daniel Keyes, Philip K Dick, Margaret Atwood, Colson Whitehead and Charlie Brooker to name a few.

There is a good story in here, but Kazuo Ishiguro did not deliver it. And he should be able to deliver. Remains Of The Day is all about a man so bound by society and his upbringing that denies himself happiness. Those pressures surround the protagonists of Never Let Me Go, but they never emerge to fulfil the promise of the premise.

I’m aware that this is a dissenting opinion on a text which is highly-regarded among the literati. I was relieved to discover that Christopher Priest, author of The Prestige, found a similar failure to deliver in Ishiguro’s novel about AI, Klara and the Sun.

Never Let Me Go: the film

Poster art for the 2010 film adaptation of Never Let Me Go

Alex Garland’s script follows the original story, but it’s aware of the novel’s shortcomings and makes some attempts to address them in its depiction of the donors’ lives.

The children at Hailsham are shown taking drugs which might plausibly affect their behaviour, and the donors have to tap some sort of implanted tag when they enter and leave their homes. The exchanges are full of broken toys instead of luxuries, and their clothes at the Cottages are all second-hand. An elderly couple in Cromer look at the clones as though they shouldn’t be seen in public.

The visual medium gives director Mark Romanek no way to avoid the ugliness of the donation process, and we witness donors with missing eyes and huge scars, debilitated and struggling after their organs are harvested. Kiera Knightley brings a fragility to Ruth’s bitchiness, Carey Mulligan’s emotional detachment is suitably psychotic and Andrew Garfield is a perfectly puppyish and temperamental Tommy.

Unfortunately, the film can’t paper over the fundamental flaws of the novel with a beautiful cast and homely Englishness. Tommy’s energy makes his ultimate acceptance of being murdered for his organs even more difficult to accept. The scene with a washed-up boat only highlights how unlikely it is that they never consider running away.

Casting Irish actors as the lovestruck housemates at the Cottages only reminded me of the world beyond this myopic story, and that no matter how great the tyranny, people will always resist or escape.

What’s better, book or film? The film is lifted to victory by Garland’s attempts to paper over some of the book’s fundamental flaws.

The Book Corner season 5, episode 6: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel The Lovely Bones recounts a horrific murder and its consequences from the victim’s perspective. Peter Jackson took on the challenge of adapting it for his 2009 movie, with a heavyweight cast including Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci and Susan Sarandon.

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