He has won the Booker Prize, been named one of the Times’ 50 Greatest British Authors since 1945, and seen two of his six novels become high-profile films: The Remains of The Day, starring Anthony Hopkins, and recently Never Let Me Go.
Never Let Me Go is beautifully written, yet relies on a gradual build-up of information filling in the history and setting the scene for weighty revelations, making it perhaps not an obvious choice for film adaptation.
Speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival in conversation with Sunday Times Literary Editor Peter Kemp, Ishiguro admits that when writing Never Let Me Go, he ‘didn’t want it to be a film. When I started writing, fiction was in a vulnerable position – novels had to offer something one couldn’t get from the TV or cinema. I wanted to do something that couldn’t be done in any other medium – I was trying to write an unfilmable book’.
Yet filmed it was, and 300 pages of novel were made into an 80 page screenplay. When good books are filmed it is the natural instinct to lament the inevitable cuts and condensation of the flowing prose, but Ishiguro claims not to see it this way. ‘We’re not comfortable with film adaptations, we don’t look at them cleanly, as if they’re films. We demand fidelity to the source, but perhaps this is naïve, inappropriate.’
Instead Ishiguro sees the film as complementary to the book. ‘You have to extract the essence of the book for the screenplay. I didn’t want a translation; I wanted the film-makers to take the idea further. I feel like a songwriter who hopes that talented musicians will take his basic material further – I want them to be inspired, I want to discover things when I hear their interpretation. The book is safe inside its covers.’
Perhaps a reason Ishiguro dislikes the comparisons between film and book is that they are such different media. ‘In a book, you can have a universe in someone’s mind – it’s very difficult to do that in a film, as it’s a very third person medium. The physical setting is very obvious. A novel can be set in a hinterland between the mind and the real world, and the world outside might not be very realistic, but this is hard when you’re doing a film.’
He moves on to talk about the book itself. The title comes from the poignancy of asking for the impossible, as in the book Kathy and Tommy come to realise that given their situation, hoping for more time on earth to enjoy being in love is a request that cannot be granted. While the book’s premise has affinities with science fiction, it reads much more as a coming-of-age novel with a sinister and tragic twist. ‘Some have called it a fable about mortality, others a dystopian book about what might happen if we do things with science. The importance of the project is in trying to find a metaphor for the fact that we have bodies that age. We can’t live forever – what do we do with that knowledge? I wanted to look at the way people face that inevitability as they move from childhood to adulthood. It’s a metaphor for mortality, raising questions: What’s important to us once we are aware that our time is limited?’
He is asked whether he intended the book as in any way allegorical for the condition of exploited underclasses. Reared as clones, the world has turned its back on children like Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, preferring to forget that they exist. ‘I often go for things but the metaphor doesn’t quite fit, and before I know it I’ve got a secondary set of themes on board. The exploited class theme was like that. There are rich and poor parts of the world, and the exploited are out of sight for us.’
A question many have raised about the book is why the clones accept their fates without struggle. We never see any attempt to run away, or even any real questioning of why they are in their situation, but rather a passive acceptance. ‘In life, most don’t have the perspective to try to escape. Instead we try to dignify our lives, to find meaning in our situation. It’s fascinating the extent to which people don’t rebel. Most of us just know the world we’re born into and it’s hard to see beyond that. But there is a sense that if we make things remarkable enough, we might escape.’
Ishiguro moved from Japan to England aged 5 and has always worked here. He seems to have a slightly tense relationship with his Japanese connections. ‘I started off setting novels in Japan, but I think readers are very literal minded about settings, people thought there was a journalistic element and that what I was writing about only pertained to Japan. So The Remains of the Day is deliberately a very English book. We want people to take universal themes and truths. It’s frustrating that we must set novels somewhere.’ He tells an amusing story about how an early version of the film was shown in America, and people asked if this cloning for organ donations actually happened in England. This is a novel in which failure to suspend one’s disbelief can have disastrous consequences.
Already one of our most successful writers, Ishiguro’s wisdom and gentle tone suggest that success couldn’t have come to a nicer man. Never Let Me Go is certainly a must-read, especially for those who have not seen the film and for whom the suspense as the dark truths are painfully gradually revealed can really be experienced.