Never Let Me Go – the movie

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We saw Never Let Me Go last night. I’m sure many of you have read the book but for those of you that haven’t, I can’t say this strongly enough – there is a very significant spoiler in the review below. In fact, somewhat controversially, the film more or less gives away the central mystery in the opening titles. So, proceed with caution.

I’ve really been looking forward to this adaptation. It’s a haunting, disturbing novel, written in a particularly unsettling unreliable narrator’s voice. From the very first page, all kinds of subtle details indicate that there is something deeply wrong with the idyllic reminiscences of Cathy H. The monstrous scenario of children being deliberatly cloned as human organ factories, and assumed to be without souls for the convenience of a society looking the other way, is very powerfully conveyed through typically British understatement and euphemism. "Rather a lot of blood," or "I don’t suppose," or "You hear things…" all have very chilling resonances. Ishiguro is masterly at writing about quiet desperation and loyalty to a flawed system carried too far. In The Remains of the Day, there was a particular incident, where the hero’s father (himself a butler) is dying alone and his son has so internalised the same values that he doesn’t question that his rightful place is waiting on his master. A typical Ishiguro moment that provokes what Heinlein would have called "a cusp of great wrongness" in the reader – a sense that the status quo can’t be allowed to continue unchallenged.

But, of course, in both stories, it does remain unchallenged. The characters are too locked into their prison of tradition, acceptance and duty to challenge even a system that will lead to their painful and untimely deaths. And this, I think, is a huge problem for the movie. Movies need to go somewhere. They need dramatic tension; a sense of the inevitable, unchallenged, does not make for a satisfying cinematic experience, no matter how beautifully acted, lit and photographed (and NLMG is all these things). My own view is that Romaneck never quite overcomes this problem – to my own surprise, I found myself almost wanting to yell at the characters to stand up for themselves.

I’ve probably seen too many action movie trailers. NLMG is caught between arthouse and mainstream cinematic sensibilities. The book is harrowing, but remains at heart a deeply disturbing narrative of ethical dilemmas and ideas. We see the flawed system entirely through Cathy’s eyes – she doesn’t think to challenge it, wouldn’t know how to since it’s the only source of any kind of purpose, status and meaning for a permanently socially excluded character. Like Cathy herself, we are blinded to the obvious questions. The final confrontation with Madame, in which she and Tommy learn at last about the rationale and the background behind Hailsham, lasts a lot longer in the novel and is more of an apologia, though this detracts none of the dramatic power from what immediately follows – it is devastating, both in the book and in the movie.

In a movie, even with a very clear focalising character and voice overs, it’s difficult to remain inside one person’s head. We are observers, and that makes us less tolerant of lacunae in the plot unless we are constantly distracted with action. NLMG is a very static movie. There are no setpieces, no special effects -it looks extremely realistic although it is set in an AU subtly different from the one we know, a clever combination of the most dowdy and depressing elements of the 1940s/50s and the 1970s. Anyone who grew up in England in the 70s and 80s will recognise the scrupulous attention to detail that has gone into the look and feel of the movie, right down to tiny details like correct number plates, cheap plastic menu covers and charity shop junk. Unlike Cathy herself, we see from the start that despite the trappings of a privileged boarding school, these kids are undervalued and feared by society. They will never quite know how to behave, and they’ll always be on the outside looking in with longing eyes.

In the decision to go for mainstream appeal, compromises have inevitably been made. The recruitment of Kiera Knightly is the most high-profile example (in fact, she turned in a better performance than I’d been expecting), but a more subtle decision, and probably a more damaging one to the overall credibility of the film, is the emphasis on the love triangle in the novel rather than its philosophical and moral implications. This is pushed to centre stage with rather more emotional manipulation than it can bear, since it’s a slight, mundane and almost tedious tale even in the original. It is terribly sad in a very ordinary way, and any Doctor Who fan will recognise the kind of narrative devices that signpost this, as if we couldn’t figure it out for ourselves.

