Monday, March 17, 2014

Review: Never Let Me Go, Book and Film

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Published: Faber and Faber (2005), Awards Nominated: Arthur C. Clarke Award Never Let Me Go, directed by Mark Romanek (2010)

 This review is going to be a little different from my usual pattern, since I’m simultaneously reviewing the novel Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, and the movie adaptation Never Let Me Go, by director Mark Romanek.  The focus will be on comparisons between the two representations of the story, so I will have to discuss the content of the story in some detail.  This means, there will be some spoilers of Never Let Me Go, both book and movie version, in this review. 

I don’t think there’s any way to talk about the story without giving away the central mystery of the plot, which seemed fairly obvious from the beginning, in any case. Never Let Me Go portrays a society in which human clones are used as organ donors, to support the health of ‘normal’ people.  The story is a personal memoir from the point of view of Kathy, a woman who grew up in a kind of boarding school known as Hailsham, with her friends Ruth and Tommy.  Kathy builds her personal story slowly out of handfuls of the memories that are in some way significant to her.  They are mostly moments that in some small way define her, the people close to her, her relationships, and her understanding of the world and her role in it.

While I enjoyed the subtlety of this method of revealing the story, I think it’s understandable that this doesn’t exactly work in a film. The film stayed relatively true to the events of the novel, but it seemed to streamline the plot by centering it on the love triangle between Kathy, Ruth and Tommy.  The romance element was definitely present in the novel, but I don’t think it had quite the same prominence.  Some details in the novel, such as the significance of the fictional song, “Never Let Me Go”, were changed to fit more into the romance angle.  In the novel, the song and its cassette had several different meanings to Kathy and others throughout her life, and I would have liked for a little more of that to have made it into the movie.
Never Let Me Go, Song
“She's not thinking about a boy, honest.”

While Never Let Me Go was not an incredibly long novel (288 pages), there was still much more story than could be shown in a 103 minute film.  The novel hit most of the major points of Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy's lives, but I felt like there was often not quite enough to give the scenes the context they had in the novel.  This seemed most apparent to me in their early lives, possibly because their early days at Hailsham shaped so much of their future. For instance, Hailsham culture, and the extreme importance the students and teachers placed on ‘being creative’, was a huge influence in the development of the good-natured, easily angered Tommy.  Missing the full sense of how his lack of artistic ability stressed him early in life, I felt like something was missing from the understanding of Tommy as a whole.

Never Let Me Go, Hailsham
“A happy home for happy future donors.”

In terms of the other main characters, I thought Ruth’s personality translated fairly well to the screen, but the story lacked some of the moments that showed her personal vulnerabilities. I was a little puzzled by the portrayal of Kathy as a shy, socially awkward girl.  It’s possible that she just seems very different when viewed from inside her head than she does when viewed externally.  I would have described Kathy as quiet, extremely observant, compassionate, and good at parsing social situations. I think it makes sense for the movie to take a different, simpler approach to the characters than the novel, though, and I think the acting really helped to bring the movie’s version of the characters to life.

 The darker themes may have seemed to take a backseat to romance in the movie, but they were definitely not entirely absent.  The story still pointed to the parallels of the clones’ experience of life to our own, and it also explored the different reactions the characters have to the inevitability of their early death throughout their lives.  It may also seem strange, at first glance, that there was no grand clone rebellion or escape plan, but I think this is because Kathy and the others are simply like ordinary people. They had a relatively comfortable life, it had a purpose, and it contained everyone and everything that they knew and loved.  I think that there are many people who wouldn't risk leaving a familiar life, even if it didn't promise them a long life-span. In the case of the clones, their community was also pretty closed, such that they had almost no interaction with those outside of their situation.  The internal culture of their community, and their unfamiliarity with the outside world probably contributed to keeping them quietly imprisoned. This mindset is not one I have often encountered in science fiction, and I felt that the sense of it was portrayed with eloquence, particularly in the novel.

Kathy and Tommy
“An expressive face can be worth a thousand words”

In both romance and other aspects, Never Let Me Go is an emotional, introspective story, and it is a credit to the actors that they were able to bring so much of that across onscreen.  I enjoyed the quiet expressiveness of the actors, and I think that the effectiveness of the story was enhanced in many places by the human connection afforded by telling the story in film. I read the novel before watching the movie, and in this case, I think it improved the experience of both.  I’m glad that I read the novel first, because knowing too many details in advance might have made me impatient with the slow discovery of Kathy’s life.  While watching the movie, my knowledge of the novel filled in the gaps with the details that weren’t included.  Altogether, I think the movie was a pretty faithful adaptation of a profoundly sad, but thought-provoking novel.  I would recommend interested readers or viewers to experience both versions, but to read the novel first.


  1. The book is told in the beautifully eloquent style of Ishiguro and achieves the perfectly balanced construction which, in my opinion, the author also realized in his novels "An Artist of the Floating World" and "The Remains of the Day."

    View this site for Land For Sale in Alaska

    1. I definitely agree with you about "Never Let Me Go". It's actually the only one of Ishiguro's novels I've read so far, but it sounds like I would enjoy his other work as well.