Kazuo Ishiguro: A Review of the Film Versions of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go

Phil Slattery, 2015

Last week while in Albuquerque, I attended the Tuesday night meeting of Southwest Writers.  It was a pleasant evening with Jim Tritten giving an enjoyable and quite professional  presentation on why writers should write short stories (he had a long list of reasons, which I won’t even try to list here, but they were on the money).  I met a few people and I was engaged in a conversation on favorite authors with one person, when she said something, which I unfortunately cannot recall at the moment, that made be think about just who the most recent Nobel Laureates in Literature are.  Many years ago I had wanted to start reading the works of Nobel Laureates in order to learn about the state of the art of writing, and I never followed through, though I did collect a few additional works for my library.  Some of my favorite authors did win the Nobel Prize, but they most fall into the realm of classic literature, in the sense that they are all dead:  Hemingway, Mann, etc.  Therefore I looked up the latest Nobel Laureates on Britannica.com, and decided to start with the most current laureates, reading their best known works and progressing backwards in time.

Of course, the first laureate I encountered was Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the award in 2017.  I found an interview with him on You Tube, which was quite interesting and I read the Wikipedia article on him just as starting points.  I wanted to learn more about his works as quickly as I could, but as I read rather slowly or at an average rate at best and have none of his works in my library, I decided I wanted to get just a taste of his subject matter and his basic ideas.  In his interview, Ishiguro mentioned that he was happy with the two movies that came out on his works:  The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.  Therefore I went out an rented them.  Granted, these told me nothing about this style or voice, but it did give me an idea, however vague, of his subjects and themes.

I am not a big fan of slow, low-key, thoughtful movies, which these were (I prefer action movies, thrillers, horror, etc; I love Quentin Tarantino films such as Kill Bill or Inglourious Basterds or old school movies such The Longest Day, Donovan’s Reef, Spartacus, Dr. Zhivago, or Lawrence of Arabia). Looking at these two from a literary perspective, I did find both intriguing, because I saw in them a lot of ideas as subtext that posed interesting questions about life.

For example, in The Remains of the Day the butler, Stevens, seems to hide from life in his job, never forming close attachments, though the Housekeeper is definitely interested in a relationship with him.  She sees something in him that attracts her, but Stevens always keeps to his almost robot-like performance of duties. When the Housekeeper does find Stevens reading something, and playfully insists on seeing it, though Stevens is very reluctant to reveal what it is, she discovers that it is a simple, sentimental romance.   So, Stevens does seem to have an interest in romance, but he never lets that show.  He is very reluctant to go outside the comfort zone of his job.  Even when his father, the under-butler, dies suddenly, Stevens puts off mourning and tending to his father’s corpse, preferring to tend to the important meeting that his employer is hosting at the moment.  To me, The Remains of the Day poses as subtext the question of how many people are like Stevens, avoiding the fears and unpleasantness of life, such as fear of confronting death or fear of failure in romance, by focusing on their careers.  Doubtlessly, there are a lot of themes that can be read from this work, but those are the first two that pop into mind.

In Never Let Me Go, a work of science fiction, in an alternate reality in which a cure has been found for all previously incurable diseases, three friends grow up in a series of boarding schools to find out that they are being grown only to provide donor organs (I am not clear about why donor organs are needed if all diseases have been cured, unless they are damaged by injury or something other than a disease).  They do not know who their parents are and eventually theorize that they might have been drug addicts or criminals or other undesirables who gave up their children for adoption.  All of these children are expected to die (which is called “to complete”) by their third donation, which is usually before the age of thirty.   During the course of the movie, as they grow up into young adults, the young man (Tommy) at first loves Kathy, but then they split up and he reveals his love for Ruth.   But the continue on with the lives society has designated for them, and [SPOILER ALERT] and Ruth and Tommy are gradually sold for parts, their young adult lives consisting of constantly recovering from surgery.  Kathy lives a little longer, because she becomes a “carer”, who helps others through their surgeries and therefore her life is extended a few years to provide this service. At the end, the movie (I do not know if Ishiguro does in the book) points out that none of us have enough time in life anyway.

Maybe I missed it somewhere in the movie, but the question that kept popping up in my mind was why don’t these kids just run off to another country.  If all they have for them in life is to be chopped up and sold as spare parts like a stolen automobile, why not run off to a south seas island, where one can’t be found?  I saw nothing to stop them other than a lack of money to buy a ticket, but if I were in that situation, I would find some way, legal or not, to get a plane ticket, especially if I could save not only my life, but that of the woman I love as well.  To me, this whole scenario poses the question of why would anyone play out an unpleasant role/life that society has designated for them, when one can simply run off like Yossarian at the end of Catch-22?  Maybe I missed something in the movie.  Maybe the movie didn’t cover a detail in the book.  I don’t know.

At any rate, I will continue to investigate the works of Kazuo Ishiguro.  Though not exciting, per se, they do pose interesting philosophical questions.  What little I have actually read in a sample of The Remains of the Day shows me that Ishiguro seems to have a simple, clean writing style and voice that I like. I would like to see how Ishiguro actually treats these themes in writing.  I like writing that is simple in appearance, but that has great depth. I would like to see how he pulls that off in prose.

Now, I just need to find the time to read both these works, but I have already started listening to the audio book of Der Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, the Nobel Laureate for 1946.   We’ll see what happens.

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