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FROM PAGE TO SCREEN: NEVER LET ME GO (2010)
 



 

Everybody’s favorite underfed British crumpet Keira Knightley says she is tired of costume dramas, but her next movie – a science fiction film of all things! – might as well be one . . .

Knightley has admitted in recent interviews that she doesn’t want to appear anymore in films in which she is made to wear period costumes. Well, so much for another Pirates of the Caribbean movie then!

Instead she is going to star in Never Let Me Go, a “futuristic” flick based on a novel of the same name by Kazuo Ishiguro. Wait a minute! I can hear you say. Isn’t Ishiguro the guy who wrote Remains of the Day and other very “literary” books?

Yup, you’re right. Ishiguro won the upmarket Booker Prize back in 1989 for Remains of the Day about a very (and we mean, very) English butler and his unrequited love for a domestic servant, which was made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

It should come as no surprise that Never Let Me Go was also short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2005 and also deals with a very English upbringing (not the sort that involves yobs and piss-ups at the local however) and, yes, unrequited love. What should come as a surprise is that, yes, it is indeed a science fiction novel. But good luck finding it at the Science Fiction & Fantasy section of your local bookstore. Like Orwell, Huxley, PD James, Cormac McCarthy and many others before him, Kazuo Ishiguro is yet another “literary” writer “slumming” it in the sci-fi genre and the book is being marketed as anything but science fiction.

In fact it is rather bad form to reveal the novel’s actual science fiction content since it does in fact represent a plot twist of sorts, albeit one revealed half-way through the book and not right at the end. Unlike many other stories on the Internet dealing with the upcoming movie, we’re going to put in a [WARNING: Plot spoilers!] right here.

The jacket blurb to Never Let Me Go sums the plot up as follows:

A reunion with two childhood friends - Ruth and Tommy - draws Kath and her companions on a nostalgic odyssey into the supposedly idyllic years of their lives at Hailsham, an isolated private school in the serene English countryside, and a dramatic confrontation with the truth about their childhoods and about their lives in the present.

Before you groan and go, “Oh God! This is another book about child molestation!” let me ensure you that it is anything but. In fact Never Let Me Go can be described as Merchant Ivory does Parts: The Clonus Horror! Merchant Ivory is of course the film-making team that did all those E.M. Forster movie adaptations such as Room with a View and Howard’s End. They also did Remains of the Day.

"Merchant Ivory does Parts: The Clonus Horror!"

Parts: The Clonus Horror is perhaps not quite as well known as Merchant Ivory. That is, unless you’re a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the cult ‘Nineties television show that made fun out of very bad movies. Clonus is a low-budget 1979 flick about young people living in an idyllic and isolated facility. The young people turn out to be clones that are specifically born and bred so that their organs can be “harvested” for transplants by the rich and powerful elite. If that sounds vaguely familiar then you’re probably one of the few people who bothered with cueing up for The Island, a 2005 action flick directed by Michael Bay and starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson that flopped at the box office.

The Island practically rehashed Clonus’ plot wholesale: one of the young people at the facility discovers the truth about himself and escapes, trying to find the person of whom he is a copy. Considering that Never Let Me Go is, well, very English and written by the dude who did Remains of the Day, don’t go expecting any daring escapes and pulse-quickening action sequences. Ishiguro’s novel is set in an alternate reality in which the practice of harvesting human clones for their organs is widely accepted; if kept out of the public eye the same way we modern city slickers don’t dwell on the unpleasant realities of abattoirs and where exactly our Quarter Pounder with Cheese comes from.

Is there such a shortage of donor organs that humanity will go to the trouble of breeding people like cattle, or that hospitals will clandestinely induce patients into a coma and then harvest their organs (the plot of a 1977 bestseller by Robin Cook made into a movie starring Michael Douglas)? I don’t know, but in Ishiguro’s novel there is a rather elaborate donor program in place for just this purpose.

In fact human cloning in Ishiguro’s book has been going since about the 1950s (!) it would seem. Organ harvesting human clones is an uncomfortable reality in Never Let Me Go’s world, but is condoned on the principle that human clones do not have “souls” and you can thus remove their organs until they die of medical complications. Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way as Pink Floyd once sang and that is what the clones in Never Let Me Go do. So don’t expect Keira Knightley’s character to make a wild dash for the Mexican border or anything here . . .

Much of the novel is concerned with the three main characters’ childhoods in a what appears to be at first glance to be a very peculiar and somewhat offbeat British public school (in the UK the “public schools are in fact the “private” ones, remember). As the novel progresses we slowly learn the truth behind the children’s lot.

The novel however isn’t too concerned with sketching its alternate history timeline, instead spending time on the interpersonal relationships between three childhood friends, two girls and a boy. Obviously the children are mostly kept in the dark about their eventual fate (which makes them easier to control). At the end everything is revealed in a dramatic visit to an old headmistress, but one gets the impression that the kids could have figured out everything for themselves a lot earlier following one afternoon visit to the local library to be honest.

[End spoilers!]

Not much actually happens in Never Let Me Go, but it is so well written that you’d probably finish it in a few sittings like you’d do with some bestselling pot-boiler. Like most good science fiction (and this is actually something many sci-fi writers often neglect) it isn’t too concerned with its fictional universe, but rather focuses on its characters, investigating what it must actually be like to live in such a world. Blade Runner for instance isn’t really about a bounty hunter tracking down rogue androids. Instead it is about what it must be like to live in Ridley Scott’s vision of Los Angeles in the year 2017 – a point which people often miss about the movie.

Never Let Me Go can be the next Children of Men or Gattaca: a powerful and thought-provoking piece of speculative fiction. Even though its plot conceit is as old as they come, Never Let Me Go is your thinking man’s sci-fi and could just become a future classic of the genre. We say “could” because much will depend on how good the screenplay is. Ishiguro “tells” instead of “shows” a lot of the action in Never Let Me Go and it will be up to the screenwriter to actually visualize those bits and flesh it out.

Knightley won’t be exchanging her 18th century dresses for a zipper suit, but we don’t care: Never Let Me Go is a great book and one can only hope that it will make for a great movie . . .
 


 



 

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