Suspension of Disbelief: Never Let Me Go
Suspension of Disbelief is a weekly feature, in which we review movies, books, TV shows, and other popular culture for the skeptical teen.
I have a major league soft spot for dystopian novels. The more tragic the better. So when I heard about Never Let Me Go when it was published in 2005, I knew it was the book for me. Six years later, I finally got around to reading it. (What can I say? I have a long reading list.) In 2010, the Kazou Ishiguro novel was adapted for film. So I thought, Hey! Why not review the two together? What that means is that today you get a DOUBLE CAPS LOCK WORTHY Suspension of Disbelief Double Whammy! It’s gonna be epic.
A quick note: There are some spoilers, but I don’t think it will hurt much. Besides, SCIENCE says that spoilers don’t harm the enjoyment of the story, so I’m going to power on.
The story revolves around Kathy and her friends Ruth and Tommy. It is late 20th century England, and scientists have developed ways to cure the previously incurable. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are no ordinary kids. They are clones whose sole purpose in life is to grow up to be organ donors. They, along with hundreds – maybe thousands – of other children are sequestered from the rest of the world until they are old enough to be “carers” for those undergoing the donation process.
Both the book and the movie are divided into three sections: their lives as children, young adults and donors/carers. As children, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy lived at Hailsham, one of many facilities used to house cloned children. At Hailsham, it’s very important to be creative and to make art of some kind; it is emphasized above almost everything else. Every once in a while, someone will come and take the best art for a mysterious “gallery.” This is the backdrop on which the main character’s relationships develop.
When they are about 16 years old, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy move out of Hailsham into the Cottages, where they encounter people from other houses for the first time. By this time, Ruth is dating Tommy, although it is evident that Kathy also has feelings for him. Hailsham students are taught to believe they were lucky to be at that particular boarding school, but it is at the Cottages where they realize everyone else believed Hailsham was special, too. (We don’t find out why it’s special until years later.) The third section follows Kathy as a carer and her reunification with Ruth and Tommy. She acts as a carer for each. Their relationships continue to evolve until Ruth and Tommy “complete” (i.e. die), and Kathy receives her notice to start her donations.
If this seems like I just gave a lot of the story away, I sort of did. But there is so much more. So, so much more. This is a relatively rough outline of the plot. The real joy of the story is in the relationships between the children, their “guardians,” and the outside world.
As I said before, a special place in my heart is reserved for dystopian novels. The novel is written in the first person. It’s told from Kathy’s perspective toward the end of her tenure as a carer. She tells the story mostly in order, but there are some pieces that don’t come into focus until they need to.
What makes this dystopia different from my other favorites, like 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale is the way every student seemed to accept their fate. No one tried to outrun the system. Delay, yes, but not avoid. The students at Hailsham knew their purpose, but they didn’t know what it meant. So when one of the “guardians” had a crisis of conscience and told the children of their future, she was met with scoffs. It was not news to them.
I’ve heard this novel described as a thriller. If that is true, it’s the dullest thriller I’ve ever read. Sure, there are little mysteries. Who is “Madame?” What is the gallery? Why is there so much emphasis and urgency behind the children’s artwork? Why is Hailsham special? But the primary drama is between Kathy, Ruth and Tommy. And we only find out the answers to these questions through those relationships.
The story explores themes ranging from the ethics of cloning, what it means to be human, and the responsibility owed to life we create. But it is at its core a human story. It’s about how our relationships and the people we love evolve over our lifetimes.
I grew to love each character, despite their faults. Ishiguro has created a heartbreaking story of love and loss in the midst of an incredibly unfair and tragic situation. I felt every bit of this story. It’s a book that left me thinking about it days after I finished. Read this book NOW.
I try not be one of those people who requires movie adaptations to follow the book word for word. But I do have a problem when needless changes are made that alter the nature of the relationships between the characters and the personality of the characters themselves. There were plenty of those types changes in this movie. For example, the movie provides almost no indication as to why Kathy (Carry Mulligan) and Ruth (Keira Knightly) are friends to begin with. Throughout the book, Ruth can be vindictive and petty, but there are also real moments of tenderness between the two female characters. In the movie, Ruth is only out for herself. It reduces Kathy and Ruth’s relationship to a prolonged conflict over a boy.
There umpteen other tiny things that, taken together, changed how the children at Hailsham viewed their fate and changed the previously complex personalities of the protagonists. (For crying out loud, the meaning behind the title was altered because of stupid little changes to the plot!) I was most disappointed with Ruth. In the book, Ruth is coy and petty, yet insecure and resentful of her origins. In the movie, she’s just sort of a horrible person who tries to do right in the end. A similar flattening occurred with Kathy. Instead of woman who has some semblance of agency over her sexuality and romantic life, she is portrayed as someone who waits quietly for the man she loves, while he screws her best friend. Ugh.
A bright spot in the movie, however, was Carry Mulligan. I first saw her as Sally Sparrow in the Doctor Who episode “Don’t Blink,” and I’m quickly becoming a fan. She’s really the perfect Kathy; she exudes a type of maturity, sadness and acceptance that the Kathy demands as she is retelling the story of her life. I was a little skeptical about the casting at first, but she was absolutely delightful.
I love the story as told in the book so much. I really wanted to love the movie, too. Indeed, I tried to separate the book and the film in my mind. But my disappointment was too much. The source material was so good. It had so much potential. But the movie fell flat.
tl;dr version: The movie is OK, but read the book if you can.