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Asking for the Impossible

Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield star in "Never Let Me Go."

Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro on the film of his book Never Let Me Go

Writing in the future never interested me,” says Kazuo Ishiguro, whose novel Never Let Me Go could appropriately but misleadingly be called a science fiction story set in the recent past. “I wasn’t trying in the novel to write anything like a prophecy. I didn’t feel any energy about imagining what cars would look like in the future or what telephones would look like. I can’t even imagine what telephones will look like next year! I was much more interested in [creating an] alternative history.”

His 2005 book, the film version of which opens this week, follows the lives of three young people raised at an English boarding school. As played by Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan (an Oscar nominee last year for An Education), and Andrew Garfield (also onscreen currently in The Social Network and soon to appear as Peter Parker in the new Spider-Man movie), the students are all “special,” a distinction which is never wholly spelled out but which becomes clear enough for us to understand how these children have a heightened appreciation of life because of the things that are expected of them and the future that will be denied them.

Kazuo Ishiguro, whose novel, "Never Let Me Go," has been amde into a film by director Mark Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland.

“What I said to myself to help my imagination was, ‘Let’s suppose there was just one difference in the history of science after the Second World War.’ Instead of all the breakthroughs we had in nuclear physics, which very rapidly led to one kind of peculiar, surreal, obscene situation with these nuclear weapons that could annihilate the world many times over—what if those breakthroughs had been in a different direction? In biotechnology, what kind of situation would we find ourselves in then? Apart from that one difference, I tried to imagine the world going in much the same way after the war.”

What gives that comment an unspoken extra gravity is the knowledge that Ishiguro, generally considered in the top tier of modern novelists, was born in Nagasaki. His family emigrated to England in 1960 when he was six, so he is more British than Japanese, and if his work has a Japanese texture it comes more from the films of masters like Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse than any literary forebears. His third novel, The Remains of the Day, won the Booker Prize, as very nearly did Never Let Me Go (it ran a close second to the winner, John Banville’s The Sea).

In other words, he’s a bit more of a heavyweight than you tend to talk to at the Toronto Film Festival. Elegantly dressed in black, with a voice that resembles Christopher Lee, he would be intimidating if I hadn’t noticed before this roundtable session that the publicists refer to him as “Ish.”

In the film, a torch song by Luther Dixon titled “Never Let Me Go” works the way “The Crying Game” did in the movie of that title. But Ishiguro admits that he didn’t have a real song in mind when he was writing.

“It wasn’t so much the song itself as the words, ‘Never Let Me Go.’ I wanted those words to be the title and to always be in the reader’s mind. It’s that word ‘Never,’ asking for something they know can’t be granted. It’s asking too much—they know that at some point separation will come. So it seemed to me to express the intense need to love, at the same time as the realization that separation is inevitable. That’s at the emotional heart of the story for me.”

Does he find a recognition of that conflict reassuring, in the way the characters in the film finally do? “Both really. It’s not reassuring to think that sooner or later we’ll have to separate from each other. But at least it’s possible for people to love each other enough to want to hold each other. I think that’s what the film is like. Some people find it to be a bleak film. I don’t think it’s entirely bleak. Although the situation is sad, it’s no sadder than the one we’re all in. And it’s positive in the sense that people essentially are decent in the film. They have decent instincts, they want to do things for decent motives. They care about each other, they want to put right things they did to each other. I think it shows a positive side of human nature.”

Ishiguro is accompanied today by his friend Alex Garland, author of The Beach and The Tesseract, who wrote the film’s screenplay in less than a week. Of course, he’d had a head start.

As Ishiguro explains, “We live near each other and we’ve been meeting for years in our little neighborhood. Originally it was just talking as two novelists—Alex had just published The Beach, and [miming jealousy] I was slightly concerned about this exciting new writer appearing in my neighborhood, thought I’d check him out. So we became friends.

“We used to just kick around lots of ideas in the way that writers when they meet for lunch do, never quite sure if you’re talking about something that somebody’s working on or just something that’s in the air that day. So while I was writing Never Let Me Go, we used to discuss some of the ideas that were running through my head, although he probably knew that was what we were doing. He was one of the very first people to read a bound proof of Never Let Me Go. I read early drafts of Alex’s screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine. I liked the way that he mixed what you might call sci-fi beats and motifs to touch on quite profound themes. So it felt very natural to me when he said, ‘Can I have a go at that thing?’ Because in a way the collaboration began a long time before it really began.

For his part, Garland calls the adaption “Almost no challenge. Some quite simple editorial decisions. Sections were effectively kind of cut and pasted. There’s not really any invention—there’s a bit, but it comes as a consequence of compression and colliding two scenes. A couple of times we expanded out something that was just a paragraph in the book into a scene. But it was intended to be faithful and hopefully it is. We were all in agreement, everybody who worked on the film, that what had drawn us to the project was the source material.”

Ishiguro has tried his own hand at screenwriting with a few BBC programs and a script that became Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World, though he cheerfully admits that the film bears little resemblance to what he wrote. “Maddin [and co-scripter George Toles, brother of editorial cartoonist Tom] took an original screenplay of mine and turned it into a Guy Maddin movie. I really enjoyed working with him. We’re developing on another project now, another music thing. He’s a real one-off—you work with a guy like that and your imagination starts to change.”

Despite that, Ishiguro wouldn’t want to adapt his own work to the screen. “If I’ve already done that material and I go back to it years later, it’s like that nightmare where you’re back in school and you’ve got to sit your exams again. You have to open it up and go through it with other people, and sacrifice things you thought you’d finished. Most novelists find that both technically and emotionally a very difficult thing to do, to adapt their own work. “

Turning to Gardner, he asks, “You didn’t adapt The Beach either, did you?” referring to the film that was one of the most notable flops of the 1990s. Gardner responds, “No, but I wish I had!”

Noting that “I’m sure that Alex did a lot more than shovel words around,” Ishiguro, who is credited as the film’s executive producer, says he’s happy with the way it turned out, though Garland looks at the film and regrets what he missed. Ishiguro says that sometimes when he sees films based on novels he has read, “I can feel a checklist—oh yes, that’s how they’ve done that scene, when is that other bit coming? I didn’t feel that here, even through it’s my own book. It has its own direction, its own trajectory. It made me see some things completely fresh.

Still, Garland admits that “I missed some things in the book. For what it’s worth. I miss the space and the time you get [in a novel]. Film is incredibly voracious, and the patience of the audience is completely unforgiving in many respects. There’s a sense of space in the book, of time spent with the characters and a sense of their full lives, and I think that’s one of the things we failed to capture. I’m very proud of this film—I’m very happy with it, but I miss that.”

Watch the trailer for Never Let Me Go

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