What It Means to Be Human: ‘Never Let Me Go”

With the recent passing of science fiction visionary Ray Bradbury, I’ve been pulling out a lot of my favorite dystopian novels. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, remains one of the best-known and well-written books of its kind.

Fahrenheit 451 remains culturally relevant; Bradbury points out the importance of reading while his characters live in a world of banned books and spend most of their time indoors planted in front of giant flat screen TVs. The premise sounds eerily familiar, given the drop in reading rates and how many children and adults choose to stare at computers and TV instead of picking up a book.

Like Fahrenheit 451, plenty of dystopian novels warn readers about what could happen to future generations if we aren’t careful in the present. One of the most interesting of these types of books is Never Let Me Go by Kasuo Ishiguro.

Published in 2005 by the author of Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go gives a very subtle warning about the dangers of a particular branch of current science. It’s important to note that the story is never preachy. In fact, the warning is so subtle and buried within the text that it’s almost imperceptible until the end. I’ll refrain from giving away what scientific genre the book refers to since Ishiguro holds on to the knowledge and only reveals it little by little until the reader understands what is actually taking place. However, right from page one, it’s not hard to guess what’s going on even though Ishiguro never outright tells the reader.

The novel is steeped in mystery from the get go. The story begins, not in the future as most would expect of a dystopian novel, but in an alternate reality in ’90s England. The protagonist, 31-year old Kathy H., is entering a new “phase“ of her life after completing another, and recounting her time at an elite and mysterious English boarding school called Hailsham.

In Hailsham, the students abide by strange rules and are constantly told by their teachers how special they are. It soon becomes clear that they aren’t special in a good way, and their teachers fear them. The novel is suffused with sad circumstances: the students have no known parents, they are surrounded by stern adults, and they have no personal freedoms. Ishiguro, however, gives Kathy’s narrative voice a calm, matter-of-fact tone that counters the dark mood and makes the book an effortless and fascinating read.

It’s hard to imagine such interior prose and nebulous circumstances being made into a film, but Alex Garland (author of The Beach and screenwriter of 28 Days Later) approached his long-time friend Ishiguro with a screenplay before the book was even published. Directed by Mark Romanak, the film was released in 2010.

The film is moody and bleak. It’s also gorgeous. The drab greys that are entrenched in the book (rain-washed streets, dreary buildings, the children’s plain clothes) are present here, as well. Everything looks like it’s been washed in dirty pond water, thus when color does catch the eye, it’s all the more inviting. For example, there’s a shot of a ball that Tommy has thrown over the school wall; its colorful presence in the wet, colorless grass is beautiful.

The cinematography also capitalizes on the story’s ominous plot by filming the main characters from behind in several scenes. This point of view lends to the idea that these people are to be figuratively faceless, essentially forgotten by the rest of the world.

The first part of the film focuses on Hailsham when Kathy meets a sensitive, temperamental boy named Tommy. The two quickly develop an intense friendship, but when her best friend, Ruth, begins dating Tommy, it stings and the pain remains with Kathy for years.

Despite the awkward circumstances, the three of them become inseparable and grow up together in the mysterious grounds of Hailsham. The child actors who play them give winning performances. Izzy Meikle-Small is perfectly cast as selfless and curious Kathy; Charlie Rowe is wonderful as innocent and misunderstood Tommy; and Ella Purnell captures the glamorous and mysterious Ruth.

As grown ups, Carey Mulligan embodies Kathy so well it’s easy to forget she’s an actress playing a part; Andrew Garfield is a memorable Tommy, encapsulating the character’s frustration and warmth; and Keira Knightley is a beautiful and dark Ruth.

The film follows the book relatively well, although it eliminates some of the story, and isn’t able to mirror the novel’s careful and timed revelations about the mystery of Hailsham’s students. Additionally, the movie plays up the love triangle between Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth. In doing so, a major plot point is changed to boost the romantic angle.

The plot point concerns a song called “Never Let Me Go“ by Judy Bridgewater that Kathy becomes obsessed with after finding it on a cassette at school. She begins to play it repeatedly. In one pivotal scene, she begins dancing to it while holding a pillow and fantasizing that the pillow is a baby. She stops when she finds Madame – the clinical grand dame of the school – watching her from the doorway, and crying.

This episode stays with Kathy for years and she thinks that Madame was lamenting the fact that Kathy will never be able to have children of her own. Later in the story, she asks Madame about the incident, and Madame tells Kathy that she was crying that day because she saw a little girl holding on to an old world, “one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never to let her go.”

In the film, this scene is skewered. As Mulligan sways to the song, it’s Knightley who sees her in the doorway and later comes into the room to threaten her that Tommy will never love her “like that“. While other scenes from the book were shuffled a bit to fit the film’s romantic viewpoint, not honoring this plot point concerning the song, which is where the book gets its title, is a disappointment. It cheapens the fact that these children have no parents and will never grow up to be parents. Despite this oversight, Romanek and Garland ultimately succeed in doing what I believe Ishiguro was doing, which is to assess what it is to be human.

While the story is framed in science fiction circumstances, it’s essentially about how we as humans handle our own impermanence. Screenwriter, Garland said to MTV that Never Let Me Go, is about ““what it is to have a soul, and [how to] prove what a soul is.” (“Rick Marshal – Andrew Garfield Calls ‘Never Let Me Go’ Adaptation A’ Call To Arms'”, MTV News, 15 September 2010). This becomes apparent when one finishes the book, and then watches the last, heartbreaking scene of the film. While the circumstances these characters live in are dreary, the book and film are anything but. Instead, they are soulful studies of life, mortality, and love.