There are some stories that are so compelling, so well refined, and so moving, that they can almost work as a Rorschach test for those who experience it for the first, second, or tenth time. Never Let Me Go is one such story.
Kazuo Ishiguro released the novel back in 2005, becoming one of the most popular books of that year, making a cinematic adaptation a given, especially when considering that Ishiguro’s own The Remains of the Day was successfully adapted into a film back in 1993. Never Let Me Go is set in an alternative version of England in the ‘90s, where human cloning is permitted and institutions exist to bring up these clones in a healthy way to later be used as organ donors to save lives. The main character is Kathy (played by Carey Mulligan), with the narrative following her from a young age in a Hailsham boarding school to when she is an adult, chronicling her friendship with fellow donors Ruth and Tommy (Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield respectively) and their journey to discovering the meaning of their existence. It is a quiet, poetic, and deeply romantic tale that puts forth many compelling questions regarding life, death, and love.
While Ishiguro crafted a very delicate story, a film version of this was ripe with possibilities of being a complete disaster that misses the point, so much so that the first trailers kind of sell it as a thriller. Thankfully, director Mark Romanek (whose portfolio only has two other credits) understood the heart and soul of the story and lovingly replicated the philosophical musings and human connections present in the book. This would not have been nearly as effective if screenwriter Alex Garland had not written the screenplay: he has proven himself to be one of the finest sci-fi writers of his generations with the likes of Sunshine, Ex Machina, and 28 Days Later, always blending the right balance of spectacle and emotions. Here both of them find the right balance to bring the novel to the screen, utilising the first-person narration as effective voice-over to ground the story into the perspective of Kathy. Instead of making a cheap thriller, they ended up making a powerful tragedy.
There are some minor differences between the novel and screen, but they are few and far between. The only major difference stands in the scene that features the titular song, sung by Jane Monheit: young Kathy received the tape from Tommy, and she listens to it in her room, slowly dancing with a pillow. In the film, she is seen by little Ruth, who becomes jealous of the blossoming romance between her two friends, which leads her to steal Tommy and make him her boyfriend. In the novel, it is very different, as Kathy says that the chorus of the song, the only part she understands, makes her think of a woman hugging her baby, which leads her to hug the pillow and cradle it as if it were her baby. She is witnessed by Madame Marie-Claude, a woman who often visits Hailsham to see the children’s artwork (later revealed as an attempt to prove how human clones are), and she is moved to tears by this display of childish, earnest love.
The Carey Mulligan‘s performance helped catapult her into the mainstream, and rightfully so: her portrayal of Kathy is both vulnerable and confident, defeated but not fully without hope. It is memorable and the heart and soul of the film, also thanks to her very soothing voice that is the first thing heard in the film. Keira Knightley does a fine job, nothing too commendable, while Andrew Garfield is the only one who feels slightly miscast: while book Tommy is constantly having shifting emotions but also has a cheeky quality to him, Garfield feels more like a simpleton, playing the character as if he were just plain dumb at times. It is a decision (either from the actor or the director) that ultimately does not pay off, and is the only negative element of an otherwise solid cast that also sees the likes of Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins, and Domhnall Gleeson in supporting roles. Camerawork takes great advantage of the gloomy British setting, creating an impending feeling of doom with the grey skies and lonely backdrops. This feeling is accentuated by the melancholic music of Rachel Portman, primarily using strings to elicit a strong emotional response during the more touching sequences.
The themes of the story are very heavy but never treated in an overly serious, dull, or shallow way. Seeing these clones live their life feeling love, fear, compassion, and empathy crafts a link with readers and audiences alike, creating an emotional bond that is hard to break once the experience is over. It ponders on the meaning and value of living, if any one life is worth sacrificing for the betterment of others, and how love and emotions in general are what differentiates these clones (and humans) from any other species on Earth.
This is what makes Never Let Me Go such a compelling book and film, and also the reason why it was defined as a Rorschach test: its story can be interpreted as a metaphor for the Holocaust (seeing human life as disposable for experiments), animal rights (it is implied that, once Hailsham and other schools have closed, clones are put in cages), and simply human rights in general. Viewers and readers can discuss the meanings of the story originated by Ishiguro for hours, and that is a testament of a truly great literary work, accompanied by a film that is strong, albeit slightly flawed.