581 words on: Never Let Me Go (2011)

As something of a resolution for 2012 I have promised to jot down my thoughts on any/ every book I read, film I watch, album I listen to, etc.

First up, Never Let Me Go: the film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian love story. Watched last night about 8 months after reading the novel. Apologies in advance for all the made up words.

On the periphery, looking in.

Never Let Me Go

I’m not saying that a film should ever be, or even attempt to be a facsimile of a novel. That’s unrealistic. But something of the essence of the novel must remain if the author’s original intention and resonances are to survive.

Never Let Me Go the movie is a love story. A love story set to an intriguing sci-fi premise, but a love story all the same. This is well and good, the plot allowing the fresh-faced cast to play emotional and stare into the middle distance. On this level, the film works well and is a worthy vehicle for Knightley, Mulligan and Garfield to play tortured, confused, malicious, lost, et cetera.

Never Let Me Go the novel, however, is something different entirely. It is a study not so much of doomed love as of discarded lives poured into too small vessels, and this is where its emotional impact lay. Kazuo Ishiguro is a master of slow-release trauma and enigmatic tension. In Never Let Me Go his characters occupy lives that are almost literally meaningless in a human sense, existing only to be harvested of vital organs before the ‘completion’ (the suitably clinical euphemism for death). As such, they cling to fragments of their existences in both physical and conceptual senses, putting huge weight upon bits and pieces of life that ‘real’ people can take for granted.

The ‘Sales’ at Hailsham are a manifestation of this – highly anticipated events where the students exchange tokens for charity shop tat, which they then go on to hoard and treasure with a fervour usually reserved for family heirlooms.  Their social lives mirror this. Tiny skirmishes, minor victories, half-glances, stray insults and the like take on massive significance: more than they really deserve. But what else can we expect from humans with unfairly truncated existences ?

The novel’s key success is in allowing the sad irony of these precious discardments (I just made up that word…) to gradually become apparent to the reader. By the time you reach denouement, you are wincing not so much at how sad their lives are, but at how ignorant of their own insignificance they have been. It’s heart-breaking, and opens a creaking door to difficult philosophising on all human transience in the real world.

The film misses this. Minor details of the central trio’s pasts are used merely as flesh for their skeletal, brittle love triangle, which, frankly, isn’t all that interesting. Love triangles are dramatically easy, but trite and dull. The film gives us character but ignores the more complex, taut, trauma of lives burning with all the fire of humanity and forced into unfairly flimsy contexts. The Hailsham lot are, as Ruth asserts, ‘from the gutter’ and their lives are an inadequate patchwork of crap. This isn’t just ironic – it’s tragic.

Ultimately, the film’s fatal flaw is in failing to realise this and erroneously making these shards of crap out to be as supremely significant as the characters feel they are. There is only one moment when a sense of this is portrayed, ie:  when Tommy presents his ‘proof of soul’ drawings to the mistress (can’t remember her name, sorry…) in the desperate hope of a deferral from organ donation and she explains they are useless. Watching Garfield shamble the various sheets of lovingly rendered paper into a useless bundle is difficult to watch; a rare moment of genuine trauma amid all the glossy trauma you’d expect from a starlet cast. If only more of the film was as traumatic… Ah well.

-Unseen Flirtations

Sad, yes. Tragic? Not quite.

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