Never Let Me Go

Potential spoiler alert: If you don’t want to know the premise of the film, or my interpretation of the characters’ psychology, don’t read on…

Never Let Me Go, based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, is a science fiction film about children that are bred for the sole purpose of organ donation. The children attend what appears to be a boarding school called Hailsham, where they are told that health is of the utmost importance because their lives have a very special purpose. It is slowly revealed to them what that “special purpose” is. The story is built around three of the children who are embroiled in a sort of love triangle, which has a uniquely bittersweet feel given that their lives will be so short.

The film stops short of soapbox bioethics. There’s no cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific progress, or allusion to real-world dilemmas like the story of Marissa Ayala, a child that was conceived for the purpose of donating bone marrow to her ill sister.

Instead the heart of the film is psychological. The children don’t try to escape or resist their fate. Two of the main characters do try to achieve a small stay of execution that they believe is permitted, but they never try anything outside of the rules laid out for them.They simply accept and live out their fate.

Having grown up in our world, such acceptance seems ridiculous. But these children didn’t grow up in our world. Everything they’ve ever known, every adult they’ve ever known or trusted has told them that this is their purpose and destiny. 

Instead of making a political statements, this film uses the premise to subtly suggest that we all should question the assumptions we have about our own lives, especially those learned in childhood. What would someone who didn’t grow up in our world think it’s ridiculous for us to accept?

Also, some think Never Let Me Go is the most wrongly overlooked film of 2010. And Carey Mulligan, as always, is magnificent.

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  1. I think it is totally reasonable. I once sincerely believed that I was friends with the son of god, immortal reigning master of universe, and that he cared deeply about everything I did, and he wanted to help me out with everything I need, from finding friends to finding my keys.

    I think capitalism as a end to itself rather than a useful tool to make more things more affordable would be very weird to an outsider. Pretty much anything that could be followed by the term -normative could be weird, like heteronormative. Lots of -isms could be weird, like sexism or racism.

  2. OT, I had not heard of the Marisa Ayala story. I cannot believe that it is illegal to sell bone marrow (which is as easy as donating blood these days) but this sort of thing is going on. Crazy. Thanks for the link.

  3. Here is the first sentence of Noel Murray’s (Onion A.V. Club) review:

    A science-fiction romance steeped in mystery and despair, Never Let Me Go is probably best approached with little to no advance information or expectations, which is the same way the film’s characters experience their lives.

    Your review started with the premise and the most significant plot point before descending into major spoilers. It is considerate to warn people before doing this.

  4. Everyone should listen to this podcast from Reasonable Doubts on the current status of stem cell research by Dr. Greg Forbes. At the end of the talk when the audience got to ask questions, someone asked Dr. Forbes if it is ethical to create clones to harvest them for their organs. His response was that if the transmission on your car breaks down, do you buy a brand new car just to get the transmission? Of course not! Scientists are growing just the organ itself and they have done this successfully already with spleens, ears, noses, and chins.

  5. @davew: Thanks, Dave – I updated the post with a spoiler alert. I hope this won’t stop you from seeing it – the plot focus is the love story, which I glossed over in my post.

    @mrwilson41: Are you saying spleens don’t have souls??? (KIDDING)

  6. @Stacey: I updated the post with a spoiler alert. I hope this won’t stop you from seeing it – the plot focus is the love story, which I glossed over in my post.

    I probably will. The reviewers I trust most liked it.

  7. When I first heard about this movie it gave me more creeps than the notion of keeping similar parts people alive in some kind of Matrix pod. Why go to all the moral bother if the body can be maintained without all the risks and expense to have the window dressing of a fake short life? And yes I have problems watching movies and wanting to solve a problem the story hasn’t bother to ask.

  8. There’s a YA novel I toss around that has a semi-similar premise. It’s called “House of the Scorpion”, and the main character is a clone of a drug lord, who harvests clones for their organs to stay young; every so often, he has one raised with the life he never had before doing, essentially, a full body switch.

  9. Nooooooooooooooooo!

    Every review and interview I’ve seen about this film says that there’s a big secret that you shouldn’t know to get maximum enjoyment out of it … the spoiler alert does not show up in the RSS feed so I immediately saw the reveal in the very first sentence.

    So disappointed :(

  10. @Stacey: And I plead guilty to being a fixit thinker before thinking romance, which is also the #1 reason my wife says “shut-up” during movies.

    @Mark Hall: And Edgar Rice Burroughs had John Carter of Mars involved with a species that grew replacement parts and new warriors in a large vat way back when if I recall correctly.

  11. @Mr Skills: Honestly, the premise isn’t the big reveal. I didn’t reveal anything that’s not in the first act (the first 30 minutes – the setup). I knew the film was about organ donation before I saw it.

  12. @Mark Hall: ERB’s books were all about summer reading when I was 12 or 13, just before I moved on to Dune, LOTR and the Foundation Trilogy. Great place to start your SciFi reading when you still have a mushy blood thirsty middle school boy brain.

