Never Let Me Go: Book and Movie

(Update Oct. 5, 2017: Kazuo Ishiguro has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature)

I must first declare this Spoiler Alert: It is impossible to write about the book and the movie clearly without stating the crux of the story. It is this key ingredient in the plot that instills meaning to the novel and now the film. While Never Let Me Go is a story of slow revealing, author Kazuo Ishiguro, in a Time magazine interview, admits that:

” … in a funny sort of way, I almost wanted the mystery aspect to be taken away so that people could conentrate on other aspects of the book.”

So there, even the author himself condones spoilers, for he knows there are much more to be pondered upon once the veil is removed.

Never Let Me Go (2005): The Book

Born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954, Kazuo Ishiguro‘s family moved to England when he was six. He is one of the most acclaimed English language writers today, listed by The Times as one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. Never Let Me Go is Ishiguro’s fourth nomination short-listed for the Booker Prize, which he won in 1989 with The Remains of the Day.

Based on a scientific premise, Never Let Me Go is a beautiful love story told with aching poignancy. Children of the exclusive boarding school Hailsham are told they are special from a very young age. They are to keep their bodies healthy and strong for that’s the purpose of their lives. They are told and yet not told, for theirs is a vague notion of who they really are or what is in store for them in the future. Knowing no other worlds, the children grow up in the sheltered, fenced-in compound of Hailsham, accepting their predetermined fate with docility.

Scientific advancement has made it possible. The children of Hailsham are clones, copied from an original, raised to have their organs harvested once they reach the prime stage of adulthood. While sports keep their bodies strong, they are particularly encouraged to pursue art and poetry. A mysterious figure they called Madame comes by regularly to collect their art work to keep in her Gallery.

The story focuses on three students, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. Their friendship on the outset matches the idyllic backdrop of the school in the 1960’s English countryside. Kathy is kind, caring and gentle, always watching out for Tommy, who is inept and temperamental. Seeing the bond forming between the two, Ruth slyly moves in and silently snatches Tommy to her side.

After reaching their eighteenth year, the three are transferred to the Cottages to live. There are just two roads ahead of them, donation of their organs and after 3 or 4 times, meets completion, death. Or they could apply to become carers of donors, but only temporarily until they too must fulfill their purpose. Living with other grown-ups who fall into the same destiny, the undercurrents of their love triangle begin to expose. For the first time in their lives, they hear about ‘deferrals’. If genuine love is evident between a couple, they could apply to have their donations deferred for a few years. When you are in love, just another day is precious enough. But what is love, and how do you prove it? There might also be another way out, and art could be the key. Ishiguro has masterfully handled layers of thematic complexity in a shroud of suspense.

While the story is based on an imaginary scientific scenario, the book is not a debate on the medical ethics of cloning. The events that take place which ultimately lead to their determined end explore, ironically, what it means to be human. Using the intricate relationships of the threesome, Ishiguro goes deep into issues of love and loss, dreams and reality, wrongs and their amends, and the ultimate search for the source of being, the very purpose of existence.

Using a first person narrative from Kathy, now a carer at 31 looking back at her past experiences, Ishiguro presents his story with detailed internal depictions and nuanced dialogues. Kathy’s voice is innocent and gracious, and all the more moving when it comes to the end when the story is fully unfurled. The three friends have since parted after the Cottages, but now after years have gone by, they meet again as carer and donors. On the canvas of imminent destiny, against the overwhelming tone of grey, we see three brisk strokes of colours, three lives, however temporal, serving their purpose, and above all, having tasted what it means to be human.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

Never Let Me Go (2010): The Movie

Update Dec. 6: Carey Mulligan won Best Actress for Never Let Me Go at the British Independent Film Awards last night. This is her second BIFA win after An Education.

Directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo, 2002), screenplay by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, 2002), the film was screened at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival in September, and chosen to open the 54th London Film Festival on October 13th.

