Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Never Let Me Go: book and film (and full of spoilers for both)

I had high hopes for the new film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, Never Let Me Go; the trailer looked good, much better than I'd expected, and at least two of the three main parts were being played by very strong actors (Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield; I certainly have nothing against Keira Knightley as an actress, but she's not quite in their league.) Unfortunately as my last post warned everybody, I was extremely disappointed. Perhaps my hopes were too high; it's true that I know the book extremely well, but I don't have the kind of emotional attachment to it I have with some books, where I simply wouldn't be able to have a sensible critical judgement on any film made of them because I would be too busy wailing "But they cut the crucial tea-and-biscuits scene on page 301!" I don't think it's possible to have that kind of attachment to Never Let Me Go - it's too bleak. And in general, I don't like films being what they call 'faithful' to the book - in the sense that they reproduce everything too exactly. The best adaptations, I think, cut and change an awful lot, but still stay true to the spirit of the book - for example, I thought the old black-and-white Lord of the Flies was rather too faithful on the whole, and when Piggy was given a bit of impromptu dialogue about his home town this opinion was confirmed, as that was the only point when the film leapt into life for me. But anyway, I digress..

The Good

To start on a positive note...

- Tommy's characterisation as a whole, and Andrew Garfield's performance. Ishiguro said in an interview with the Sunday Times that Garfield actually brought Tommy into clearer focus for him because he hadn't realised before how strongly Tommy believed that life should be good, even when it clearly wasn't, and this was definitely brought through to me in the film as well. I always had trouble with Tommy in the book - I couldn't quite shake the feeling that he was just a bit dim, even though I knew that wasn't true, and getting a better handle on him as an eternal optimist strengthens his arc considerably. The culminating screaming scene was heartrending, far and away the best scene of the film.

- The costumes, set, and music, in fact all the camera-work in the film, was beautifully done, not that I claim any expertise on that.

- The scenes at the Cottages were also a strong section, I felt, especially the day-trip with Chrissie and Rodney when they look for Ruth's 'possible' - although I personally would have cut this to make room for more important elements of the plot, it was really well done.

The Bad

- Ruth and Kathy. With both actresses doing their best, they couldn't avoid the fact that the script massacres both characters, especially Ruth. Ishiguro is tremendously careful in the book to avoid exactly what happens here - the collapse of their dynamic into a stereotypical good girl/bad girl vibe. All the key scenes that build up Ruth's character at Hailsham are gone - for example, her involvement in the 'plot against Miss Geraldine' - and she becomes an obvious villain who repents at the last moment. As for Kathy, she's completely whitewashed in what I would actually call a sexist way - for example, there's no chance of her being portrayed as engaging in casual sex at the Cottages, as she does in the book, lest it make her seem unsympathetic. Very very cross.

- And I couldn't quite decide if I was crosser about this or the dropping of the 'Norfolk is the lost county thread', as I'm going to refer to it. The ending of the book, when Kathy goes to grieve for Tommy in Norfolk, because they'd believed as children in Hailsham that that was where all the things they lost turned up, is beautiful, and the ending of the film loses most of its power without the location being set up beforehand. This is particularly infuriating because it would have taken hardly any film time.

- I also thought the explicit hospital scenes were a big mistake and should only have been alluded to, not seen on film. Although I admit I can't stand gore at all and used to try and avoid seeing even the operation scenes in Holby City...

- A point that only occurred to me a few days after seeing the film is how Hailsham loses its centrality. Kathy starts the book looking for Hailsham and ends it accepting that she will probably never see the place again; in the film, it's only one of a number of locations that the characters pass through. I can't decide if this is as important as the other alterations, but it's certainly a loss.

- And finally, I thought the script in general was terrible, particularly the last line, which spells out the 'message' of the film very carefully - agh. This was a particular disappointment as I think Alex Garland is generally a very good writer, at least as far as you can extrapolate his screenwriting from his novel-writing, and am a little puzzled as to what happened...

So overall, not a success, and yet it had me in tears by the end - and feeling even crosser for being emotionally manipulated by what is often quite a trashy script! And yet there were genuine moments in it, and hence I can't completely write it off. Just partially. End of rant.


  1. But did you ask Mr Ishiguro the question you wanted to?

  2. Haha - to add to my disappointment, my local cinema advertised a 'Q&A session' with Ishiguro which turned out to be a recorded Q&A session from a London cinema - so no chance to ask questions! My question re. butler research for 'The Remains of the Day' would probably have seemed boring and irrelevant to most of the audience anyway, so it was probably for the best.