Two Maps of Hell: A Review of Never Let Me Go

by Gary Westfahl

[ Note — this review contains spoilers! ]

In crafting their adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel about young clones, Never Let Me Go (2006), screenwriter Alex Garland and director Mark Romanek have, perhaps appropriately, more or less replicated the original work, retaining almost all of Ishiguro’s story and even much of his evocative language; and they have produced what is in many respects an admirable film. Still, those who have read the novel may notice a few provocative differences, which might lead a future college professor to include Never Let Me Go in a class on novels turned into films. The argument for the film to illustrate is that, even when adapters seem determined to be as faithful to their source material as possible, the dissimilar demands of the two forms will virtually require some significant changes.

The first, obvious point for the professor to make is that while many filmmakers willfully distort or abandon key aspects of their chosen novels, it is always possible to accurately reproduce the basic story, as Garland and Romanek have done. Like the novel, the film takes place in a slightly altered, late twentieth-century Britain where society has developed the ability to create and raise human clones solely to provide replacement organs for ailing citizens, effectively curing certain diseases at the cost of dooming these clones to short, unhappy lives. These unfortunate individuals, upon becoming adults, first work as “carers,” tending to peers whose organs are already being removed, until moving on, at a time of their choice, to becoming actual “donors.” One suspects that Ishiguro set his story in the present, instead of the near future, merely to avoid the distraction of having to contrive other futuristic embellishments for the society of his characters, allowing him to focus instead on describing the subtly evolving relationships between three young clones – Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Keira Knightley) – and emphasizing how apparently minor comments and incidents might come to resonate with import upon later recollection. Indeed, Ishiguro is so intent upon developing these three characters and analyzing their interactions that his rare, brief infodumps about clones and organ donations almost seem like intrusions upon what otherwise might be considered a sensitively rendered and realistic account of a three adolescents growing to adulthood while entangled in a complicated romantic triangle.

Turning to the topic of how the film differs from the novel, the professor might suggest that such adaptations tend to involve what might be termed some changes that are chosen, and some changes that are necessary. As a matter of choice, producers recognize that while a novel can be successful by appealing to thousands of readers, a film – even a film, like this one, that seems crafted primarily for the art-house circuit – must attract millions of viewers in order to turn a profit. And this generates some pressure to make strikingly original stories a little more simple-minded, and a little more conventional. To exemplify this tendency, students might be asked to ponder how the novel’s complex relationships have been dumbed down. In the novel, Ruth clearly perceives herself to be in a constant, understated competition with Kathy in several respects, and her extended romance with Tommy, while not unrelated to that competition, is not depicted as its direct result. In the film, though, matters are more straightforward: Ruth knew that Tommy liked Kathy more than her, she was jealous, and so she seduced Tommy and selfishly kept him with her. Further, in the novel, both Kathy and Ruth were sexually active and a bit promiscuous, though Ruth generally stayed with Tommy while Kathy had a few one-night stands. The film, however, retreats to a stark contrast between Kathy the good girl and Ruth the bad girl that rivals what one might observe in a schlocky horror film: young Kathy keeps watching Ruth doing the dirty with Tommy, and then she goes back to obsessively reading her books, a trait not observed in the novel (although as an adult, as in the novel, Kathy does have sex with Tommy).

Confronting such relentlessly grim material, a concerned producer might also ask a writer or director: can’t you work a little humor into the story? As if in response to this request, the film ignores the fact that the novel’s clones, despite their cloistered existence, seem perfectly capable of functioning in the real world, and creates a new scene, not found in the novel, suggesting that they are absurdly helpless outside of familiar surroundings. To lay the groundwork for this addition, there is another added scene featuring young Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small), Tommy (Charlie Rowe), and their classmates at Hailsham (a sort of boarding school for clones) being required by their teachers to engage in some role-playing, pretending to be waitresses and customers at a restaurant. However, these lessons prove ineffectual in later years when the adult Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth visit a real restaurant for the first time and freeze in panic when the waitress asks for their orders; they end up precisely echoing the orders of their more seasoned friends Chrissie (Andrea Riseborough) and Rodney (Domhnall Gleeson) because they cannot make their own choices. Perhaps the intent was to suggest that their rigidly controlled lives have rendered them incapable of enjoying a bit of freedom; however, particularly since Kathy is portrayed as a budding intellectual, it seems incongruous that she is now acting like a complete idiot – really, what sort of calculation or courage is required to select and read a line from a menu?

