Never Let Me Go Book vs Movie Review

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**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

Never Let Me Go directed by Mark Romanek (2010)

This is yet another topic that is related to Alex Garland. Two weeks ago I covered Annihilation, which Garland wrote the script for and directed. Then last week I talked about The Beach, which is a book written by Garland. Today is Never Let Me Go, which is written by Kazuo Ishiguro and the movie is directed by Mark Romanek, and the script was adapted from the novel by Alex Garland!

The author Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Japan but him family moved to England when he was a kid. His most famous book, which is also a movie, is Remains of the Day (which I will be covering at some point). In 2017 he won the Nobel Laureate in Literature!


The story is narrated by Kathy, a girl who grew up without parents, in a boarding school called Hailsham. She has two good friends, Tommy and Ruth. As they get older, even though Tommy and Kathy seem like the obvious couple, Ruth ends up dating Tommy instead.

At 16 they go from Hailsham, to different other living situations. Ruth, Tommy and Kathy go to what are called The Cottages. Kind of like going from high school to college I guess. The other people there are from other schools and this is their first time being around student who aren’t from Hailsham. Ruth and Tommy continue to date while at the Cottages, and eventually things get bitter with Ruth and so Kathy leaves.

As the story continues, it is revealed that they and all the other students at Hailsham, as well as all the other people living at places like the Cottages, are clones. These “students” exist only to grow to adulthood, when their organs will then be taken and used to save human lives. They call this “donating”, and when the clone ends up dying due to the donations, it’s called “completing”. Students also go through a period being a “carer” which is when you look after those doing donations. A student can’t be a carer forever though, and at some point while they are still young they stop being a carer and start donating.

The cloning isn’t really the main focus of the story though. It’s primarily a romance between Kathy and Tommy. They drift apart at around age 18. Kathy is a very good carer and so she remains a carer for a decade while others her age are donating.

She ends up looking after Ruth, who is struggling after her first donation and will most likely die, or “complete” after her second. Before she dies, she has the two of them reunite with Tommy and Ruth apologizes for keeping them apart. She then gives them the address of the woman who had been in charge of Hailsham. There is a rumor, that two students who are truly in love, will get a deferral for three years or so. Ruth hopes to fix what she did in the past, by now helping them get a deferral. Tommy has already had three donations, but he is doing well considering.

Ruth completes, and afterwards Kathy goes and becomes Tommy’s carer. They start their romance, and then go to meet with the woman to get a deferral. They are told this was never a thing, and they just have to continue their lives the way they have already been planned.

The story ends with Kathy now in the donation phase, thinking about Tommy and what they’d had.

Thoughts on Book

This book seemed to go slow, but then before I knew it, I was done. I guess it wasn’t as slow as I thought! I liked the writing style, as if you are having a conversation with Kathy and she is telling you about her history with Tommy and Ruth.

The sad ending made me feel like I should have felt more emotional about it all, but I didn’t. Not sure why, because it is well written, but, yeah, it didn’t make me tear up at all.

The story kind of goes in a nonlinear direction. I really liked this as well and enjoyed how things weren’t told to us directly. The reader, like the student, was “told and not told” what was going on with the students and what they were and why they existed. The truth is slowly revealed, chapter by chapter.

Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield

It is said that Hailsham was the best school there was for the “students” and after some controversy about clones being smarter and better than humans (which wasn’t happening, but people were worried about it), Hailsham and any other nicer facilities like it were shut down. Even during Hailsham, there were other places that treated them poorly. I don’t know if the kids at those places went on to stay at places like the Cottages, or if they just went to straight to donating and being carers. If they did go to places like the Cottages, there definitely should have been a considerable difference between how the kids at the nicer places were, in comparison to the kids that were living in poor conditions.

One thing I especially liked about the book is that there were a number of things I found relatable. The way Kathy sees the past and has a different perspective on things that happened when they were young. When you are young you are so focused on yourself and your group, but as Kathy mentions, as she gets older she sees things from the perspective of others and now has more empathy for them. Also seeing moments that were more crucial than you had realized they were when they were actually happening.

Even though this book and movie could be considered sci-fi in a way, since it is a dystopian future with clones, I wouldn’t say that is the main description. This is a story of friendship, love and mortality. Also how culture and the things we are raised to believe affect us when we are older. When Kathy and Tommy find out they can’t defer, it makes you wonder why they don’t run away together. I think it has been ingrained in them what they must do, so the thought of running away never occurs to them. In an interview Ishiguro says that he is fascinated how people accept their fate and don’t rebel, and that’s why he didn’t tell the story of brave people who run away. He also said the point he wanted to cover in the book is that you can’t escape mortality, and neither can Kathy and Tommy escape their fate.

