Never Let Me Go is probably the most disappointing film adaptation to come out this year short of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. And the reason is SPOILERIFIC. In fact, I can’t even talk about the injustice this film does to the book, how it puts a pillow over its face and kills it in its sleep, without going into GINORMOUS SPOILERAGE. Except that most of the reason is how the film spoils itself within the first 30 seconds, and then again within the first 30 minutes. So I’d say if you have any interest in this story, go read the book. And the less you know going in, the better. The book is sad, poetic, and beautiful. I’d put it at a 8-9/10. But if you’ve already seen the film or read the book. or simply want to know how the film ruined the book with SPOILER SPOILING, forge ahead into the SPOILER-INFESTED WATERS.
SPOILERS BEGIN HERE.
First off, let me say that the film looks great, and really visually captures the bleak, restrained world of the novel. It’s also perfectly cast, and Romanek directs Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, and Carey Mulligan to the best possible performances they could have given with this script. In Knightley’s case what’s unfortunate is the way the screenplay has trimmed her role, and specifically the intricacies of her character’s behavior. Had screenwriter Alex Garland been more faithful to the novel, there would have been enough meat there to potentially earn Knightley an Academy Award nomination and the best role of her career to-date. But alas, Garland seems to have no grasp of the subtleties of the novel or what made it work. And this is especially surprising since Garland began his writing career with the fantastic novel The Beach, only to have that adaptation somewhat butchered by Andrew McDonald into the subpar Danny Boyle film, one of the lowest points of Boyle’s career, and the end of his partnership with McDonald. Garland then sort of replaced McDonald as Boyle’s go-to scribe and penned the fantastic screenplay for 28 Days Later. Garland’s next effort, Sunshine, didn’t fare so well, and Simon Beaufoy was behind the page for both Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours.
But back to Garland and the problems with this adaptation. In the novel, the three main characters grow up at a private school in England named Havisham. There’s something odd about the behavior of the students. They seem without historical context or sociological example. They’re kept apart from the world, taught very little of it, and in fact the nature of their studies at this private school is vague. In fact, everything is vague. The students only half-understand the world around them, who they are, and how to relate to each other. As such, they develop their own behavioral shorthands which are natural enough in their situation, yet are left of odd to any normal person. This is quite obviously because their teachers are providing them with half-information and half-truths about, well, everything as they mature into puberty. On one level, anyone who’s been at a private school, or even gone through puberty, can relate to their struggles to a certain degree, and there is a certain universality to the sad, stark loneliness with which they grapple. But because they lack the common language to understand each other, or to even understand themselves, and because no adult will tell them the truths about their lives or life in general, their existential lacking of identity approaches the near-baroque.
Once they leave the school, they have a period of a year or two living in smaller groups in cottages around the country. Before their “donation” period begins. And this is when it slowly begins to dawn on the reader: our characters are clones who have been bred for their healthy organs. It’s loomed in the background for most of the novel, but the novel never really calls attention to itself as science fiction, and what makes the novel so effective is how the reader is kept in the dark as much as its young characters are. You never even really know for sure if this is what’s happening until our threesome begin going in for their operations, with Kathy working as a “carer,” who travels around the countryside tending to those who have just had a recent organ removal. The reality of their existence begins to slowly reveal itself to us as it does to them, at first in their school days and later at the cottages, with indiscriminate yet subtle, hazy clues. And this combination of having no future, along with not fully understanding what that lack of a future means, as well as having been raised away from society, creates an eerie, disjointed sense of identity as well as a fractured ability to communicate with each other. Ruth and Kathy are forever caught in a friendship that is part rivalry, part self-denial, part child’s game, part fantasy, and part web of lies to each other. In fact, it is this very cloud of not knowing oneself, and the inability to emotionally connect and communicate, that serves as their real prison and the means by which they’re effectively kept in a state of docile self-confusion. These characters would never think to try to “run away,” as some readers have criticized of them. That very response is one that’s never been taught to them in the first place. They’ve been raised in a society where they’ve known their duty long before they even knew what their duty was. And whether intentional or not, the way the country and their educational institutions have emotionally and intellectually crippled them, they’ve never had a chance to be anything other than the equivalent of fenced-in livestock, sated in their bleary-eyed near-indifference and unknowingness. The book is poetic, beautiful, and soul-rippingly sad. There’s a moment near the end where Ruth and Tommy, two romantic souls whose true natures are struggling to find their voices and break free and scream out, track down the old headmistress of Havisham in an effort to prove a stay in their donation period based on their love for each other. It’s the one moment in their lives where they’ve experienced anything like genuine hope, and it’s tragic.