If one is seeking a large audience, there is another problem for film adaptations to confront: a novel can afford to be subtle, but a film must be obvious; instead of dropping scattered hints for perceptive readers to pick up, filmmakers must hammer their points home with brutal force. As one example, Ishiguro’s novel includes one understated, and characteristically British, theme that many American readers may not even notice: namely, the restrictive constraints of social classes. Ishiguro’s clones know that they are members of a lower class in two respects: their “possibles” (the people they are cloned from) are always society’s “trash,” not respectable citizens, and their status as clones forces them into a subordinate role as organ donors for their betters. Further, there are classes within classes: clones who were lucky enough to attend the relatively benign Hailsham are both respected and resented by others who were brought up at less supportive facilities. As if fearful that viewers might not recognize these class differences, Romanek resorts to some starkly diagrammatic, and old-fashioned, camera work. While the stereotype is that directors with a background in making music videos will be addicted to high-speed, incessant editing, he regularly stages scenes with alternating and lengthy shots: in the sequence when Kathy and Tommy visit two authority figures from their Hailsham days, Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) and Madame (Nathalie Richard), pursuing rumors that romantically involved clones from Hailsham can earn “deferrals” from their service as “donors,” the camera first shows Kathy and Tommy sitting on a couch for a while, then shows Madame sitting next to a wheelchair-bound Miss Emily for a while, then cuts back to Kathy and Tommy. But we never see the four of them in a single shot. The message, clearly, is that these pairs of individuals live in different worlds: the higher-class Miss Emily and Madame can calmly live for several decades, while the lower-class Kathy and Tommy are doomed to die at a young age. The same technique is very noticeable in the earlier scene of the five clones at the restaurant: the camera focuses on the three people who came from Hailsham, sitting on one side of the table, and then on the two people who came from elsewhere, sitting on the other side of the table, and then cuts back to Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth. Those three are the fortunate ones who enjoyed a pleasant sojourn at Hailsham, while Chrissie and Rodney suffered through a less pleasant upbringing.

The film also overuses stock devices to emphasize aspects of the story that do not require much emphasis. Whenever something is happening that is particularly depressing, you can be sure to see some rain, and Romanek regularly features scenes of the vast Atlantic Ocean, an image of unbridled freedom that tritely contrasts with the constrained lives of the film’s protagonists. To particularly emphasize Tommy’s frustration with his fate, he at one point boards an abandoned boat and pretends to steer it, visibly dreaming about escape by means of a sea voyage. (I also believe that in one scene where Kathy is reading a book to the hospitalized Tommy, she has chosen a story from the Arabian Nights about one voyage of Sinbad the Sailor, also relevant to this theme.) Another irksomely repeated effect is to have characters begin crying a tear at sad moments, though these drops of water streaming down their faces look so unpersuasive that they might explain why this film, seemingly devoid of special effects, nevertheless lists in its credits a “Special Effects Supervisor” – was one of his jobs to add computer-generated tears to Carey Mulligan’s face? And having the doomed children of Hailsham watch a film clip of George Formby singing “Count Your Blessings and Smile” recalls the ludicrous irony of having the dying, crucified hero of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (1979) serenaded with “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

Overall, while readers of Ishiguro’s novel will appreciate the film’s basic fidelity to his story, they may regard the execution of Garland and Romanek as blatant, and a bit thumb-fisted, in contrast to the exquisite subtlety of the novelist. But they may understand this approach as necessary, if one is striving to appeal to the masses, and there is no need for our hypothetical professor to dwell on these matters. Instead, more lecture time might be devoted to analyzing the sorts of changes in the story that were forced upon the filmmakers by the different natures of the media of literature and film. What will be most interesting to science fiction devotees is that adapting Ishiguro’s story as a film effectively made it more science-fictional.