Side note, it is said that these genetic developments began in 1951. This is when the HeLa cell was discovered which revolutionized the science and medical world. There is a book and movie about the cells called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which is about the woman the cells came from. It’s a fascinating, yet very sad story and one which I will be covering on here! I have already read it and watched the movie, but I have someone I want to have on as a guest when I talk about it, so just waiting to coordinate a date to record it. Stay tuned!



Carey Mulligan is so well cast as Kathy. She is an incredible actress and gives a wonderful performance.

Keira Knightley is Ruth, she decided to be in this movie because Mulligan is a friend of hers. She said she had a hard time relating to Ruth’s character and the love triangle she was part of. Even so, she does a wonderful job.

Andrew Garfield plays Tommy. He is the only one of the cast who isn’t British. I didn’t think about the fact that he was American until after the movie was over. He is wonderful here, and it made me realize I haven’t seen many movies with him aside from The Social Network, which he is also incredible in.

Sally Hawkins is in the brief role of Miss lucy and I thought I would mention her because she later went on to be nominated for two Oscars. One for her supporting role in the Woody Allen movie Blue Jasmine and then again just a couple years ago for her leading role in the Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water.

Sally Hawkins


The movie follows the storyline pretty much exactly, with just a few small changes. The changes that were made didn’t change the story really, but a few things were left out from the book that I wish had been left in.

Meeting with Madame Marie-Claude and Miss Emily

Starting with the end here. Tommy and Kathy go to visit Madame and discover she and Miss Emily (the principal of sorts at Hailsham) live together. While there they learn that the deferral isn’t a thing, and that the reason Madame collected their art pieces, was to show to the world that they had emotions and should be treated more humanely than clones were being treated up until that point. As she says, we didn’t take away your art because we thought it revealed your souls, “we did it to prove you had souls at all.” This line is in both the book and movie, and it makes you feel how Tommy and Kathy must feel, realizing how they are seen by those on the outside.

Miss Emily and Madame

This point is driven even more in the book when Kathy mentions that Madame was scared of them when she came to Hailsham, the way someone would be scared of a spider. (Madame wasn’t a teacher there, she would just show up every few months, collect art the student made, and leave). Miss Emily replies saying, “[Madame] Marie-Claude has given everything for you. She has worked and worked and worked. Make no mistake about it, my child, Marie-Claude is on your side and will always be on your side. Is she afraid of you? We’re all afraid of you. I myself had to fight back my dread of you all almost every day I was at Hailsham. There were times I’d look down at you all from my study window and I’d feel such revulsion . . .” She stopped, then something in her eyes flashed again. “But I was determined not to let such feelings stop me doing what was right. I fought those feelings and I won.”

As if hearing that people thought you didn’t have souls and shouldn’t be treated to a good upbringing wasn’t bad enough, you find out that even those who looked after you had been repulsed by you! So sad.

The movie leaves out this last part, and I wish they would have included it. Having said that, this scene is done really well, and you can feel their sadness as they discover the truth. Tommy is more visible upset and you can tell he is embarrassed about having brought his artwork. While Kathy has eyes that are tearing up. It’s a really powerful scene.


In the movie Ruth and Kathy are friends, but not especially close. She notices the bond Tommy and Kathy have, and sees Kathy listening to a song while sort of dancing while holding a pillow and assumes she must be thinking of Tommy. She then purposefully gets between them.

Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley)

When they are older and go to the Cottages, she and Tommy are still together and after some time she tells Kathy that she and Tommy were laughing about her looking at dirty magazines and that Kathy doesn’t stand a chance with him because he doesn’t see her that way.

In the book, Ruth and Kathy were closer friends and as girls would have late night chats, along with some of the other girls they shared a room with. There is also a storyline where Ruth claims to have been given a gift by one of the teachers. Kathy finds out that Ruth bought the item herself and it wasn’t a gift. She confronts Ruth about this. Then later, when a girl asks, Kathy backs Ruth up and claims it was given to Ruth. She doesn’t want Ruth to be embarrassed, and she also can see where Ruth is coming from. They all wish they had that parent relationship and that a guardian would take special interest and show favoritism. After this, Ruth tires to find ways to make it up to Kathy. Kathy buys herself that cassette tape by Judy Bridgewater, and it is later lost. Ruth tries really hard to find it, but in the end gives her a different cassette, trying to make up for the one that is lost.