The mood is nostalgic, shot in greyish greens and blues, effectively capturing the general atmosphere of the book. When the future looks dim, the best one can do is to look back and savour what has been. Screenwriter Alex Garland has done an admirable job in being loyal to the source material, visualizing the key events and pertinent scenes, bringing to life the haunting memories of Kathy’s, whose narratives are taken straight out of the book.

Corresponding to the novel, the film is structured in three parts. It follows Kathy (Carey Mulligan, An Education, 2009), Ruth (Keira Knightly, Pride & Prejudice, 2005) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield, The Social Network, 2010) through Hailsham in the 1960’s, young adulthood at the Cottages in the 1970’s, and lastly in the 1990’s where we see the final destination of their lives in completion. While the beginning part is the weakest, lacking the depth and details of the book, such a shortfall is compensated by the excellent performances of the three child actors as the young counterparts, Izzy Meikle-Small (Kathy), Charlie Rowe (Tommy) and Ella Purnell (Ruth). The congruence of young Kathy with her adult role played by Mulligan is particularly impressive.

As the story moves along, almost to midpoint, the unfurling of facts and feelings becomes more pronounced, calling forth some intricate and nuanced performance from Mulligan, Garfield, and Knightly. The three actors are the pillars of the production. While the original music by Rachel Portman (Academy Award Best Music, Emma, 1996) is affective and heart-wrenching, and the cinematography by Adam Kimmel (Capote, 2005) captivating, it is the performance of the threesome that makes the film so real and stirring.

Mulligan’s portrayal of Kathy and Garfield’s Tommy are particularly riveting. The hidden love Kathy has been holding for years is given a channel for expression only briefly at the end. All through Mulligan has carried her role with admirable restraint. Garfield’s portrayal of Tommy is achingly real, especially when he ultimately realizes the finality of his fate, the cry in the dark is haunting and powerful. And kudos to Knightly for accepting a role that puts her in a less than glamorous light. Her change at the end too is moving, giving depth to the exploration of what makes one human… other than love, there is also the courage to admit wrong, seek forgiveness, and the attempt to make amends.

Is it melodramatic or is it evoking deep emotions? Within context here, emotional sentiments or even a few tears at the end of the film might well be a healthy response, nothing to shy away from. Should the scenario arise some day in the future when we need to prove that we are human, and that we have a soul, what better ways to demonstrate but by our capacity to emote love, empathy, compassion, pathos, and the fear of facing such a scenario. May this all remain as science fiction for our enlightenment only.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

21 thoughts on “Never Let Me Go: Book and Movie”

  1. Before commenting about the book and film, I have a very small, very amusing story for you. Yesterday, I was listening to one of NPR’s morning news quiz shows. One of the questions involved Sadaharu Oh. The name seemed so familiar – I just knew it had to be an author I’d read about on your site, or Bellezza’s.

    Well, no. Sadaharu Oh is a famous Japanese baseball player. Apparently I’d heard his name in a news report. But I thought of you first!

    As for Never Let Me Go, I find the premise truly frightening. While Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel may be meant as an exploration of love, empathy and compassion, it exists in a world where scenarios such as he describes are being proposed by apparently sane people as “solutions” for our global crises.

    I know people, and have seen the postings of people, who truly believe that if famine, disease and war aren’t effective, it will be time to bring on un-natural selection. Eugenics, that horror from the past, is still alive, and there are serious recommendations out there to clone the “desirable” among us.

    All of this points directly to the question of who, precisely, would make such decisions and even more critically, who would have the right.

    Beyond that, the novel raises in a slightly oblique way the issue of the value of the individual. There’s a thread running through the thought of our current administration’s “court theologians” that the gift of individual salvation is less desirable that the achievement of corporate salvation. The denigration of the individual is clear, as is the right of those in power to place the welfare of the group above that of any single person.

    So, the question: in a world of cloning, what constitutes “an individual”? And what is their worth? We need to start thinking about such things now, and it seems Kazuo Ishiguro has done so beautifully.


    1. Linda,

      Well, first off, thanks for thinking about me! But you know, as I read your comment, at first I thought you have misspelled the name… I was thinking of Sandra Oh, Dr. Cristina Yang in Grey’s Anatomy. I’m afraid I don’t know any Japanese baseball player. But that’s a good one!

