Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (with comments on the movie trailer)

The film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go came out last week.   I’ll be waiting for the DVD – but even without seeing it I know that whoever cast Keira Knightley as Ruth was inspired.  I wonder if Knightley realized that Ruth was the better role, despite Kathy being the book’s heroine and narrator?  Kathy is passive and accepting – a character that allows life to happen to her.  Ruth is angry, hungry, constantly needing something to believe in – she burns hot and fast like a comet.   Maybe Knightley just got lucky.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels are usually set inside the mind of the narrator.  They are memories – comprised almost entirely of flashbacks.  The facts have all been filtered through individual perception, interpretation and personal bias.  What emerges is complicated, fascinating and always skillfully written… but generally doesn’t contain a lot of action.  The narrators remain passive observers, even when they are in the thick of the action.  They are like Dickens’ Scrooge, revisiting scenes from their pasts with us as their spirit escorts.  Reading an Ishiguro novel is to be inside someone else’s head, peering out at the world through their eyes.  How will that translate onto a screen? I believe quite well. Despite the challenges the writers must have faced adapting this book for film, the trailer looks absolutely beautiful and the performances emotionally raw.

Never Let Me Go is the story of Kathy and her two friends, Ruth & Tommy.  It opens, again like most of the author’s novels, with the narrator nearing the end of her life and looking back on the path it has taken.  But Kathy is only 31 years old.   Most of her memories are of the  mysterious, private boarding school called Hailsham where she was a student.  It was an idyllic place somewhere in the English countryside – a non-magical version of Hogwarts.   In many ways she and her friends have had the perfect childhood.  Yet something seems… off.

Parents are never mentioned, instead the children are cared for by “guardians”.  They seem to have no memories of, or contact with, the world outside Hailsham.  We learn that they cannot have children of their own.  That it is much worse for a student of Hailsham to smoke cigarettes than it would be for anyone else.  Hailsham students are special and it is very important that they keep themselves healthy.  And then there is the unexplained requirement that all the children be artistic – their best pictures are taken away by “Madame” for her Gallery.  No one knows why.  Much is left unexplained, so the students create their own explanations.  Until one rainy day on the veranda one of their guardians, overhearing them, explains it all.  She does it quickly, brutally, like ripping off a band-aid.  Only, we are the ones who flinch.

If no one else will talk to you… then I will.  You’ve been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way.  But I’m not.  If you’re going to have decent lives, then you’ve got to know and know properly.  None of you will go to America, none of you will be film stars.  And none of you will be working in supermarkets as I heard some of you planning the other day.  Your lives are set out for you.  You’ll become adults, then before you’re old, before you’re even middle-aged, you’ll…

What they’ll do, why they are special, is the pivot point of the novel – which I’ve decided not to spoil.  (Though, if you really want to know, Google is there for you).  One of the most beautiful aspects of the story is the way in which the layers of the plot are slowly and carefully peeled back.  Knowing the secret won’t ruin the novel – what their guardian reveals is shocking, but there are still 207 pages left to read.  I just believe that knowing it too soon compromises the book as a whole.   Never Let Me Go is Kazuo Ishiguro’s meditation on mortality and what it means to be human.  It is incredibly haunting.  Not just beautifully written, like all his novels are, it is also filled with beautiful ideas. ( Which is even rarer).  His characters face a horrible future.  Yet Ishiguro doesn’t seem to feel that future limits or defines them.  He doesn’t seek to shield them (or us)  from it.

“If you’re to have decent lives, you have to know who you are and what lies ahead of you, every one of you”.

T.S. Eliot famously wrote that “The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree Are of equal duration”.  This novel attempts to prove Eliot’s hypothesis.  Kathy’s, Ruth’s & Tommy’s lives contain the complete human experience – innocence, love, loss, friendship, betrayal, forgiveness and the opposite of forgiveness.  Abbreviated.  Ishiguro uses his three characters and their very different personalities to explore the choices we make when faced with death.   And while the science fiction element of the story (the secret) and its ethical implications can’t be ignored, these are not his central motifs.  The author is much more ambitious than that.  Considering the subject matter he is taking on, perhaps because of it, Never Let Me Go the novel is amazingly successful and powerful.  The film has the potential to be absolutely devastating.

