In the new film Never Let Me Go, set at an eerie school in an alternate-reality England, a schoolmistress declares to her classroom of wide-eyed young charges: “The tide is not with forward thinking. It never is. No, the tide is with the entrenched mindset!” The children dutifully applaud.
It’s a marrow-chilling moment because the matter that has brought the educator (played by a devastatingly heartless Charlotte Rampling) to a venomous fury is any hint of “subversion,” as she calls it, that might undermine the school’s reason for existence. All of the children who study at the Hailsham school are clones, and they have no value except to become “donors” of vital organs — until, as young adults in their early twenties, they have no vital organs left. At this stage, they are told, their lives “will be complete.” The end.
Never Let Me Go is an adaptation of the 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, whose previous works include 1989’s The Remains of the Day (adapted into the well-received film starring Anthony Hopkins). It’s directed by Mark Romanek and stars Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan (who last fall got an Oscar nomination for An Education and this fall will star as Gordon Gekko’s daughter in the sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) as two of the students at the academy. As was the case with the book, the movie depends heavily on a hint-laden atmosphere instead of plot turns or the idea that the characters might be able to escape their fates. (The 2005 action-adventure flick The Island, which starred Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson as young people who didn’t realize they were clones, had the same basic premise but went for thrills instead of reflection.)
What is devastating about Never Let Me Go is how it resonates down the decades, reminding us how many times we have heard leaders and peers instruct us that “forward thinking” demands we overturn established ways of doing things. The story takes place in a parallel history in which unspecified scientific advances in the 1950s led, in the 1960s, to a brave new world in which everyone could expect to live 100 years or more.
The cost is only hinted at. Ishiguro’s Hailsham is full of decent, loving, squabbling, excitable, wondering, flawed but fully human beings whose existences are simply treated as disposable. Any ethical questions must be ignored; science has made it possible to clone human beings for spare parts, therefore this must be the right thing to do.
Ishiguro’s imagination leads us both backwards and forwards: you will be reminded of the fascist eugenics experiments in which the marvels of accelerated Darwinism were to be celebrated, leaving us with a superior human race, cleansed of undesirable elements. But you will be equally aware of the stem-cell debate and the vicious insistence of cloning’s most outspoken supporters that those who had moral qualms about creating and then destroying human embryos were benighted zealots who had no respect for science’s generous bounty. Such “backward” thinking must be marginalized and ridiculed.
In the scarily clinical language of Never Let Me Go, the place where you are required to go and give your life is a “completion center.” The policy of raising humans as though they were meat is, tidily, the “National Donor Program.” “Carers” are trusted but doomed individuals, themselves clones, who calmly lead others through the “donation” process, much like the Jewish “sonderkommandos” who were forced to aid Nazis in their death-camp atrocities.
If you had forgotten how much evil could be hidden behind such bland ideas, executed by such seemingly good-hearted people (a nurse at the “completion center” seems as personable as anyone you’re likely to meet in today’s health care maze), Never Let Me Go is a haunting, sometimes heartbreaking, reminder. In its quiet, literary way, it is bold enough to issue a challenge that we always call things by their proper names, and not accept the unacceptable simply because we are told that “science” or “progress” or “experts” deem that we must. As George Orwell put it, in “Politics and the English Language,” “political language … is designed to make laws sound truthful and murder respectable.” Of course politicians would rather say “consultations for end-of-life care” than “death panels.”