Scientific progress seems mighty attractive when it means healing muscular dystrophy, or curing cancer, or repairing a baby’s heart valve before it’s even born. Yet many of the most advanced medical procedures involve choices few of us would make easily.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go poses one of them in the oblique fashion that’s become Ishiguro’s trademark. In an unspecified future that’s been altered by a major scientific advance, humans are cloned in order to become – as adults – donors for others who need organ transplants.
Don’t think this scenario is too far off. Children are already being born today who were conceived as future donors for an older sibling in need of a genetic match. Ishiguro only raises the stakes by turning an individual decision into a government program.
But his novel isn’t really science fiction, simply because he takes the science as a given and weaves his fiction around it. Mark Romanek’s film takes the novel at its word (literally, in many places) and focuses on the love triangle that’s at the center of Never Let Me Go, between three young people who grew up in a boarding school specifically set up for children bred as donors.
The problem with this approach, however, is simply that you can never take Ishiguro at his word. He specializes in the unsaid, in what’s between the lines, what people want to say and cannot, or what they’re saying while meaning the opposite. Ironies abound; unreliable narrators are the norm. By robbing the story of its thick stuffing, the film loses much of the moral and ethical impact of Ishiguro’s book.
It does, however, do something that’s at least commendable – especially because Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan are such wonderful actors – and that is to bring out the emotional impact. Their characters are human beings who act with dignity, should perhaps question their fates more radically, and are in the end not so different from their more fortunate counterparts who live because others are forced to give their lives.
Never Let Me Go is a moving film with perhaps a bit too much production design, but if it drives you to the book, and to the rest of Ishiguro’s wonderful work, all the better!
NEVER LET ME GO | Directed by Mark Romanek (UK, USA 2011) with Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley. Opens April 14