The Destruction of Innocence

Recovering from a dissertation defense, starting a new job, and prepping weekly lectures for my religion and the cinema course have left little time for movie watching these days. However, I finally got to see Never Let Me Go recently. This is one of those rare cases where the film adaptation of a book actually brings something fresh to the story on which it is based, and it’s a shame it hasn’t gotten more attention during awards season.

Based on Kazuo Ishiguro‘s book of the same name, Never Let Me Go tells the story of a group of friends, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Keira Knightley), who seem to have an idyllic childhood in a British boarding school; however, all is not as it initially seems. A grim future awaits them as they live in a world in which certain medical and scientific advancements have been made. Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth, and others like them, are not “originals” they are clones who exist to provide vital organs when those of their originals wear down. They move from boarding schools to cottages and eventually to hospitals. When they come of age, they begin their donation process which only requires two or three cycles to complete.

The film follows the arc of the book but focuses on different phases at different lengths. Where the book dwells a bit more on Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth as children, the film necessarily has to speed things up a bit. In doing so, however, it telescopes the moment at which they learn their true identities, forcing Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) to tell them of their future much earlier rather than letting them gradually realize what happens to them. On the other hand, the film can do things that the book simply can’t, and director Mark Romanek exploits this potential to great effect. He pays great attention to the performances of the supporting cast, all the way down to the extras. For example, the reactions of the delivery men to the children’s excitement over the “bumper crop” of items at one of their “sales” offers insight into the world that surrounds these children and its opinion of them…of which they are all, of course, unaware. A judgmental glance or a slight shudder of disgust brings about further sympathy for their situation. Beyond these minor performances, the film’s attention to costuming is brilliant as well. As children and teenagers, none of their clothes ever fight just right. Like the items they purchase at their “sales,” these too are cast-offs, hand-me-downs from a society that isn’t willing to give them anything, but willing to take everything from them.

Both the book and the film hint at debates taking place in society over whether or not these children are actually people…whether or not they have souls. The strength of both the book and the film is that they just hint at these conversations and their theological and ethical implications without ever really hammering them home. Ishiguro and Romanek both seem content to leave it up to the audience to hash out those conversations and, in doing so, ask us to consider what society has become or is in danger of becoming. When, as a child, Ruth tells Miss Lucy the evils of what happens to the children if they go beyond the fence that surrounds Hailsham, Miss Lucy is disgusted at the horror she describes and claims that they must be fairy tales. Ruth replies, “Who’d make up stories like that?” Neither of them realize the irony of this exchange, Ruth because she is simply naive, and Miss Lucy because she is in denial.

Kathy (Mulligan) and Ruth (Knightley) in search of Ruth's "original."

I appreciated the book’s depiction of the slow destruction of innocence and wish there could have been a way in which the film could have mirrored that as well. However, the ultimate destruction of this innocence, death, gets more attention in the film. Romanek turns his attention to “medical homicide” in ways Ishiguro does not. The lack of IVs or monitors during the donation surgeries make them seem less like medical procedures and more like ritualistic killings or sacrifices to some unnamed deity. The questions then become what deity or deities would require or approve of such actions? Some viewers will no doubt appreciate this “alteration” to the narrative while others will not.

Ishiguro’s work is a daring book and Romanek’s film is a moving experience as well. Again, this is one of those rare experiences where either reading the book or watching the film before the other will not adversely affect the experience of either. In fact, the book and the film enhance one another, making the world that Ishiguro has envisioned even more engrossing…and disturbing.