Brave new world?

In virtually any comparison of book v film I come down on the side of the book. There are just a few instances where I definitely prefer the film : Wizard of Oz: good book but great film, Judy Garland's performance is heartbreaking, Technicolor was rarely more glorious, and it was the first live action feature film (on a double bill with Tom Thumb) I ever saw in a cinema, so it's close to my heart ; Third man: great short story, iconic film - brilliant ensemble cast, a quirky atmospheric score, and wonderful photography from the great Robert Krasker; and The Da Vinci code: controversial this, but I hated the book so anything was an improvement, even a wooden performance from Tom Hanks!

And so, we come to Kazuo Ishiguro's Never let me go. I had read this around the time it was nominated for the Booker in 1994. What is astonishing however is that I had virtually no recollection of it except for a very vague idea that it was about clones; and then recently I saw the film, and was blown away. It haunted me for days, scenes from the film would return to me, and I couldn't stop thinking about it. There was a great cast: Keira Knightley didn't quite work as the teenage Ruth, but her performance as the dying 20-something Ruth was excellent. The doomed lovers, Kathy and Tommy, were beautifully played in understated performances from Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield; while there were amazing performances from the young cast playing the childhood trio of friends. Wonderful acting was complimented by some of the most beautiful shots of the English countryside and coastline you could hope to see, while Rachel Portman's lyrical Vaughan Williams inspired score was hauntingly lovely. So I decided to read the book again.

...And it is amazing. The story is told (as in the film) from Kathy's point of view. The story opens with her memories of her boarding school days, in what appears to be an idyllic childhood. It is only as the story continues that this Enid Blyton world of chats in dormitories and feuds among friends starts to feel slightly skewed, not quite right; and then gradually the truth is revealed. For these are not ordinary children at all, these children are clones, and have been bred to become donors when they grow up. They will have a short reasonably happy adulthood, they will be well cared for, and then they will complete (the euphemism for die) giving their lives during donations to preserve the humans who have bred them.

It is a chillingly bleak tale with humans able to forget about or choose to believe it to be impossible that these clones may actually be sentient beings, with thoughts and feelings, with souls. And even, as the story draws to a close, even if humans knew that they were sentient, they would still be able to do what they do and in effect, torture and kill them, as long as the clones are not "visible", as long as they can be out of sight / out of mind. What, I think, makes the novel so compelling is the clever use of the narrative voice. Kathy is very normal, chatty, friendly, and this contrasts both with the story that she's telling, and with the way that she's treated in the book - Kathy's voice is all too human, but she is, in fact, a clone with a bleak future ahead of her.

Having seen the film and read the book, I felt rather guilty. I think one of the reasons that the film touched me in a way that the book had not, was the book's contention that humans are capable of a great deal of, what can only be called, evil as long as they don't have to see the consequences of it. The book was a book - but the film made you aware of the characters, you quite literally saw them, you rooted for them in a way that you didn't in the book, partly because the book was being told retrospectively. And I think it was this - truly seeing the characters as human that haunted me so when I saw the film.

Of course this all sounds incredibly silly - I have clearly been dragged screaming and kicking way beyond the prosecium arch: I can't honestly imagine that a world quite like Ishiguro's would ever exist even though it was an astonishingly prescient novel, being published just 2 years before Dolly the cloned sheep was created. But he does have a point, it certainly made me think more deeply than I had for some time, about the advances in genetic engineering, and the possibilities, good and bad, of what might lie ahead. It also makes you think about morality, not just in science, but generally. The day after Holocaust Memorial Day is a good time to be thinking about the evil that men do, not the least of which is a very human propensity for ignoring that which makes them feel uncomfortable.

As far as Never let me go is concerned, I think the film version still remains my favourite, but see the film and read the book. They are both unreservedly wonderful, and prepare to be haunted.


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