PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


What It Means to Be Human: 'Never Let Me Go''

The film, Never Let Me Go, 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.

Never Let Me Go

Publisher: Vintage
Price: $10.20
Author: Kasuo Ishiguro.
Length: 288 pages
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2005-05

Never Let Me Go

Director: Mark Romanek
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Izzy Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, Ella Purnell, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins, Kate Bowes Renna, Nathalie Richard
Studio: DNA Films

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.


15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.


'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.


Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.


Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.