Thursday, September 09, 2010

"Never Let Me Go" is relatable science fiction?


In last Sunday's LA Times, there was a lengthy article about director Mark Romanek and his soon-to-be-released movie adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go.

The story, which the article calls a "dystopian drama", is based on a science fictional premise. But Never Let Me Go is not an action-packed adventure tale, and the science fiction is hidden from both the reader and the characters for much of the novel. Most reviews only hint at the SF themes, because they are considered "spoilers" for the story.

And it seems clear to me that even if Never Let Me Go is science fiction (and I think it is), it's much more likely to be shelved with Ishiguro's  Remains of the Day in the "literary fiction" section of your local bookstore, than next to the latest Brian Herbert novel.

Given all that, it's not too surprising that Romanek downplays the SF elements of the movie version.

However, I was a bit disappointed by the way that Romanek - and the reporter who wrote the LA Times story - described the movies take on science fiction:
"Never Let Me Go" is a science fiction film with none of the conventions of the genre. There are no rocket ships, alien life forms or sentient computers — just a group of outwardly normal schoolchildren and young adults whose lives will be truncated by a procedure forebodingly referred to as "donation" that ends in "completion."


"I never wanted it to be a science-fiction film in terms of its being fantastical. I wanted it to be relatable," says Romanek. "We said, 'Let's make a science-fiction film that doesn't have any tangible science fiction in it.'"

I suppose it shouldn't be too surprising the LA Times writer used the tired "science fiction is about rocket ships and aliens" trope, since that description isn't too far off for most movie SF. At least he didn't refer to talking squids from outer space.

What I disagree with is Romanek's suggestion that "fantastical" elements automatically make a movie "unrelatable". For me, it's the depiction of a character's personality and relationships that determines whether she's relatable, not the setting.

And considering pretty much all I know about English boarding schools comes from George Orwell's essays and  Harry Potter novels, the setting of Never Let You Go doesn't seem much less exotic than a love story set in the 19th century American prairie or future Tokyo or the moon.

It turns out that Romanek actually did have to add some SF background for people to fully understand what was going on in the film:
As it turned out, some members of the "Never Let Me Go" preview audiences were thrown by what the film intentionally left vague. Was it unfolding in the real England of the late 1990s, or some parallel reality? Romanek worried that the audience was so busy trying to sort that out that it wasn't hooking into the story's emotions, its chronicle of first love. So working with Ishiguro, Romanek and Garland added a new opening card that reads:

"The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952


"Doctors could now cure the previously incurable


"By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years"


As the movie makes clear, that breakthrough came at an unimaginable price. And that's the heartbreak of "Never Let Me Go."
Sounds like science fiction to me.
Official trailer:

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