Review: Never Let Me Go (2010)

In 2005, Kazuo Ishiguro wrote a nifty science fiction novel named Never Let Me Go. Despite the fact that Ishiguro’s narrative was steeped in speculative fiction cliches (organ harvesting, parallel universes, extended human lifespan creating an underclass, the belabored philosophical inquiry over whether an artificial creation has as much of a soul as its creator, et al.), the novel was inexplicably categorized in the fiction section, leading to many uncounted stoned conversations among frustrated geeks over the question of whether twenty dollar bills had been slipped into the hands of bookstore managers. But it was more likely that Ishiguro eluded the genre ghetto, garnering that vital all-access pass awarded to certain literary titans, by way of putting together imagery and story considered graceful and/or beautiful by the cultural elite. (To cite one example, Tommy reacting to a piece of news as if the messenger was “a rare butterfly he’d come across on a fence-post.”)

The literary critics at the time, mostly unfamiliar (as always) with speculative fiction, praised the novel as if nobody had told similar stories before, or as if the “genre” was confined to certain moonlighters. The New Yorker‘s Louis Menand smugly declared that “the book belongs to the same genre as Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, counterfactual historical fiction,” as if Harry Turtledove (or Fritz Leiber’s wonderful novel, The Big Time, for that matter) could not exist in the same bookstore. The fiery and often superficial Michiko Kakutani was even more dismissive, writing, “So subtle is Mr. Ishiguro’s depiction of this alternate world that it never feels like a cheesy set from The Twilight Zone, but rather a warped but recognizable version of our own.” (Never mind that the majority of The Twilight Zone was truly brilliant and paradigm-changing because of its commitment to writing and acting. Only a superficially bourgeois critic would condemn art purely on its aesthetic.)

And for those of us who read literary and pulp novels because we genuinely appreciated both, it was a bit embarrassing to witness all this ignorance. And let’s be honest here. Take away Ishiguro’s beauty and Never Let Me Go is little more than a rewrite of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “The Measure of a Man.” At least the British Science Fiction Association had the decency to shortlist Never Let Me Go for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, where Ishiguro lost to Geoff Ryman. (A few years later, the critical elite would deliver similar plaudits towards Cormac McCarthy’s YA dystopian novel, The Road. The great irony is that Oprah Winfrey would be the one to push the book hardest. Through the populist medium of television, Winfrey’s endorsement dwarfed all the fulsome praise eked out by a handful of pedantic mice.)

Now Ishiguro’s book has made its way to the big screen, where the mass medium of cinema hopes to reframe it yet again. Never Let Me Go is hardly the first time Ishiguro has tangoed with celluloid. In 1993, there was a film version of The Remains of the Day put together by the Merchant-Ivory team, a cold and highly overrated team of collaborators who are more committed to putting audiences to sleep than producing art that pops. I have tried to watch the movie three times over the past seventeen years and was only able to make it to film’s end once without falling asleep – and this was only because I wished to respect my sexy videowatching companion, who counted herself as a Merchant-Ivory fan. Yet despite the film’s bland and soporific qualities, it was afford all sorts of award nominations. A more successful Ishiguro collaboration was Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World (2003), but one suspects its giddy qualities emerged only because Maddin and his co-writer George Toles had the decency to rewrite a hypothetical dud. I avoided 2005’s The White Countess, largely because James Ivory had directed the film and I had no desire to relive the trauma of The Remains of the Day in any form.

So when I learned that director Mark Romanek (the man behind the underrated One Hour Photo and several music videos) and hit-or-miss screenwriter Alex Garland (once a brilliant novelist) were involved with Never Let Me Go, I figured that this adaptation would be more Maddin than Ivory, that the Ishiguro cinematic stigma would be salvaged. I regret to report that this was not the case. Never Let Me Go bored me to fucking tears.