Then even when they are at the Cottages, even though Ruth can be annoying during the day, every day at nighttime they sit together drinking tea and have personal conversations like they did when they were at Hailsham. In the book Tommy shows Ruth and then Kathy his animal drawings. When she and Ruth are having one of these late-night conversations, they are joking about a guy Kathy had been dating and are in one of those laughing moods. Somehow the conversation moves to Tommy’s animals and they start poking fun at them and laughing.

Later, Kathy sees Tommy and Ruth talking and goes up to them. Kathy asks what they were talking about and Ruth says how Tommy was telling her his Gallery theory and the reason he has been working on his animal drawings. (He thinks they collected art pieces for the Gallery in order to “see their souls” and to know if they later claimed to be in love, they would use the art they had collected to see if they are truly in love. Tommy never had any art taken to the Gallery, so he is now drawing to make up for it). He had told Ruth he had already talked to Kathy about it and Ruth is being very sarcastic and rude about it all, assuming because she is jealous he had told Kathy first. She then says that she and Kathy were laughing about his animals and that they are rubbish. Kathy doesn’t try and defend herself.

Later, Ruth talks to Kathy saying, sure she and Tommy won’t last. But that he’s not interested in Kathy, despite what she might think, because he doesn’t like girls who have slept around. By the way, in the book Kathy dates other guys and has sex with a number of guys. In the movie she seems to be too hung up on Tommy do date or have sex with anyone else. The book also clarifies that they have been created to be sterile.

Both book and movie have the scene where Ruth makes the rude comments to Kathy, but it happens a bit differently as I explained. The movie we feel that embarrassment and betrayal from having been told that the two people that are closest to you were laughing about you behind your back. In the book, Kathy is called out about having laughed at Tommy’s drawings. She had sincerely been impressed with his work, so it’s still a betrayal on Ruth’s part either way.

Never Let Me Go and Norfolk

In the book Kathy finds a cassette tape by an old singer named Judy Bridgewater (who is a fictious singer Ishiguro  created for the book) and she will listen to the song titled ‘Never Let Me Go’ on repeat. One day, she was alone in her room and it was playing. She held a pillow to her chest imagining it was a baby. The song says something like, “Baby, never let me go” and Kathy imagines the woman is talking about a literal baby, not a lover. So, she is imagining the pillow as a baby she is holding on to. She then turns and sees Madame looking at her through the door which is ajar and she is crying. Later, when Kathy and Tommy are talking to Madame, Kathy asks her about this. She tells Madame she had been imagining herself holding a baby and asks what Madame had thought and why was she crying. Madame responds, “When I watched you dancing that day, I saw something else. I saw a new world coming rapidly. More scientific, efficient, yes. More cures for the old sicknesses. Very good. But a harsh, cruel world. And I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never to let her go. That is what I saw. It wasn’t really you, what you were doing, I know that. But I saw you and it broke my heart. And I’ve never forgotten.”

looking in the window to see Ruth’s “possible”

The tape, as said above is eventually lost or stolen. Then when they are in Norfolk, they are wandering around different stores and Tommy is in the music section. After Ruth is upset about the woman not being her possible (the human her genetics are based on), Ruth and the other two go to visit a guy who used to live at the Cottages.

Kathy and Tommy are left alone, and Tommy tells her he was trying to find the tape she lost. The two of them go to antique/thrift stores and eventually they do find the tape. This is a special moment between them, and during this trip is when Kathy confides in Tommy that she looks at the dirty magazines to see if any of the women in it are her possible. In the movie, it is years later, she and Tommy are reminiscing, and he says he knew she was looking for her possible.

The movie, as I said, doesn’t have the scene where Madame sees Kathy and cried, instead it is Ruth who sees her. The tape was also given to her by Tommy in the movie and it never is lost and refound again the way it is in the book.

Smaller Differences

Tommy and Kathy

One change is how Kathy would talk to Tommy. In the book, when they are young as well as when they are older, she talks down to him a lot. As if he isn’t very bright. I got annoyed with it, especially when they are older and dating. Like come on Kathy, don’t be treating him like this you guys aren’t kids anymore! So, I liked that the movie didn’t have her talk that way to him.

The movie says people can chose whether or not to be a carer before they start donation. But in the book, all students were carers for at least a little bit before donating. Kathy was a very good carer, so she remained one longer than most. She also had heard about Ruth’s first donation not going well, and one day ran into another girl she had known at Hailsham and she told Kathy she should request to be Ruth’s carer, since Ruth would probably complete on her second donation. Kathy does, and the book and movie shows how they reconnect this way. In both they go to look at the washed-up boat with Tommy and Ruth tells them they should get a deferral. Kathy remains Ruth’s carer for the next year, till Ruth completes. Once that happens, she requests to be Tommy’s carer and they start dating.

