Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 Booker prize nominated novel, Never Let Me Go, has just been made into a film. The book is a subtle meditation on what it means to be a person. The film adaptation, while not able to match the philosophical nuances of the book, approaches the complex subject matter with visual and narrative restraint. The book is a classic. The film is worth catching.
Never Let Me Go is the story of a love-triangle between Kathy, Tommy and Ruth (played in the film by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Kiera Knightley) which goes back to their school days at Hailsham. On the surface, the students of Hailsham are well groomed, well behaved and appear to have a charmed public school life. Yet, there are tell-tale signs that this institution has more disturbing intentions. There is a neurotic emphasis on the health of the children. Smoking behind the bike sheds is a mortal sin. There are apocryphal tales of the violent things that have happened to students who escaped beyond the school boundaries. The natural, unaffected joy that children bring to a school is absent here and replaced with an atmosphere of impending despair. Play is manufactured. Creativity is a social experiment. Hailsham is an educational limbo.
It transpires that the children at Hailsham are clones and are waiting to be used as adult organ donors. This is their sole purpose in life. The functional purpose that society has decided for them. They have been created to act as nothing more than biological spare part machines. Yet, of course, these clones are not robots, they have souls and they can love. These are the distinguishing features of a person. We are present to ourselves in self-conscious autonomy, yet we only possess ourselves fully when we give ourselves to the dynamism of love. This is not a passing pleasure or emotion, but the very meaning of our being alive, an awakening of our sense of being. All love is self-surrender and self-fulfillment.
Kathy, Tommy and Ruth have heard a rumour that love can defer their fate. Couples who can prove they are in love will be given some extra years before they must start donating their organs. But the threesome also realise themselves as persons when they fall in and out of love with each other. This is the primal and first of all impulses in the heart of being. Love is the intuitive sense that we are not to be instrumentalised but that each person has an obscure, living depth that must not be manipulated or destroyed.
Never Let Me Go never succumbs to sci-fi sensationalism. Both the novel and film are beautifully understated and this adds to the moral chill factor and sense of tragedy. It is the passive acceptance of cloning – both by those cloned and those involved in the process – and the lack of ethical debate that gives Never Let Me Go an authentic tone. The medical police state is unquestioningly accepted(except by one brave teacher who is quickly removed from Hailsham and branded a “subversive”). There is a passive resignation that this is how it is meant to be and that the proposed medical benefits outweigh the invasive manipulation and destruction of human life.
All this feels real and possible because we recognise (consciously or unconsciously) that the abuse of the person is happening in our own time. In 2000, Pope John Paul II addressed the 18th International Congress of the Transplantation Society where he highlighted the dangers of creating human life as though it were a medical product:
...methods that fail to respect the dignity and value of the person must always be avoided. I am thinking in particular of attempts at human cloning with a view to obtaining organs for transplants: these techniques, insofar as they involve the manipluation and destruction of human embryos, are not morally acceptable, even when the proposed end is good in itself.
Since that warning, the destruction of persons who are intrinsically valuable in themselves has become a routine part of contemporary culture. This has happened without us barely noticing. Not science fiction but reality. Now that is really frightening.