For in writing stories, novelists enjoy an almost limitless freedom to describe, or to not describe, anything they like about their events; but filmmakers must offer fully realized images of events, and this can require attention to certain issues that a novelist might prefer to overlook. First, since Ishiguro is not much interested in developing his background, he leaves room for two interpretations of the story: this might be an alternate history, describing a Britain altered by certain counterfactual developments in its past, or this might be what is termed a secret history, purportedly describing events that have actually been happening without our knowledge. This elaborate program of cloning and organ-harvesting, in other words, might be part of a clandestine effort to prolong the lives of rich and powerful people. But the film must show these clones being transported to their destinations and being operated on, eliminating this ambiguity: the car that Kathy gets into is prominently labeled “National Donor Programme,” and she visits clients staying in large, conspicuous hospitals not surrounded by security fences, so it is clear that, in the world of this story, this activity is universally known and accepted. Furthermore, Ishiguro can choose to avoid providing any details about what the donors are going through; indeed, since he limits himself to vague, benign-sounding euphemisms about “donors” providing “donations,” some readers may not fully appreciate just how cruel and painful their experiences are. But the film cannot avoid visualizing precisely what is happening to the clones: we see Kathy’s peers being wheeled into operating rooms; we see a bloody organ being removed from someone’s stomach; we see one of Kathy’s charges with a patch over an absent eye; we see a hospital patient with one leg using crutches to cross a room; and we see a large scar on the left side of Tommy’s chest, which periodically causes him visible pain and suffering. One could say that such scenes are coarsening Ishiguro’s story, or that they are merely bringing to the surface what he had chosen to left unsaid, but they certainly make watching the film a grimmer experience than reading the novel. These added visualizations also make the film seem less like a character study and more like an “awful warning” in the grand tradition of science fiction, a story seemingly created not to illuminate human relationships (apparently Ishiguro’s main concern) but rather to illustrate how the pursuit of scientific progress might bring benefits to some, and horrible tragedies to others.

Of course, in establishing that this system of exploiting clones is public knowledge, and is manifestly inhumane, the film also becomes open to the sorts of criticisms often directed at the dystopian futures of science fiction. Tangentially, Ishiguro’s story raises an obvious question involving medical science: would having an unlimited supply of organ donors really function as a cure for diseases like cancer? After all, we have long been able to perform lung transplants, but that hasn’t prevented people from dying of lung cancer. More significantly, writers are regularly accused of creating implausibly altered societies without offering any defensible explanation as to how such outlandish developments might have actually come about. As a randomly chosen example, despite whatever rationalizations Philip K. Dick might have provided, would the leaders of any government ever really consent to implementing the system observed in Solar Lottery (1955) wherein absolute power is periodically bestowed upon random selected individuals? Similarly, one can ask, would any nation in this relatively enlightened age ever agree to create a new class of effective slaves to be butchered and murdered so that others could live longer lives? Even the possibility of scattered individuals engaging in such a practice has now prompted country after country to impose permanent bans on human cloning, and it is impossible to imagine any government implementing an officially sanctioned program of this kind. One can readily complain that this is a banal objection to make in response to Ishiguro’s poetic novel, but since the film actually shows us his system in operation, it invites such an objection.

Science fiction readers might also raise another literal-minded question about the logic of this story: if they know that they are being raised solely to die in their twenties after “donating” several of their organs, wouldn’t these clones try to get away from their overseers, or try to spark some opposition to the program that is oppressing them? Certainly, if editor John W. Campbell, Jr. of Astounding Science-Fiction had handed Ishiguro’s scenario to one of his regular writers, he would have known exactly what to do with it: after fully realizing just what is in store for them, Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth would have slipped away from their captors, established contact with an underground movement dedicating to overthrowing this dreadful system, and joined in efforts that would happily conclude with a successful revolution that ends the “donations” and grants basic human rights to all clones. Strangely enough, it seems that Garland and Romanek anticipated this objection and altered the story to explain why the young clones never attempt to escape. As children at Hailsham, they are indoctrinated into obedience with fanciful stories about children who illegally left the grounds and ending up dying horrible deaths, and the film also devises a more tangible enforcement mechanism to keep both young and adult clones in line: Kathy and her peers are always shown, upon returning to their current lodgings, placing their wrists in front of a monitor by the door, indicating that these valuable assets are constantly under a form of electronic surveillance to ensure that they always remain where they are supposed to be. If one clone fails to check in on time, one assumes, law enforcement officials would spring into action and use that tracking device to find and capture the miscreant. Still, I can recall a character in a very bad science fiction novel, Jerry Sohl’s Point Ultimate (1955), enterprisingly dealing with such a problem by cutting his “identity bracelet” out of his wrist, so that science fiction readers might still criticize Kathy and the others for their excessive passivity in response to their terrible predicament. Fifty years ago, Kingsley Amis observed in New Maps of Hell that “science fiction seems to have escaped the general sense of defeat, the cult of `the little man’ that pervades so much modern writing”; but Ishiguro’s novel and Romanek’s film suggest that this is no longer the case.

All of these considerations might lead our professor to an interesting way to conclude the lecture: despite some concessions to popular taste, a filmmaker can succeed in turning a polished, sophisticated novel into a polished, sophisticated film. However, the visual elements of cinema might force a film into a category that the novel was free to ignore, making it subject to new forms of criticism. Thus, Never Let Me Go is unquestionably a very good film, likely to receive many accolades and awards, but I don’t think it is a very good science fiction film. Fortunately for Garland and Romanek, though, this will only be a concern to those relatively few people who care about science fiction.

