There is a feeling I get that I don’t know the name for. Basically if you make an equilateral triangle of Despair, Ennui and Contempt and then extrapolate upwards to form a tetrahedron, then the emotion I’m trying to describe is the pinnacle of the pyramid.
I get it every time a soi-disant literary author has what they think of as an audacious, innovative idea which turns out, in reality, to be a well-worn science fiction device.
The usual form is for the author to deny that they are writing SF at all when its obvious to anyone who’s actually done genre writers the courtesy of reading round a bit that it effing well is effing Science Fiction. Just wanting it not to be isn’t enough.
Every time Margaret Atwood states that her SF books aren’t SF I wince as though she has actually physically punched Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Lisa Tuttle (or any honest SF writer with a feminist agenda) right in the face.
I cringed through the late seventies and eighties when Doris Lessing distanced her Canopus In Argos: Archives series from the Science Fiction genre and, seemingly the whole of literary society was too polite to say, “Nice one Doris, but what you have done here is to pointlessly re-invent the wheel. Or in this case pointlessly re-invent the Dune trilogy.”
I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go with that same dismaying nameless feeling described above. The idea, his amazing idea, of a secondary class of humans cloned solely to provide organs for “proper” humans is only surprising if you’ve not read any SF ever. Indeed the same year that Never Let Me Go was published the Michael Bay film The Island was released at cinemas. It’s pretty much the same story.
The Island is a dire film. Truly a crass, artless, thudding, bombastic, cock-wagging mess of a movie. But, in its defence, it is quite clear about its aims. There’s a perfectly serviceable basic three-act structure to it. Set-up. Conflict. Resolution. Crucially, low though they may have set the bar, the creators have had a specific intention and have seen it through.
Never Let Me Go (the novel) by contrast comes across as a meek, bovine version of the same story.
There is a superb axiom in writing that the author should strive to “show, not tell”. Marvellous. Except I think that the most important part of that is “to show”, whereas Ishiguro seems to think it’s “to not tell”.
It’s maddening the lack of explanatory detail in the book.
My generous understanding of it is that Ishiguro has created the lacunae and the vagueness as a sort of literary negative space. An absence into which we are invited to project our own interpretations of meaning.
My less generous understanding of it is that there was in his mind no clear concept of what he was writing about.
So where is the wisdom in trying to bring that book to the screen?
One of culture’s most unwatchable debasements happened when Fernando Meirelles (a bone fide brilliant director) tried to adapt Blindness a novel by Portugal’s greatest living dead writer, Jose Saramago, for the screen. The mimsy, farting mis-shape that resulted is awful; a grunting insult to Day Of The Triffids and 28 Days Later and numerous other narratives of integrity. What was the original point of the book? No idea. The film has had any trace of artistic accomplishment ruthlessly expunged from it. Whatever muse was ever involved in its inception was bludgeoned to death long before I got a chance to see the film.
So whilst the prospect of a Never Let Me Go movie was, for me, generally a grim one I could never quite let go of the fact that it was directed by Mark Romanek.
I still recall vividly the galvanising effect that Romanek’s first movie Static had on me the one and only time I saw it in 1986. It stars under-exploited treasure Keith Gordon as a worker in a crucifix factory who collects all the malformed crosses that would otherwise be thrown away. In his spare time he has invented a machine which, he says, can see into the afterlife. Static seems subsequently to have been disowned by Romanek. I think this is a shame. I’d dearly love to see it again.
Romanek didn’t make another movie until 2002 when he wrote and directed One Hour Photo, a film of incredible control and nuance.
In the intervening years he worked as a director of music videos including an emotionally ravaging one for the Johnny Cash version of the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt.
I’m always going to watch Romanek stuff then, whatever the apparent pedigree. But add to that a script from Alex Garland (who is much more comfortable writing for the screen than the page) and the acting talents of Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield and suddenly I’m up for it.
The film is quite beautiful.
It is beautiful visually thanks to Romanek’s masterful eye for frame-filling and use of colour, but it has a beauty beyond the mere superficial. With a few plot changes (choice rather than expediency) and the occasional inversion of the implicit to the explicit, this story has suddenly becoming an unbelievably moving experience.
From a novel I thought reticent, clumsy and monochromatic has come a very rich experience indeed. Romanek and his shockingly talented cast have uncovered a lot in this narrative that simply wasn’t evident in the book however closely you read it. Themes of purpose, transience and the compromises we make. And, most witheringly, a stark exposure of the futility of all the expectations and hopes we have, and the pointlessness of the suppositions we make as we huff inelegantly from alpha to omega.
A great film which I cannot wait to see again.
Rachel Portman’s score is lush too.