Never Let Me Go, book vs. movie

Posted on October 27, 2009

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This is a great novel and a terrific introduction to Ishiguro.

Never Let Me Go really flows naturally, all under the narrator’s commanding voice, which is the book’s biggest strength. It eases you in, then surprises you. As for the plot “secret,” I’m not even sure I would tout that part of it when recommending the book, though that appears to be what everyone talks about. The reader will have it all figured out halfway through, but it’s not presented as some shocking instant revelation; rather, it creeps up on you, and when you realize what’s going on, it’s almost incidental to how you feel about the characters.

What makes the book such a great read are the little moments of social realism captured so accurately by Ishiguro—playground arguments, petty jealousies and gossiping between high school students. It’s really a boarding school book, a tradition that includes some of my favorite novels: Old School by Tobias Wolff and A Separate Peace by John Knowles. (More recently: And Sons, by David Gilbert; Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, and Indignation by Philip Roth, though that was set at a small college.)

Ishiguro has his ear and tongue perfectly attuned to young kids at a private school in the 1980s. And the narration, which makes the characters so real, also allows you to believe in the sci-fi twist, one that is very much dystopic and fantastical.

When I learned that it would become a movie, I got nervous. When a book is great, the movie rarely is. But once I saw some previews and examined the cast, I felt better, and felt like perhaps the movie wouldn’t ruin the memory of the novel. Sure enough, it delivers. This was a really solid adaptation, though of course the movie was at a disadvantage from the start since you cannot distill the exciting reading experience Ishiguro gives into a two-hour film.

It’s the casting, above all else, that made the movie so wonderful for a fan of the novel.

Carey Mulligan was dead-on as Kathy (though perhaps more attractive than I imagined the character when I read the book) and she especially nailed how subservient Kathy acts to Kiera Knightley’s Ruth. Knightley was surprisingly good as well; a bit too showy and “me, me, me” but she had the look and attitude of Ruth as I imagined her in the book. Andrew Garfield was pitch-perfect, meanwhile, as Tommy—just the right physical appearance, demeanor, and slightly stupid personality. It’s a testament to his acting chops that he was able to be a dashing hero in The Social Network but fade into the background and allow his co-stars to properly shine in this movie, which came out a month later and must have shot around the same time. In fact, he’s probably got a terrific future as the kind of supporting actor that brings out the performances of others nicely. I felt he should have earned an Oscar for Supporting Actor in The Social Network.

To compare it directly to the book: it doesn’t always do right by Ishiguro, but overall it’s quite satisfying. I’d argue the opening section of the movie is the least adept adaptation from the book, which builds steam very gradually and chillingly. There just wasn’t time in the movie to do this. So it felt like the section in which Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are children at Hailsham flies too quickly, but once they’re grown, it slows down right away and eases into the gloomy, heartfelt tone in which the book was told.

The scene that was shown so much in previews, in which Knightley uses sexual bullying on Mulligan and cruelly crawls around on top of her is not the movie’s best, though it’s fine. The moments in which the cast shines are those that show the subtle, lightning-fast changes a friendship can take due to quick glances or cruel words. It’s the same thing the book did well through dialogue. An example is when Kathy stands at the kitchen sink in their shared apartment and speaks to Ruth while looking out the window.

Once they go from the middle period, living with others, to full adulthood (by their standards), the movie becomes truly moving. Kathy’s pent-up love for Tommy bursts through, and, like in An Education, Mulligan’s performance is restrained and disciplined. When Mulligan cries, the viewer cries. The scene in which the three of them go to the beach is especially indicative of the flowering bond between Tommy and Kathy, and the ultimate movement of Ruth from villain to pitied third-wheel.

Spoiler alert: My only major issue with the movie was toward the end, when Tommy and Kathy go to visit Madame (was that her name in the book, too? can’t recall) at her home and they see Miss Emily taking care of her. In the book, this scene was so chilling I couldn’t get it out of my head for weeks. It’s supposed to be shocking and a huge emotional surprise. In the movie, I felt like it happened a bit quickly and matter-of-factly; there was none of the disgust and horror when Madame reveals that there is no such thing as a reprieve for those in love, no such thing as an art collection chronicling their development.

Overall, it’s a wonderful movie, shot beautifully, and an accomplished adaptation of an outstanding, affecting novel. I was surprised that this movie didn’t get more widespread recognition. But it was an indie film, which was the right way to go.

Still: don’t see the movie as a replacement for reading the book.

Posted in: DBR Blog