      As for the questions and concerns you’ve raised, they are relevant and timely indeed, and the issues involved are very complex. But I think Ishiguro has done a marvelous job in avoiding a direct debate, but rather, using his literary skills and imagination, painted a haunting picture of a scenario wherein we could ponder and put our heart into the issues.

      In the dystopia of Never Let Me Go, the value of the individual is dependent on the purpose. So if you’re ‘created’ just for the spare parts, then after you’ve served the purpose, you’re done. What’s so poignant and moving about the story are the characters, who do have emotions and are capable to love and feel, as much as many humans if not even more deeply. So in a sense, Ishiguro is not writing about clones, but rather, about us, intelligent and supposedly sensible and civilized human beings in a technologically advanced society… herein lies the ingenuity of the novel.

      As always, a movie is seldom as deep and detailed in its storytelling than a book. But its advantage is the visualization and the aesthetic presentation of it, both sight and sound. This film adaptation has done a wonderful job in achieving these ends.



      1. At work this morning, I suddenly remembered the section about real-ness in The Velveteen Rabbit. Same concerns, slightly different approach:

        “What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

        “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but Really loves you, then you become Real.”

        “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

        “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

        “Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

        “It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get all loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

        Isn’t that just the truth?


        So true… love and realness. What makes it sad is when the loss is not caused by love…



  2. I’m crazy about Carey Mulligan (isn’t An Education one of the best films you’ve seen? for me, it was, anyway) and so I’m especially drawn to the film version of this novel. I read it so many years ago I can’t even clearly remember it, but it keeps popping up for the JLC4 so I better dust off my copy and open it again.


    I totally agree with you about Carey Mulligan. They say she’s the new Audrey Hepburn… I read that she’s doing a remake of My Fair Lady. And yes, I’d say An Education is one of my faves… although I have a few, you can see them reviewed, listed on my sidebar. I’ve watched her since Bleak House, and have seen all her works since. She appeared briefly in Colin Firth and James Broadbent’s When Did You Last See Your Father, which is another excellent film.

    Carey Mulligan is superb in Never Let Me Go. I hope she and the film would get some recognition comes Award time next year.



    1. I like Carey Mulligan too. I first saw her in the broadcast of Skylight with Bill Nighy and she did that blend of idealistic naivety and worldweariness so well that I wondered if it was the only type of character she played. I can see she’d be ideal for this. Never Let Me Go is one of my favourite books – what you say about shedding a tear at the end is very apt for me, I found it devastating – I didn’t cry much but it made me feel the true emptiness of their hopeless situation, and the beauty of what they had managed to salvage from it. That’s why I haven’t planned to watch the film! Scared it won’t live up to it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Denise,

        I missed the National Theatre Live broadcast of “Skylight” when it was screened here in my city. And up till now, I’ve always been looking out for it but no, it has not returned for an Encore. Carey Mulligan is superb in what you’ve described and more. Right now, I’m eagerly anticipating her newest, 2017 film “Mudbound” about two families, a black and a white in the American south after WWII.


        1. I was out tonight and the one tomorrow is sold out 😦 Otherwise I could have gone. I will have to wait for it to hit our local cinema. Good tip off though, thank you!


  3. Now I want to see the movie when it’s out! Thanks for the post! It reminds me of the “Island”.

    Lady Di,

    Yes you’re right. The Island (2005) with Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson has a similar topic. But the genre is totally different. I wouldn’t even say Never Let Me Go is a science fiction, but more a drama, or even a character study with the backdrop of a science-related premise. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the movie if it ever screens in your area, which I doubt. 😉



  4. I really liked the book so am hesitant to see the movie even with your glowing review. My sister, who has not read the book, saw it and didn’t like it much. Do you think reading the book first makes a difference?


