Wednesday, September 15, 2010


On the occasion of today's release of "Never Let Me Go," the film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel, I offer a few thoughts (mine and others') on the author's work. 

Kazuo Ishiguro has created many indelible images in his novels and stories. One that has imprinted itself on my mind is actually the image of an image. In "A Pale View of Hills," the middle-aged protagonist, Etsuko, reflects on the suicide by hanging of her daughter, Keiko, whose body was found several days after the fact by her landlady. Etusko thinks, "I have found myself continually bringing to mind that picture—of my daughter hanging in her room for days on end. The horror of that image has never diminished, but it has long since ceased to be a morbid matter; as with a wound on one’s own body, it is possible to develop an intimacy with the most disturbing of things." (Page 54.) 

I often bring to mind another of Ishiguro's images, that of Mr. Stevens, the butler in "The Remains of the Day," being so concerned with the cleanliness of the silverware in the house where he works, and yet repressing any outward feelings at the death of his father or for the maid, Miss Kenton. Being that the novel is so rich in images, it's no surprise it was adapted into a (rather good) film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. 

Today marks the release of the second of Ishiguro's six novels to be adapted for film, the 2005 book "Never Let Me Go," about life at a British boarding school for what at first seems a fairly typical group of young people, but turns out to be human clones who are harvested for their organs and die at a young age. (This information is revealed in the film's trailer, and relatively early in the movie, but is kept rather vague for much of the book.) Here, Ishiguro explains what he sees as the theme of the book. 

I haven't seen the movie yet, but the novel practically cries out to be adapted for film -- a story by one of Britain's greatest contemporary writers that features young people on the verdant grounds of a British boarding school. Irresistible!

And yet what I think of as Ishiguro's best and perhaps most visual book has never been adapted for film. "The Unconsoled" is the surreal first-person story of a world-class pianist, Mr. Ryder, who arrives in an unnamed European city to give a major concert a few days later. In his travels about the town, he encounters people who would seem to be his wife or his son or a childhood friend or the staff of a hotel he has frequented -- all treat him familiarly, and yet he cannot place his relationship to them, or clearly remember anything about them. The novel shares so much with the language of dreams, which Ishiguro explains in part two of this audio interview was the origin of the novel's form: He imagined that "the dreaming mind [was] a fellow novelist," and wondered what sort of writing "strategies” would flow from that perspective. This became "an alternative way" of telling the "emotional history" of someone's life. Emotionally true scenes are played out in ways that are implausible outside the logic of dreams: a man who dismisses a lost limb as a triviality; two journalists who speak derisively of Ryder while photographing him, as if he's not there; mourners at a cemetery who casually abandon the proceedings when Ryder happens upon them; a high brick wall that runs through town, and which Ryder hadn't noticed before; a concert hall with unexplained holes in the floor. It's not that the book is a dream, but uses dream logic to plumb something deeper. Ishiguro himself says it's a project he has "not gotten to the bottom of," and, seeing as people at many readings he gives ask about "The Unconsoled," it would appear that his readers have not yet gotten to the bottom of it either.

Could that be why this visually rich and highly-praised book has not been adapted for film -- how difficult it is to fathom? Its dreamlike nature, and nontraditional plot? You could use the same words to describe Franz Kafka's "The Trial" or "The Castle." But both of those books have been adapted for film and television more than once, and more or less successfully; "The Trial" as directed by Orson Welles and starring Anthony Perkins, and "The Castle" as directed by Michael Haneke.  Here are the trailers for both those films (the second trailer I could only find with Spanish subtitles). 

Granted, neither Ishiguro nor "The Unconsoled" have the literary status that Kafka or his books now enjoy. (He certainly didn't enjoy much of that fame during his lifetime.) And yet, maybe the difficulty with adapting "The Unconsoled" was intentional. Ishiguro says in this interview with Charlie Rose, “Every time I write a book, in a sense I’m trying to write an unfilmable book. This might sound perverse, particularly from a professional point of view. But as a novelist, I feel that if I’m offering that experience that can be more or less replicated in a cinema or in front of a television screen, then it’s not really worthwhile. Because it’s so much easier to go to a cinema. It’s so much better fun….  I’m not just trying to make [a book] not adaptable. I’m trying to find a territory that only a novel can offer. You know, I want to say, if you want this kind of experience, you can only get it in fiction. It’s not like a film on paper. And for this reason I suppose I’m trying create worlds that are very interior." And yet, he admits, along comes someone like James Ivory, who makes a movie version of "The Remains of the Day" -- its own work of art, related to but not replicating the novel. As for "The Unconsoled," maybe it's just a matter of time before someone commits that to celluloid. And some of the many arresting, unforgettable images it generates in the mind will be imagined for the screen.

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