I didn’t dislike the film; all three leads are good, Carey Mulligan is outstanding and her big sex scene, when it comes, is a tender and beautiful miracle of loving understatement. But I was surprised to find that at times it came close to boring me. It was so very English, so very tasteful and restrained and faithful to the original – not always a good thing in adaptations. Movies are a very different medium to novels. As their name implies, they carry an expectation that they will go somewhere. Rather like the Tenth Doctor’s anguish in the 2009 Specials, the aforementioned stellar actors only have a set number of expressions to convey their misery , and for even the ardent fan they can become a little tiresome. I’m not sure if anybody has got around to writing NLMG fan fiction, but sometimes it makes better movies than reverent adaptations, and I kept wanting to see some more proactive versions, such as the one where Miss Lucy takes it upon herself to liberate the clone children, or even the story of the rise and fall of Hailsham from Madame’s point of view, taking us deep into the society that spawned this dystopian horror, yet resembles our own in too many respects.

But I’ve probably watched a bit too much Doctor Who. Ishiguro has said that his ambition is to write unfilmable novels. I think he might have succeeded.

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11 thoughts on “Never Let Me Go – the movie

  1. About 4 years ago, a group of investors attempted to set up a fanfic-for-profit site called FanLib. It didn’t go over well in fandom at all. The AO3 was set up because some fans realized someone would probably try to profit off fanfic again, and not everyone can or will use fanfiction.net. (E.g., fanfiction.net doesn’t allow NC-17 or RPF.)
    A few people on my f-list had beta-testing accounts during the closed beta stage. I signed up when the AO3 opened beta in Nov. 2009. I adore the archive. It’s hugely flexible with tagging, warning, importing, and commenting, storing multiple pseudonyms on the same account, or orphaning fics (if you want to leave fandom but keep fics available). Also, it’s set up to run fic challenges and fests, like Yuletide or Remix/Redux. I have an account at Teaspoon and a couple of other fandom-specific archives, but it’s nice to keep everything in one place.
    It’s invitation-only for now but you can sign up to get an invite code if you were interested. (Or, I have an invite code up for grabs.)

  2. I adored, adored, adored that book – so much that I dreamed about it for weeks afterward. I love a complex book with an obviously suspect narrator. We know there’s more going on than Kathy ever thinks to tell us, because it’s obvious from the beginning that she assumes that we already know. Since we don’t, it’s unwinding the mystery (as well as getting to know the characters) that is so compelling.
    The movie lacks that. I didn’t mind, because I went into it already knowing the story and the central mystery anyway, so nothing lost for me – but I felt deeply sorry for those who missed the opportunity to have it slowly unfold for them.
    It was a beautiful, precise rendering of the book. It helped me better visualize what I had read, but it didn’t give me more to go on. A supplement, if you will, but not a true companion piece.
    That being said, I cried like a baby at the end, even knowing how it would go. Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield were magnificent.

  3. It was very faithful to the book (other than the controversial big reveal) – I do wonder if it was a bit too faithful, because the things that made the book special do not translate well to the movie. I think you probably do need the mystery, because otherwise you spend your whole time questioning the set-up rather than looking at its effect on people and their relationships. I felt the book was one of the most memorable studies of social exclusion I’d ever read.

  4. Sorry not to reply sooner. I’ve been away in the wilds of Scotland.
    I’d be interested in an invite code. I’m losing interest in DW fandom generally (never quite made the investment after Tennant left), but I’m reluctant to lose my fiction archive, if only for my own enjoyment.
    I’m not very technical – how easy is it to upload fic to the site?

  5. Can you PM me your e-mail address so I can send you the code?
    The easiest way to upload would be to import directly from your fic LJ. You enter the page URLs in the import window. The importer recognizes fic headers within the fic (title, fandom, rating, characters, pairing, summary) so it will fill in some of the metadata for you. You can fill in the rest of the information after the fic’s imported. (It will back-date your fic based on the posting date, but you should be able to override it.)
    You can import multi-chaptered fic as well. I’ve never done it, but I imagine it’ll work the same way. It looks like the importer will recognize the chapters and append them accordingly. Let me know if you need help.

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