It hardly needs to be said when reviewing an adaptation of a novel, but for traditions sake, “the book is better than the movie”. There, it’s out of the way early. Are we really surprised when we hear this? Be it Jane Eyre or Twilight, fans will attest that their film equivalents are slightly (or drastically) further down on the quality scale. So, if even Twihards admit that Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart fail to capture the nuance of Stephanie Meyer’s tomes, what luck do Kazuo Ishiguro fans (let’s call them Ishigurus) have when watching his masterpiece Never Let Me Go translated for the screen? (Side note: I’m sure that people who read Twilight are fully capable of critiquing literature, but I also understand how obsession can blind even the harshest critic. It’s the only excuse I have for my frequent endorsement of Nicolas Cage films.)
Never Let Me Go begins in 1978, at a peculiar boarding school named Hailsham. The children are frequently reminded they are special. And not in the way that “all children of God” are special; they are supposedly really special. So special, they are required to take regular physical examinations, ingest a daily dose of medicine and abstain from any practices, like smoking, that may be harmful to their body. Outsiders are weirded out by the kids, even though they are all perfectly polite and seem totally normal. The children aren’t even fully aware of the true nature of their existence, until one of the school’s guardians, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), reveals all. I’m not going to discuss those revelations here though. Although it probably doesn’t count as a “spoiler” – considering how early in the film it’s disclosed – I think the way Ishiguro, and here, screenwriter Alex Garland and director Mark Romanek, dribble out information about this alternate universe is far too masterful to clumsily spill in a plot synopsis.
We follow three kids – Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) – who eventually graduate from Hailsham, move into equally peculiar farming houses known as The Cottages, and slowly attempt to blend into the real world. The trio is engaged in a love triangle of sorts, although it’s not quite the kind you might be thinking of. Although the girls are ostensibly rivals for the oblivious Tommy’s affection, as is revealed in the film’s final reel, it is not who they are in love with that really matters – it is that they can love.
Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is only six years old, but has already wedged its way into the pantheon of great literature. Part love story, part sci-fi parable; it’s a gorgeous, devastating dissection of what it means to be human, and to have a soul. But the book doesn’t exactly welcome readers; told from the detached, almost-icy POV of Kathy H., we are kept at an arm’s length from the novel’s overarching tragedy. For good reason. When the inevitable fates of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are revealed, you understand that only someone distanced from their own life and experiences – coldly logical and pessimistic – could muster the energy to even get out of bed in the morning. It’s what makes the novel so powerful. But, how do you possibly bring that to the screen?
Mark Romanek finds a way (most of the time), and although his film adaptation does indeed fall short of the brilliance of the source material (and will likely distance viewers even more than the book ever did), it manages to convey the novel’s most important themes, and most affecting moments. It also helps that the seemingly infinitely talented Carey Mulligan is so good here. She’s perfectly adept at playing both wise and naïve, often at the same time. This is one of those adaptations that requires voiceover narration – so evocative are Kathy’s descriptions of the events at Hailsham and abroad – and thankfully Mulligan remembers that narrating is still acting. God, I hope she does an audiobook version of this soon. Knightley and Garfield are probably excellent too, but frankly, it was impossible to tear my eyes away from Mulligan, so I can’t say for sure.
Romanek and Garland could have taken two major missteps when adapting Ishiguro’s heartbreaking fable. Firstly, they could have been frightened off by Kathy’s superficially detached narration, and turned the tragic tale into a more obvious, dare I say it, “Hollywood” bastardation. Or, they could have gone the other way; fully embraced the detachment – not realising that it is merely a coping mechanism, and not truly indicative of the depth and meaning of Kathy’s experiences – and produced an unengaging, unemotional and ultimately creepy version of this story. They avoids both pitfalls. The film is breathtaking to behold, and Romanek is clearly a stickler for detail. But it’s not a perfect adaptation. Although it’s not a short movie, it does occasionally feel rushed, particularly the first act at Hailsham. We need to spend more time with these three kids, and eventually adults; we need to see them become friends, fall in love, goof around, have fun, cry, share experiences. There is time for that in a book, but not in a two hour movie, I’m afraid. But even in the film’s briskness, there is meaning to be found. Here is a story about the brevity of life, and how quickly it can all come to an end – or, in the vernacular of the film, complete. Before we know it, we’re saying goodbye. It feels like we just met.
Never Let Me Go is now showing across Australia.