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, New York (2005)
ISBN: 1 4000 4339 5

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6 thoughts on “Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (with comments on the movie trailer)

  1. Saw “Never Let Me Alone” with three friends at a private screening on Sunset early last week. My Jewish friend wondered why getting “complete” isn’t done at once rather than in instalments. My pragmatic Indian filmmaker buddy was deeply disappointed about the lack of entertainment value — depressing movies as “Never Let Me Alone” cannot possibly be successful — while as his wife dismissed the movie altogether as not worth the time watching or reasoning about. I liked the photography, and I always appreciate originality. What I found most scaring is the supposed lack of attention to details, on the big screen they popped up anyways. For example, the logo of the National Organ Donors or whatever it was called on a van, without ever getting closer on it, as if it were a well known issue, also to the audience. Finally, I wondered if this movie wants to convince people to become donors. It is time somebody made a movie starting from the EPR paradox to bring the deeper implications of blood transfer not to talk of organ transplants to the attention of public opinion. But please, give it a comedic tone, otherwise people are too scared to be willing to know the truth.

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    1. Karl – You know, that is a take on the story that I’ve never heard before. I haven’t seen the movie, but considering the tone of the book I doubt it would inspire many people to rush out and get an organ donor sticker on their license.

      All I can suggest is if you found the movie intriguing, definitely pick up the book. It too is depressing (your friend’s wife would probably hate it), but I think it may fill in some gaps the movie seems to have left in the story.

      I do have a theory for your one friend re: why they take the donations in installments. Freshness. They take them as needed. There is also the implication in the book that after the third donation the donors don’t always “complete” – that they are kept alive in some type of limbo state, hooked up to support, while they continue to be harvested. *shudder*

      Thanks so much for providing a review of the film! 🙂

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  2. Tolmsted, in Governor Schwarzenegger’s home country I’m told there is a law according to which if somebody, supposedly even if a foreign citizen, is killed in an accident the government owns all organs for the purpose of transplants. No need for anybody to rush out and get an organ donor sticker on their licence! …Might help to prevent raising the class of doomed people “Never Let Me Alone” is about, the “democratic” way to have us all potentially “doomed” as “altruistic and responsible” citizens. As you did not see the movie let me come back to its looks. I happened to study sociology and economics in England in the late seventies, and England did not look like the seventies in “Never Let Me Alone,” which seemed to unfold rather in the late fifties if not earlier. But perhaps that is intentional to add to the dystopia — or rural England is just so different from London, but I doubt it. What I also missed in “Never Let Me Alone” is a more significant interaction of these doomed people with ordinary folks, maybe during a train ride. “Aha” moments would follow, the protagonists would question the need of their sacrifice. Imagine one of them falling in love with somebody outside their group, the wealth of drama, plot, action, despair, discovery, redemption. Imagine one of these other persons they made friends with being killed in an accident and his/her organs being harvested because they fit. Imagine some of these doomed individuals miffed because this unqualified individual postponed their purpose. There is so much room for irony, absurdity, even hilarity with which to grab an audience’s attention, even a distracted or potentially hostile audience. Differently to a book, a movie is even more in need of audiences to justify its production costs, and it better be attractive to as many as possible.

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  3. Never Let Me Go is one of those books that I will have to revisit. I read it a while back and I did not like it. Which was strange (for me) at least because I’ve liked all Ishiguro’s other works. So I’m thinking that I missed something, given how many bloggers (whose opinion I favor) like this book.

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  4. When I read the book, Never Let Me Go I fell in love with it. Seeing the film was almost better though. The question that the story was based around, “What does it mean to be human?” really came clear to me when watching the film. All the emotions I felt were the exact emotions that make us human. Feelings of jealousy, anger, happiness, sadness, helplessness, and fear. To be human is to suffer, and that was made so clear to me and I felt what Kathy H, Tommy and Ruth were feeling. The film was not depressing to me in any way, it actually made me feel alive. I know Im not the most articulate person, but I know what I felt when watching Never Let Me Go, and just thinking about it makes me passionate, about what? I don’t know, it just makes me feel alive with emotion and any film that has the ability do that has stolen my heart.

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