Adaptation as Amputation: a review of “Never Let Me Go”

By Your Salonniere

The best thing about film adaptations of books is that they make you appreciate the original text more, even if your initial reaction to the source material was apathetic, at best.

Directed by Mark Romanek and adapted by screenwriter, Alex Garland, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, not surprisingly gets boiled down into a pseudo-science fiction love story on screen. We can expect no less from mainstream movie-makers, and, unfortunately, the adaptations that stay true to the spirit and body of a novel remain rare.

Anchored at Hailsham, a boarding school for some very special or particularly non-special children, depending on how you view their predicament, Never Let Me Go revolves around three students. The actors who portray our trio as children, Izzy Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, and Ella Purnell, really hold the story together as they struggle with impending puberty, peer rivalry, and the mystery that Hailsham embodies in which their lives seem inextricably linked. Here at Hailsham, we are closest to Ishiguro’s vision.

We could have and should have stayed with young Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy much longer, exploring the deeper implications of the novel where Ishiguro forces us to examine how we form surrogate families among our peers after we’re thrust out of the domestic nuclear safe zone, known in normal society as “home.” The main characters engage in instinctual and adolescent survival as  their surrogate family copes with what is essentially an artificial existence dictated in the name of Science. However the film skims over this, thinking audiences would be more interested in the romance, and the finer threads of Ishiguro’s narrative are lost.

From left, Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield star in Never Let Me Go, based on a novel by British author Kazuo Ishiguro. (TIFF)

Ruth, the leader of the Hailsham pack, becomes nothing more than a stereotypical bitch on the silver screen, whereas, in the printed version, she is daring and arrogant because no one else among her is willing or has the spine to take the lead and look out for everyone else. We’re supposed to feel sorry for Kathy and Tommy because Ruth kept them apart, but the truth is neither of her friends had the guts to assert themselves. They are followers, and Ruth, designated as leader both by herself and unanimously voted in, unofficially, of course, by her class at Hailsham, takes the reins to show her peers how to “live.” This “living” is only a flimsy facsimile of how we, as a normal society, choose to live our lives, or is it?

Its this morsel of the story, the juiciest bit, that sharpens our focus on what could possibly be Ishiguro’s hidden agenda. Both film and book reflect how passive we can be as creatures. All three characters essentially do as their told, accepting their fate, for the most part, with a naive submission. We almost can’t help blaming them, but in the book, Ruth is the only one who dares to push beyond the constraints that have been drawn for each of them however its too late for her. Without Ruth’s dreaming and scheming, neither Tommy nor Kathy would have an inkling that there could be another way, a possible out. By vilifying Ruth, Ishiguro’s novel is amputated.

So, let’s out the rest of the film’s flaws:

  • Kathy was promiscuous in the cottages, and Tommy was never her first. This is important because Ishiguro’s love story is tertiary compared to the other more prevalent themes of science, friendship, and ethics.
  • Tommy didn’t get the tape for Kathy but replaced the tape after it was misplaced. Again, the filmmakers are playing up the drivel of lost love at the cost of downplaying or amputating the real meat of the story.

Kerry Mulligan cements her skill at playing the silent, strong, and complex heroine. Her Kathy brings a maturity that was lacking in the book. Keira Knightley’s Ruth is, indeed, ruthless. She’s good at being bitchy, which shouldn’t surprise us in the least. Ruth’s illness though becomes a difficult watch. Seeing beauty deteriorate so drastically is chilling, Both Knightley and Romanek effectively unsettle us with the brutal cost this society pays for the sake of health. Andrew Garfield as Tommy is also just as upsetting. He is both empathetic and sympathetic as he grapples with their fate. Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins and Nathalie Richard as the wintry Madame, play Hailsham faculty and administration to a perfect T.

In an ideal world, to save ourselves from disappointment, we’d be better off not reading any original texts before viewing the film adaptation, or we’re guaranteed to be disappointed. Of course, as avid readers, we know that’s just not going to happen, so we’re doomed to always lament how the film never stands up to the bonafide art. Never Let Me Go as film dismembers the best parts of Ishiguro’s novel, leaving us with a sopping heart, still beating but fading fast.



  1. Great review! Makes me wanna watch the movie…or read the book…though not both, haha. The only movie I’ve ever seen that hasn’t disappointed me–and which I thought actually bettered the novel–was Hollinghurst’s “The Line of Beauty.” But generally, I’m such a masochist when it comes to adaptations, left to “always lament how the film never stands up to the bona fide art.” Sigh.

  2. Masochists unite. They’ll keep adapting lit fiction, and I’ll keep reading and watching. Doomed. I generally think the Merchant Ivory adaptations do a good job of capturing the integrity and spirit of EMF’s novels, and I definitely prefer “Atonement” the film much more than the book, but there’s some extenuating circumstances to that predilection, which I won’t get into here, and you already know about all that, right, Rio? Hope you’re well and thanks for reading!

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