But here’s the problem with Garland’s adaptation. There are three lines of text that start the film that effectively tell the viewer the situation from the very beginning. And if the audience is too thick to pick it up at that point, then fully thirty minutes into the running time one of the teachers tells the class point blank their situation, again. There’s no poetic mystery, no vague sense of foreboding about what might be going on. Everything is spelled out to the letter. Sure, Garland tries to use the students’ inability to comprehend what they’re being told to prove a point; but it doesn’t matter. The audience doesn’t get to take that journey with the characters. Instead, we spend the entire running time of the film knowing what the score is, and feeling bad for the characters, but finally simply waiting for them to figure it out. The book put us in their shoes right along with them, so that as the tragedy is slowly revealed, it punches us in the gut almost as hard as it hits them, these children we’ve watched confusedly grow up. And because Garland also cuts a significant amount of the bizarre behavioral shorthands the characters develop between each other, we’re not even kept intellectually busy as we wait to see if the characters develop a full understanding of their horrible tragedy. Instead, we wait in half-boredom. If that’s not bad enough, the final moments of the film include a voice-over coda where Carey Mulligan’s Kathy tells the audience that maybe we’re not really so different from her after all, and that her story is a metaphor for all of us. I can’t even begin to describe how that dialogue violates whatever hobbled emotional resonance the film had been able to build or maintain.
First of all, no, her story is not like most people’s. There’s a bleakness to her story, a purposeless of life that is at a far end of the spectrum. Are we supposed to identify with it on some level anyway, and have it emotionally resonate for us? Sure, if the story earns that connection, which the book does. But the movie generally does not, and then by spelling it out and speaking it aloud, well, at that point no, not at all; that simply undoes everything. Instead of letting the audience leave the theatre with a lingering sadness and wistful thoughtfulness, perhaps drawing certain comparisons on our own, we’re instead left to ponder the boneheadedness of such blatant obviousness. It’s like a chef at a five star restaurant bringing out a $100 dessert of the richest, finest, most sublime dark chocolate cake or pudding, and then pulling out a can of Reddi-Whip and covering the dessert with it. Not only does it ruin everything that came before it, but it telegraphs a complete lack of confidence in its entire purpose.
As I’ve already written, this hardly matters because the screenplay butchered so much of what made the novel effective, poetic, and sublime in the first place. But it’s a spit in the face to the actors and their performances, and the visual tone of the piece. Carey Mulligan is pitch-perfect as Kathy in every way; and Keira Knightley’s Ruth might have had the ability to significantly alter the trajectory of her career. Andrew Garfield somehow bests them both, and pulls off a very tricky character not unlike his role in The Social Network, but this time even more sublime and delicately-balanced. His work as a naive, emotionally vulnerable romantic, and lost soul, struggling to find his way, and later to hold on to what little control he has over the strength of his burgeoning manhood, while simultaneously nurturing this newly-understood emotional truth of his soul, is just heartbreaking and profound.
It’s a shame, then, that such a gifted writer as Alex Garland was at such a loss as to what made the novel so effective that he completely butchered the whole work. The care and detail that went into the performances and the visual detail of the film are somewhat lost to a project that at that point had become a sailboat with no sail.