Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010)
SPOILER POLICY FOR THIS POST. This is important. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, I really encourage you to go read it or see it. A major element of the plot is best left unspoiled, and so I will not spoil it until I talk about what I thought of the movie. So read the first half of the post and then go get the book/movie/both. Plan.
Category: Sad movie based on a book that I really like. There’s a general cultural rule that movie adaptations of really good books will always be at least somewhat disappointing. I’d argue that this is both unfair and inaccurate. It’s unfair because reading a book and watching a movie are two totally different experiences. Reading a book is this entirely personal endeavor, an experience over which you have a fairly high degree of control. You decide where and when and for how long at a time you will inhabit this world, and while our movie-watching options are certainly expanding, they still don’t match our book-reading options. Plus, of course, books can be hundreds and hundreds of pages long and people will still read them. If a movie’s more than three hours or so, everyone starts getting upset.
Added to which is the important fact that some movies are just as good as the excellent books on which they are based: To Kill a Mockingbird, Doctor Zhivago, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, to name but three examples. Although to be fair, it is fun to walk out of a movie and condescendingly say to your date, “Oh the book was much better,” just loud enough for all the other plebes who haven’t read to feel bad about themselves for enjoying the movie.
(As noted, I won't discuss much in the way of plot, other than to say that this is a sad film about kids at a boarding school.)
My familiarity with this issue: I know a few kids, including A Walk to Remember fangirl and FOTB Katie Ross, who attended boarding school in their formative years. Now I don’t mean to generalize here, but I believe that all former boarding school students are freaks. This is generally the case because their minds have been warped by living with other adolescents for four years, while enjoying none of the joys of being at home during the school year (i.e., having your mom put a note in your lunchbox telling you how awesome you are). Furthermore, it’s clear from talking to them that they have been brainwashed very early on into thinking that their schools are just as awesome as Hogwarts, even though, to my knowledge, there are no boarding schools other than Hogwarts that are even remotely magical. I’m not having it. Bunch of weirdos.
As mentioned earlier, I really enjoyed this book. I recall reading most of it on two long Amtrak journeys, during the second of which I sat near a large group of Mennonites. Right before delving into the final chapters, I noticed that one of the kids in the group was eating a Snickers bar. I remember thinking about how strange and out-of-context it was, right before realizing that I was creepily staring at this kid. I honestly could not tell you why that has stuck in my mind for nearly two years. It might be because the sense memories bound up in reading a really good book tend to linger in the mind longer than others. Or it might be because seeing a Mennonite kid eat a Snickers on an Amtrak is like twelve different kinds of crazy.
Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “As children, Ruth, Kathy and Tommy, spend their childhood at a seemingly idyllic English boarding school. As they grow into young adults, they find that they have to come to terms with the strength of the love they feel for each other, while preparing themselves for the haunting reality that awaits them.”
(OK SPOILER DISCUSSIONS from here on in.)
What I thought of the movie: Before I get to that, let’s discuss the spoiler-y plot elements. The characters in the book/film are, basically, human clones that have been created to donate their healthy organs to non-cloned humans. Therefore, they’re consigned to an early death (in their twenties or so). After graduating from boarding school, the characters grapple with their common fate, trying to figure out ways around it and buy themselves more time. It’s dispensed with fairly early in the movie as compared to the book, so it hardly feels like a spoiler, but the gradual revelation of the nature of this world is one of the joys of the book.
The film explores the relationship among three clones, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy (played as adults by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield), and the heartbreaking implications of their situation. It’s split neatly into three parts: their childhood at boarding school, their young adulthood, and around the time of their “completion,” when Kathy is working as a "carer" for other clones who are donating their organs (a way for her to briefly delay her own donations). And good heavens is each part is just so so sad. It is a devastating movie, just as good as the book.
The movie tackles the heavy themes of mortality and the morality of cloning, fiercely demonstrating the humanity of the clones as they deal with love and betrayal and friendship and forgiveness and everything else that we humans deal with as we grow up. It’s not easy to take, but it’s so relatable and honest and real. It’s everything that the forcible tearjerkers aren’t.
More than that, it’s not one of these sad movies that you’d never want to see again. There’s so much subtlety, particularly in the beginning of the film: the boarding school scenes are full of stolen glances and meaningful looks and significant gestures. The relationship between the students and the “guardians” at the school is profoundly interesting, as well. It makes you think about the gaps between what we’re told as children and what we eventually figure out as adults, how in those gaps lies so much hurt and betrayal and sadness. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s worth seeing more than once to make sure it all comes through.
How I related to the movie: Usually whenever there’s a sci-fi/alternate reality component to one of these films, I enjoy thinking of how I’d cope in that particular world. Not so much with this one. The thought of being slowly killed, by the state, in my mid-twenties is not all that appealing, to be honest. It’s enough to make me reconsider having checked the organ donation box on my driver’s license, just in case the recession gets really rough and DC becomes one big organ farm. (And if you doubt that they’d start the organ farming here, just remember that we don’t have a vote in Congress.)
This is the kind of sci-fi scenario that has the potential to get people riled up about actual issues (like the Planet of the Apes films and animal testing, or Soylent Green and cannibalism). One can only wonder the kind of anti-stem cell research screeds we’d hear from the Fox News crowd if they’d seen the film or read the book (which would require them to have read a book, so, not as likely). Obviously, I think this hypothetical scenario that I just made up in my own head is unfair. Yes, human cloning is wrong, but the real lesson of Ishiguro’s book, and the movie, is that everyone, regardless of clone status, deserves respect, dignity, the right to love and be loved, etc. I would vociferously argue this point on Bill O’Reilly’s show, only to be told to SHUT UP within seconds.
How I felt after the movie ended: The ending is pretty crushing. We know what will inevitably happen to the three main characters, but hearing Carey Mulligan discuss the implications of this world in voice-over as she just stands there, looking sad, was quite moving to me.
The weather was bleak when I watched this movie, much like the weather frequently was in the film (everything was kind of bled dry of color; it seemed vaguely futuristic, or just British). It’s often a very quiet movie, and I just kind of sat there for a while, not doing much, feeling sad about those poor clones. It's definitely worth seeing, and I do intend to see it again. I'll just make sure to watch it on a sunny day when there are other people around, so as to avoid being sad for the rest of the day.
BUT. I just realized that if I were a real person in the world of the film, I’d probably be cured of my danged diabetes thanks to a pancreas donation from some tasty clone! BOOSH.