  13. @James Fox: There is hope for the future. My neighbor, 10, and all his pals share that brain. They were tearing around the house with their Imperial Storm Trooper Nerf weaponry at a Christmas party last month, when one of the moms told about her son recently asking “How old do you have to be to join the army?” Very worried, she said “18, I think. Why do you want to know?” He said “They should make it 30. 18 year olds probably still think war is fun.”

    My hippie peacenik heart raced with joy.

  14. I am tired, tired , tired of reports, novels, TV programmes and films showing the unreal and dark side of organ donation. If it’s not Bob hoskins learning valuable lessons from his donor heart (recipients having memories from their donor b*ll*x) , it’s characters in popular soaps/serials having kidney failure one week and a transplant the next and having no further complications. Here’s an idea – Why not show someone having a terrible life because they are in organ failure (through no fault of their own) and then having their life improved beyond measure by the voluntary and loving gift given by a person who was practical enough to sign the register in their lifetime, or by a living person who coudn’t bear to see their loved one in pain anymore and science affords them a way to alleviate that suffering? Oh sorry, I’ve just had Hollywood on the phone, they say that would be boring and no-one would want to see it…BUT THAT’S THE REALITY! I know fiction is about what if?, but it really doesn’t help when almost all stories relating to organ transplant have some sort of negative connotation.

  15. @scepticarla: I agree that organ donation is a remarkable, necessary gift and I certainly hope no one walks away from NLMG thinking negatively about it. I think the part about cloning children for the sole purpose of making the donations is the part people take issue with, but I also see what you mean – it kind of implies that organ donation is a slippery slope and that we’ll have to be watchful in order to stop this type of situation from occurring. I think it would be tragic if that’s what people took away from this film.

  16. Hey Stacey,
    I’m sure that you’ve picked up that this is a personal issue for me. It’s been a bit of an eye – opener how organ donation is portrayed in fictional terms. From Terry Pratchett to Coronation Street, everyone who tries to deal with this subject cannot help but do so either in a negative way (those who need organs have brought it on themselves by obesity, smoking, alcohol etc) to the down-right glib (people receive an organ and all their troubles are instantly over). I for one would like to see a story where someone, thanks to the pioneering work of medical science, receives their life changing treatment and the compassion, love and impossibly humbling courage of the donors. Unfortunately that doesn’t make for good drama apparently… And seemingly – unfortunately – the negatives ARE what people walk away with.

  17. @James Fox: Oh, I never lost that. I read my ERB last year, on my kindle (though I have some vintage Tarzan paperbacks that I haven’t touched). And I’ll be briefly blasphemous and note that I wasn’t that impressed by Foundation (his psychohistory wound up hard against Clarke’s “Any sufficiently advanced technology” line), and Sam and Frodo bored me to tears (though Merry, Pippin and the rest were interesting).

    Still haven’t gotten to Dune.

  18. @Mark Hall: As much as I liked LoTR I agree with your assessment of who was and who was not interesting. Again I think I read Foundation a couple of times when I was 14 or 15 in the mid 70’s and I’ll probably avoid an adult re-read to preserve the fond memories. On the other hand Dune is a book I’ve re-read a few times over the years where the story and characters hold up quite well. And as with most Space Opera SciFi tomes the science is very speculative. Dune anticipates a lot of modern environmental issues and is a great read if you like character development as much as plot. Interestingly Dune has organ replacement (including cloning) in a few parts of the story and there’s a whole world dedicated to this type of technology in the galactic political mix. The second book Herbert wrote was ‘Dune Messiah’ which should have been edited down to a few chapters of preamble for the quite good third book ‘Children of Dune’. Many other ‘Dune’ books have come after that in a typical franchise fashion.

  19. I actually picked up a copy of Dune today (I LOVE working in a library) and started it. I find it kinda interesting to read these books today, with the materials THEY inspired forming my background, rather than the originals; I keep comparing it to the game Fading Suns, which I know drew heavy inspiration from Dune. A few times in LotR (especially my first read-through), I had to remind myself that Gimli and Legloas were not cliches, but archetypes upon which later cliches rested.

  20. @BeardofPants: I think ‘God Emperor of Dune’ is a good place to stop unless you get really interested in what may precede or follow. Herbert’s son has done a good job with a couple of the books which I only read because my mother loves the series and passes each new one on to me.

    @Mark Hall: And the first few chapters can be a bit of a slog so be patient.

  21. @BeardofPants: @James Fox:

    Yes, this is my first read of Dune; I’ve watched (sorta; half asleep) the David Lynch version, but I don’t remember much beyond the look of sandworms and shields, so I don’t think it’s coloring me NEARLY as much as other space opera I’ve read.

    And Dune may be starting a bit slow, but it’s a relief from “Speaker for the Dead”. Didn’t loathe it like I did last time, but definitely not one of my “must rereads”.

  22. Stacey, thanks for this writeup. I hadn’t even heard of this movie. Thanks to you, I’ve now read the book (which was magnificent) and added this adaptation of it to my Netflix queue, based on your review and that of Roger Ebert. He drew a very similar lesson from it about the importance of questioning assumptions, especially those rooted in our formative years:

    “One of the most dangerous concepts of human society is that children believe what they are told. Those who grow out of that become adults, a status not always achieved by their parents.”

    Great minds think alike. :-)

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