When we talk about “unfilmable” novels we’re usually talking about those deficient in the essentials of classical narrative: a single protagonist, rising action, a satisfying climax, and so on. Yet there are filmmakers who have specialized in ushering such novels onto the big screen—David Cronenberg has performed this feat at least twice, with his highly personal realizations of William s. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and J.G. Ballard’s Crash, both of which reshape their source material to better align with the time-based dictates of movies while challenging conventional notions of how movies work. Perhaps we’re better off describing as unfilmable those novels that defy cinematic adaptation not on account of their unconventional narratives but rather for their resistance to coming alive in a cinematic context. If we consider literary adaptation thusly, I think Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go might just offer us a textbook example of the unfilmable novel.
Narrated by a young woman looking back on her childhood years at Hailsham, a rural English boarding school, the discreetly dystopian Never Let Me Go is like so many of Ishiguro’s stories steeped in nostalgia, in a longing for an innocence that can’t be recovered. It’s a heartbreaking novel, one remarkable for its ability to sustain the reader’s total engagement while maintaining an almost relentless melancholy. It has a story with a beginning, middle and end, and it has a vividly drawn protagonist, yet these ingredients aren’t enough to keep the film version of Never Let Me Go from feeling somewhat inert. The screenplay is by Alex Garland, himself a novelist, though he claims to feel greater affinity to films than literature. Garland wrote the screenplays for the Danny Boyle films 28 Days Later and Sunshine, and Never Let Me Go follows a route similar to its predecessors, constructing an intriguing set-up, only to arrive at a flat final act, one that appears to misinterpret what intrigued us in the first place.
When I reviewed Never Let Me Go upon its publication in 2005, I tried to assess the novel without giving away its central revelation. The film, perhaps determined to undermine the inevitable spoilers that often accompany film reviews, gets this revelation out of the way fairly early on. I still think I can talk about Never Let Me Go, both novel and film, without completely spilling the beans. Let’s say that Hailsham serves a very special and covertly sinister purpose, preparing its students for a life that’s almost completely predetermined and clouding all this in euphemism. Among the problems with the film version is that once the cat’s out of the bag, once we know what our characters are destined for, the story has virtually no place to go. There’s an attempt to generate suspense in the final act yet it’s almost laughably clear that this suspense is founded on a total sham—the “sham” in Hailsham, as it were—and the result is a deeply somber ending that, rather ironically, inadvertently mocks its own characters for actually believing they’re anything but doomed.
I’m focusing on what strikes me as a major flaw, but I still recommend seeing the film. Directed by Mark Romanek, whose previous credits include the film One Hour Photo and a certain Björk video that in an odd way feels like something of a dry run for Never Let Me Go, the visualization of Hailsham and “the cottages,” where our central characters live for a period following graduation, is rich. There are striking images pierced with loneliness: that dress dangling in the wind, those bits of plastic clinging to a fence. The cinematography, costumes, hair and production design are dominated by dusky light, earth tones, woolen jumpers, and childlike mullets—a pervading coziness undercuts the story’s darkness with a veneer of autumnal warmth. The performances, especially that of Carey Mulligan, our heroine, are most often emotionally complex and touching, though Andrew Garfield’s love interest is a bit too lingered upon in scenes that give him nothing more to do than flip out, something he does with such abandon he might just win an Oscar. If we were to isolate any one part of Never Let Me Go it would seem a perfectly engrossing, beautifully rendered film, and one whose sociopolitical significance is so obvious you can’t even call it subtext. The problem with Never Let Me Go is how the story builds over the course of its entirety. Or rather doesn’t build.
There’s a question prompted by Never Let Me Go that’s curious for never actually being addressed, even indirectly: if these characters know they’re doomed, why don’t they run? In the novel the answer to this is somehow implicit, yet I wonder how it would have worked if the film had used this question as a launch pad for a very different, action-oriented narrative, one less faithful to the source material yet potentially more dynamic. (Having said all this, I'd be curious to hear what someone who hasn't read the book thinks...)