Movie adaptations of novels are an impossible task, at least for anyone who has read the book. It’s almost given that they are worse than the book, you always have this nagging feeling of “there’s so much missing” and it is just hard to judge the movie on its own (unless it's The Lovely Bones that I watched recently too and that turned one of my favorite books into a total mess). Never Let Me Go is a novel that very much lives by its unreliable narration (as I discussed yesterday) which is a hard thing to translate into a movie. Although the movie opens with a voice-over, it doesn’t keep it until the very end, taking the opening and closing sentences of the novel almost word for word. Altogether the movie succeeds as a movie even if it deviates from the novel in many major aspects and, as expected, leaves out large chunks of the story. Nevertheless, it is a successful movie, well-directed by Mark Romanek and almost perfectly cast with Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley (getting the rare “and-role” despite being one of the major characters).
Most of the changes are simply for brevity, leaving things out that are not necessary for the plot. Naturally, this leads to a reduction of ideas that the novel proposed. Instead, the movie focuses quite heavily on the “love triangle” or in other words in creating it because the book never really made seem like one. So while the novel is fascinating in the way the characters are detached from their feelings in their relationship, the movie goes a much more traditional way. It is clear right from the start that Kathy and Tommy are meant for each other, Ruth intervenes and is jealous, eventually it is resolved and they become a couple and stay one until the tragic end of Tommy’s death. We never see a clear struggle in expressing feelings or a distance between the lovers. The moment that Kathy and Tommy kiss and have sex is clearly played as a romantic highlight, aided by the music. Though this is more conventional and follows the trope of a “tragic romance” and romances in general (maybe I’ll discuss romantic idealism in our culture at some other point), I wouldn’t say it hurts the movie. The acting and the writing is so good that we feel with them, so all in all it makes the movie much sadder than the novel but less thought-provoking. And while I appreciate something that makes me think very much, I can also appreciate a very well-done sadness.
The movie does not pass on presenting challenging ideas, though. The lack of privacy and the control of their lives is shown by three short shots in which we see them having wristbands that they have to activate when they enter any building. Using that image in every part of their lives is a simple but very effecting way of showing their restrains. There is also a scene at the beginning that shows them being scared of crossing the fence at Hailsham and telling the myth about the woods. Another addition is a scene where the kids are examined by doctors and it’s chilling to see this examination of their body material in the middle of the school life that seems so idyllic. It is also interesting to see how all the students clap when it is announced that Miss Lucy has been fired because they can’t really be happy about it. It makes them look more like machines, showing that Kathy’s opening statement “We’re not machines” is not true when it comes to their education.
The portrayal of their world, especially Kathy’s was fascinating too. The movie is very color-muted, the shot of Kathy’s apartment building and the interior of her apartment is as dreary and cold as possible. Before Miss Lucy tells them the truth we have shots of rain, a dying flower and a map of England shaking in the wind, foreshadowing how the students’ world is about to be turned upside down and their future dies. The scene that follows is also incredibly sad. There are also several shots of characters going through passage or tunnels, showing how they only have one way to go. At three points sunsets signify how things are about to end. In at least two scenes the sounds of ticking clocks is very noticeable, especially in the scenes with Madame and Miss Emily in the end, as Kathy and Tommy can see their lives ticking away.
One of my favourite shots in the movie is Kathy, Ruth and Tommy sitting in the diner, not knowing how to order food. They don’t know how the real world works because they have been isolated from it during their lives at Hailsham. They look like aliens, completely unprepared and out-of-place. It encapsulates so much of what their education has done to them and that there is no place reserved for them in this world.
There is one strange moment when Ruth talks to Kathy the night before Kathy leaves them at the cottages. In the book, it is clear that Ruth wants to embarrass Kathy in front of Tommy and wants to hurt her by making fun of her. The movie seems to suggest that Ruth believes (or pretends to) that Kathy is in love with her. She says she knows why Kathy looked at the porno magazines (which only showed women), that Tommy doesn’t understand but she does and then she kisses her before she leaves. If that is what the movie suggests, I don’t understand the departure from the novel.
Finally, there is a very interesting color scheme (which I hadn’t noticed myself although it’s one of my passions when it comes to movies – but that’s what you have clever students for!). Their world is very blue throughout the movie. Cars, doors, walls, clothes and just a slight blue gleam over everything. It represents their world and the system they are kept in. Red on the other hand appears when there is some for freedom: the car to Norfolk, the signs of the café in Norfolk, some chocolate in a blue hospital, Tommy’s notebook with the drawings, many things near Madame’s house at the end. But not when they actually visit her and not in the last shot, because there is no hope for Kathy left in the end, making this a very sad ending for a sad movie that despite its changes is very good.
Thanks to my student Lea for several ideas I used here as she had some excellent notes after having seen the movie. Credit where credit’s due!