The film’s sloooooooooooooooooooooow pace, presumably intended to invite comparisons to needlessly protracted slideshows or weekend corporate retreats, is perhaps best epitomized by the following exchange (character names replaced by variables to avoid spoilers):

A: We’re going to do it.

(Unfathomably long pause before cutting to B.)

B: You’re going to apply.

(Another needlessly fucking long pause before the next line; never mind that all this would have been tightened by the line, “We’re going to apply.”)

A: Yes.

(A pregnant pause. Good Christ, Garland, you should know better than this.)

B: Good.

And that’s it. That’s Romanek and Garland’s idea of exposition. And we’re supposed to accept this weak narrative because the characters here, as the film telegraphs without subtlety, are sequestered from society and committed to providing organs through “donations.” (That’s not really giving anything away. If you don’t figure this out in the first twenty minutes, then you’re not paying attention.) But the atmosphere never feels particularly disturbing (as Romanek’s last feature film did, perhaps more because he had the smarts to tap into Robin Williams’s undeniably discomfiting qualities), which is odd given that Romanek has a great visual knack at conveying isolation (such as the mostly barren blue wall of an apartment or the Gordon Willis-like amber glow of a dark hospital corridor illuminated solely by the sun). Romanek gets the feel of the class structure here by framing many of his shots with the backs of heads to the camera. He gets a great performance from Carey Mulligan, who is especially good at disguising her unshakable sadness, pretending to be human with tragically feeble smiles and fine cheekbones. But scenes from the novel that should feel creepy, such as the scripted laughter at a television sitcom, feel more like obligatory than vital.

The fault here must be leveled at Alex Garland, who has clearly traded in his fiction talent for the lucre of video games and passable screenplays. It’s almost inconceivable to be reminded that Garland once had his finger firmly on the pulse of his generation. Clearly, those days are gone. Garland doesn’t seem to understand that Faulkner and Fitzgerald aren’t remembered for their Hollywood work, but the attentions they committed to the page. And Garland’s failure to evoke Ishiguro’s subtle style on screen isn’t just the indication of a screenwriter out of his depth. It’s the sad story of a burned out talent, once capable of reaching a mass audience and defying myopic critics, who doesn’t even have new novels to atone for the hackwork.


  1. In speculative fiction, a whole sub-genre of apocalyptic fiction has been around for a long time. The dystopian novel is nothing new, and neither is the post-apocalyptic changed-world novel. (“A Canticle for Leibowitz” is only the first example that comes to mind.) Of course, non of the mainstream critics ever bother to read speculative fiction, as you say, which is why Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” was overpraised as breathtakingly original when it was neither particularly original nor particularly well-made. I found it to be a not so subtle rehash of a lot of other ideas which had been around for a long time. I was actually embarassed by some of the critical praise shown towards “The Road,” because it was so blatantly ignorant of precedents.

    I mention all this because I see the parallels. I think you’re right to point out that critical ignorance, in this case of entire genres of writing, is no excuse. I’d go so far as to say that, frankly, I see a lot better writing in genre fiction lately than I usually do in “mainstream fine art literary fiction.”

    Many critics tend to forget that mainstream realistic “literary fiction” is itself just another genre, with its own genre rules and tropes. It’s like a drag queen friend once said to me: It’s ALL drag, all of it.

  2. A slight correction: The Arthur C. Clarke award is not handed out by the British Science Fiction Association, which has its own award (somewhat unimaginatively called the BSFA award). Though the association names two judges to the award jury, the award, which was endowed by its namesake, is administered by the Serendip Foundation.

    As for the review, I haven’t seen the film yet, but from both your and other impressions of it it seems that Garland and Romanek are guilty of nothing more than being faithful to their source material. “bored me to fucking tears” is a pretty accurate encapsulation of my reaction to Ishiguru’s novel, a stultifying affair that makes too much of its warmed-over SFnal components and draws out the tragedy of its unremarkable characters’ lives long past the point of interest.

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