In the movie she becomes Tommy’s carer right away, before Ruth has died. She also finds out about Ruth’s donations by seeing her name on a screen and asking the nurse about her. When she sees Ruth, Ruth says how she has been keeping tabs on Kathy and Tommy through the years, but this isn’t mentioned in the book.

Miss Lucy

In the movie Miss Lucy is a new teacher. She tells Tommy one day that it’s okay he isn’t creative. Kathy asks Miss Lucy what she had told Tommy to help him feel better and she tells her. Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, she tells them in a straightforward manner what the point is to their lives. Soon after, she is fired.

In the book Miss Lucy was an existing teacher. She does tell Tommy that it’s okay he’s not creative. Tommy is the one that tells Kathy what she had told him, and both think it’s very weird she said that because at Hailsham, being creative and artistic is a big thing. Another time, they are waiting for it to stop raining so they can play soccer or something and the kids are just being loud and talking. She interrupts them and says she couldn’t help but overhear two boys saying they are going to be actors when they grow up. She feels it is unfair that they don’t fully comprehend what they were made to do and gives the same speech as in the movie. Talk of what Miss Lucy says gets around fast and as Kathy is reflecting she says,

“It’s hard to say clearly what sort of impact Miss Lucy’s outburst at the pavilion made. Word got round fast enough, but the talk mostly focused on Miss Lucy herself rather than on what she’d been trying to tell us. Some students thought she’d lost her marbles for a moment; others that she’d been asked to say what she had by Miss Emily and the other guardians; there were even some who’d actually been there and who thought Miss Lucy had been telling us off for being too rowdy on the veranda. But as I say there was surprisingly little discussion about what she’d said. If it did come up, people tended to say: “Well so what? We already knew all that.” But that had been Miss Lucy’s point exactly. We’d been “told and not told,” as she’d put it. A few years ago, when Tommy and I were going over it all again, and I reminded him of Miss Lucy’s “told and not told” idea, he came up with a theory. Tommy thought it possible the guardians had, throughout all our years at Hailsham, timed very carefully and deliberately everything they told us, so that we were always just too young to understand properly the latest piece of information. But of course we’d take it in at some level, so that before long all this stuff was there in our heads without us ever having examined it properly.”

They are told at a young age about donations, so even though they may not fully comprehend it, it’s something they are used to hearing. I don’t think any of them fully comprehend it until it’s time to separate from those you have grown to love and start slowly dying.

Book or movie

I remember reading a book when I was fairly young about a boy who was a clone and had a similar thing where the boy had emotions just like a human, but he was still seen as less than. In high school, or junior high, whenever it was, I remember learning about how a sheep was cloned and I found it very disturbing. The reality of cloning just seems wrong to me. People are so desperate to live longer, they are willing to do inhumane things. And I think cloning is inhumane, especially in regard to humans of course. It isn’t natural, and then it leads to social dilemmas as shown in this book and movie.

The movie was more emotional than the book, especially with Kathy seeming to be much more hung up on Tommy as I said. In the book, you knew they belonged together, and I felt bad for her, but she handled it well and wasn’t as sad as she is in the movie.

The book also highlighted the bond she had with Ruth. When at the Cottages, Ruth could be fake and trying so hard to impress the older students, but you still liked her because she and Kathy still had that special bond. Although Ruth betrays Kathy’s trust in both. The movie did make Ruth more unlikable though. But I like that both show Ruth maturing and regretting the selfish things she did in her youth. I found this very relatable. I never kept two people apart like Ruth, but I know when I was younger, I did stuff I now regret. And everyone wants redemption and forgiveness from those they wronged.

The movie is very well done and follows the book closely. It’s hard to say which is better, but I would say the book. Ruth is a bit more likable, and you have the more detailed conversation with Madame and Miss Emily at the end. You also get a better look into their lives as they grew up at Hailsham. The book was also just more personal, the way Kathy spoke and as said above, they way she reflected on her past in a way that I think pretty much everyone can relate to. I don’t see myself rereading the book, or rewatching the movie any time soon. Not because I don’t like them, because they are both excellent. It just isn’t a story that I will be in a rush to re-read. The “sci-fi” aspect certainly isn’t what will stick with me the most as I look back on it. Which is what Ishiguro intended. The clone/sci-fi part of the story was simply a vessel in which to move the heart of the story. The heart being relationships, and feeling like we don’t as much time as we wish we could with those we love, and not enough time to right the wrongs we have done.