Gary Westfahl’s works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include the Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature (2009), its companion text The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993 (2009), and the forthcoming co-edited anthology Science Fiction and the Prediction of the Future.

5 thoughts on “Two Maps of Hell: A Review of Never Let Me Go

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  • September 20, 2010 at 5:58 am

    Never Let Me Go is unquestionably a very good film

    Is it? There isn’t a single word of specific praise for the film in this review. It goes into a lot of detail on the ways in which the film coarsens the novel’s characters and themes, then discusses its failings as a work of science fiction, but the few positive statements are very vague (“a sensitively rendered and realistic account” and the quote above). If a review is going to conclude that a film is very good, it should give some justification for this conclusion.

  • September 20, 2010 at 8:37 am

    I am baffled by the continued praise for this novel. Its style is grating–constant “oh, but I’m getting ahead of myself” references and then when we get there, it’s usually some trite childhood recollection. The characters are one-dimensional. The plot is non-existent. Sad? Contrived is more accurate. The only reason it is sad is because the author fails to construct a world with any rationale for the events of the story. In that respect, I guess one can call it an existential novel, but even then, it’s not a very good one.

    As the review above notes, the story does not address issues that any science fiction author would at least think about, if not lay out for the reader. This doesn’t make it a bad science fiction novel–it makes it a bad novel, period. Worldbuilding occurs even in non-sff novels. It’s a fundamental. It doesn’t have to be an info dump, but it has to exist, if only in the author’s mind in order for a story to hang together. Take, for example, the Morningdale “scandal” that shuts down the nicer clone schools. As a reader, am I really expected to believe that a society that condones a slave clone class of organ donors is going to be the least bit horrified by eugenics? I am not being, as the reviewer proposes, “literal minded.” I’m being rational, which is different.

    Then we have the clones, who are presented as intelligent, discuss art and literature, and yet are more concerned that they be allowed to have their high-school-love level relationships than, you know, not be chopped up for their organs. The author can’t have it both ways: the clones can’t be smart, but not question their existence or, conversely, have the reader feel bad for them if they’re too damned stupid to challenge their fates. I didn’t think the character’s lives were sad. I thought they were dumb. As the review above notes, the movie director recognizes this and provides some explanation. Where I disagree with the reviewer, tho, is the director has to do this not because the viewers may be too dense to figure it out on their own, but because Ishiguro doesn’t provide any rationale for the reader to do so. The reader actually has to make up their own reason entirely. That’s bad writing.

    I haven’t read any other Ishiguro novels (I did see the film version of Remains of the Day, which I thought quite good), but I think he’s getting a pass here because he’s considered an Important Literary Author. Literary critics, ill-equipped to critique the sfnal aspects of the story, apparently think his concept is deep and edgy. Sff critics, thrilled perhaps that a mainstream sf novel is getting so much praise, read into the story stuff that simply isn’t there. (Case in point: the review above states that the “possibles” are always society’s trash. Not accurate—it’s just a guess of the book’s narrator. At no point anywhere does the author provide this information from an “accurate” source, e.g. the guardians. Heck, the clones, free to roam the country, don’t even bother to stop at the library to look it up.)

  • September 27, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    [i]really, what sort of calculation or courage is required to select and read a line from a menu? [/i]

    I’m sorry; if that scene was incomprehensible to you, you should not be allowed to review movies. It’s transparently obvious that the characters have had nearly everything chosen for them their entire lives and have little idea of how the world outside works (they can’t even tell that the discards they buy as children don’t represent a “bumper crop” of goodies)—of course in such a first-time situation such people would more likely be shy than not, and follow the lead of the more experienced. Spend time in any bar in a college town and you’ll see it when new drinkers try to decide what to order.

  • December 27, 2010 at 4:13 am

    I agree with the overall analysis of the review. I think it is more a doomed love story than a sf one (think Romeo & Juliet here). I wondered about the lack of reaction too, but we all live mostly slave lives without rebelling nor committing suicide, now don’t we? It could be a metaphor for our resignation.
    Clones in the restaurant are acting realistically like tourists they really are when they try to order from the menu (try it in China and you’ll understand).
    A last word: in China, political & religious prisoners donate livers to Western hospitals. Delivery is fast and they provide a new one if the customer is not satisfied. That is for so some background.


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