    I think in this case, reading the book first before the movie definitely would enhance the enjoyment, since as I said in the review, the first part lacks the details and depth of the book. So someone who has read the book would automatically fill in the missing details mentally to link to the second part. I told myself too that a book is a different art form as a film, so I would not compare the two literally. But I feel the film is very true to the book, the actors have done a marvelous job in conveying the poignancy, especially the scenes towards the end. Again, Carey Mulligan has done an impressive performance following her excellent work with An Education. I’d say, go see the movie, just for the experience.

    I must mention this: after the movie, I went back to reread the book, and enjoyed it much more this time around. Guess the two complement each other. 😉



  5. I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, and from the plot I might be hesitant to because it seems depressing. But your review makes me want to read the book and see the movie. I loved “The Remains of the Day.” I had a thought when reading your reviews and the comments here about the value of life. Aren’t soldiers also asked (forced) to donate their lives for others, and not always for the greater good?

    This the quote that inspired that thought: “Beyond that, the novel raises in a slightly oblique way the issue of the value of the individual. There’s a thread running through the thought of our current administration’s “court theologians” that the gift of individual salvation is less desirable that the achievement of corporate salvation. The denigration of the individual is clear, as is the right of those in power to place the welfare of the group above that of any single person.”


    Yes, I’ve read that review somewhere, and particularly noted what you’ve quoted here. Sometimes it takes the literary to rein in sciences and technology. That’s why all the more we need to teach literature in schools and colleges, even (especially) for those who are science majors. No matter how advanced we are technologically, we’re still a human society. Thanks for your comment!



  6. Arti, I just watched this movie last night. Poignant, and ultimately profound. One of those stories that stays with you, for sure. Now I must read the book!


    I’m glad it’s still being screened in your area. It’s quite a film, isn’t it? Yes, do go for Ishiguro’s book. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, likely more than the film even. And, thanks for the link of my review on your post!



  7. Thanks for commenting on my post about this. It’s interesting that you reviewed both the book and film. I found the film to be true to the book though as you said enhanced by the visuals. You really see how the characters especially Ruth get weaker and weaker plus the acting was fantastic. Their faces and reactions when they saw Ruth’s original at the travel agency was heartbreaking. In a way more so than the book because of the visuals. Its amazing how though I wasnt charmed by any of the characters, I still wanted happiness for them. I still grew to care about them. Though I had read the book before, I kept hoping for a different ending while watching the film. I Usually hate it when they change endings but I really did want to aee some happiness for those two in spite of it all. Ishiguro is indeed brilliant to have created a book that makes you feel so much emotions even if the were sad and hopeless. Hopelessness is really a difficult to tap from reading a book. Usually even sad books have some sort of hope in the end.


    1. Mrs. B,

      Welcome! Yes, don’t we all feel depressed after reading the book. But that’s exactly the point. The book and the film’s brilliance is to leave us with those somber questions and moral dilemmas (which I’m sure your book club would delve into). It’s interesting that you’d rather see the the ending changed in the film. Oh, but I’m glad the screen writer did not, for if he had done so, it would not be as poignant and powerful as the author had rendered it.

      But don’t you feel after reading the book and watching the film, you are left with a sense of gratification that tells you, “yes, that’s a good one?” That’s the joy of literature and films… even those with a sad ending. 😉


  8. What an interesting quote from Ishiguro. I felt exactly the same on my second reading and thus I loved it. It’s now one of my favorite novels.

    Mrs. B,

    Thanks for stopping by a second time after rereading the book. I think we share similar sentiments towards the book and enjoy it more the second time around.



  9. I was gonna say The Island with Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson has the same premise as this but interpreted in so different ways. Like you said, Never Let Me Go speaks about the humanity of it as opposed to the issue of cloning itself, such as The Island did. I still remember the last scene with Keira Knightley here, it was heartrending.


    1. Claire,

      Isn’t Carey Mulligan a versatile actor, so young too. Just think her role here in Never Let Me Go then to An Education, later, Drive, then The Great Gatsby as Daisy, and most recently, Inside Llewyn Davis. What transformations of roles. She’ll soon be Bathsheba in Far From the Madding Crowd, you know. And then there’s Suffragette, with Helena Bonham Carter, Meryl Streep, and other talents. I highly anticipate that one.


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