There are two things to be discussed about Never Let Me Go. The shorter, non-spoiler points are as follows. It’s a beautiful & devastating film, perfectly cast. The novel is extremely internal, Kathy moving around among her memories of her school days, and selecting Carey Mulligan for the role was inspired. There are many scenes where she has no lines at all, just listens to another character, and of course she’s brilliant.
Having seen & been amazed by Boy A a few years ago, I’m delighted that people are finally starting to notice Andrew Garfield. And maybe now I’ll finally get my act together and watch Red Riding. Sounds like a great way to spend a stormy weekend.
The children were also cast astonishingly well, particularly Isobel Meikle-Small as young Kathy, so perfect that you wondered a bit if the filmmakers had hopped in the TARDIS and recruited Mulligan herself as a child. Of course Charlotte Rampling is worth seeing in anything, & Sally Hawkins is lovely as the teacher who questions the whole thing.
On the whole, it makes more concrete certain aspects of the novel, while preserving enough ambiguity that I’m still turning it over in my head days later. That, to me, is the mark of a great film.
So, there you go. Once you’ve seen it (or if you’ve read the novel, or if you don’t care about vague spoilers) you can carry on.
I suppose I am a particularly credulous reader. I certainly am with film. If a movie is at all working, for example, I am not scrambling to predict where it’s going. I just let it take me there.
In the case of this book, it never occurred to me to ask why the students were not rebelling against the fate society had put forth for them. This is perhaps unusual. It certainly is among the reactions to the film that I have seen, which is a bit surprising, because I feel that in the film there is even less room for the possibility of revolt than there was in the book.
There are, of course, all of the little things affecting their behavior. They wear bracelets that clearly serve as some sort of tracking device, if not actually a way to trace them, at least a method to tell when they have checked in and out of their lodging. They do not know a single person who is not either a future donor or an employee of the program, so they have no support system on the outside. They have no marketable skills, no experience of day to day life or adult responsibilities. The few who are allowed to volunteer as Carers can become a bit more worldly, but even then they live fully supported by the program. It’s a limited amount of freedom, and no independence.
More important to me, though, are the stories they tell. The myths that a population shares police the boundaries of their world, and from the time they were tiny these children had very strong stories about what would happen to them if they stepped even a few feet outside the boundaries of the school. Even if, as you grew older, you started to doubt that you truly would be forced to starve to death if you slipped briefly past the gates, you’d still take the point: outside of this place, you will not survive, and if you try & inevitably fail, you will not be allowed to return.
Of course, there’s the major myth: that students from this particular school are special, that their art shows something about them, that if they are truly in love they can get a deferral. It’s so elegant. The promise isn’t that they can be excused from donating altogether. That is too big of an idea to ever consider. The most they can hope for is a few years of happiness.
When I read the book, I was frustrated by what felt like a lack of worldbuilding. I had just read Unwind, a YA novel set in a world where abortion is outlawed, but unruly teenagers can be sent away to be “unwound”, which means, essentially, donating all of their parts. It’s still a pro-life position, you see, if the kid isn’t dead, just living on in many, many other people. And I had also started Spares, an aspect of which is people who have clones created of themselves, so if they damage any of their own bits, they can harvest from their spare.
After those two experiences, I wanted more from Never Let Me Go. But it wasn’t until the film that I understood that wasn’t the point. We’re walking a curving path through Kathy’s memories, and she’s not questioning or commenting on the wider world. That’s not what she’s interested in. She’s thinking about the trivialities that shaped them and their relationships: Tommy’s blue polo, the art they traded, the cassette she lost and Ruth found and what all of that meant.
Which, obviously, is what we all do. What are the things you bear with a stiff upper lip? What are the choices you make even though they can hurt you? What are the myths we tell each other and ourselves that keep us from dreaming fuller lives, let alone living them? And so on.
That’s the point. We don’t rebel, and neither do they. In the end, we all Complete.