Never Let Me Go, book vs. movie

Posted on October 27, 2009

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This is a great novel. A terrific introduction to Ishiguro, because that’s what it was for me—I have yet to read the more famous, beloved Remains of the Day.

Never Let Me Go really flows, all under the narrator’s commanding voice, which is the book’s biggest strength. As for its “secret,” I’m not even sure I would tout that part of it when recommending the book, though that seems to be what everyone talks about. The reader will have it all figured out halfway through, and in addition I felt there were some loose ends left untied, so forget about that.

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

When I learned that it was to become a movie, I got understandably nervous. 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 very exciting reading experience Ishiguro gives into a two-hour flick.

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 being when I read the book, and especially shone in her ability to act subservient to Kiera Knightley’s Ruth (Knightley was surprisingly good as well; a bit too showy and “me, me, me” as always, but had the look and attitude of Ruth from 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, likable 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 roles of others nicely and shines in second-man roles. I felt he should have had the Oscar for Supporting Actor in The Social Network, in fact.

Now, to compare it to the book: it doesn’t always do right by Ishiguro, but overall it’s quite satisfying. I’d argue that 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, of course. So it did feel that 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 quickly 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 sort of cruelly crawls around on top of her is not at all 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 those others, on to full adulthood (by their standards), the movie becomes truly moving. Kathy’s pent-up love for Tommy bursts through to the viewer in emotional ways, and, like in An Education, Mulligan’s performance is remarkably restrained and disciplined. And when Mulligan cries, the viewer cries. The scene during 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.

My only big issue was that toward the end, (spoiler alert) when Tommy and Kathy go to visit Madame (was that her name in the movie, too? Can’t recall) at her home and they see Miss Emily taking care of her. In the book, this scene was so god damn chilling I couldn’t get it out of my head for weeks. It’s supposed to be extremely shocking and a huge emotional surprise. In the flick, 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. In the final moment, though, with Kathy looking out at the field, good luck holding back the tears.

Overall, a wonderful movie, shot beautifully, and an accomplished adaptation of an outstanding, affecting novel. I was surprised, in fact, that this movie didn’t get more widespread recognition. But hey, it was an indie film, which was the right way to go. Just don’t see the movie as a replacement for reading the book.

Posted in: DBR Blog