Nobody Wants Your Pancreas, Keira Knightly

Okay, to be fair, Keira Knightly was perfectly cast. When I saw her in the trailer I was worried. I'm still annoyed she was cast as a romantic lead in Atonement. She's a gorgeous woman, but I've always felt she has the kind of face only a masochist could love. The main thing is her eyes. Black as the howling void, it's like whatever they're looking at could shrivel up and blow away and it wouldn't move her to lift an eyebrow. Watching the movie, my heart went out to the transplant recipient who winds up with those scary witch eyes.

But that's clearly why they cast her: for her unsympathetic face. If you doubt it, consider that the girl they cast as her younger self has the same quality, without being the spitting image of Ms. Knightly. And by the end of the movie, even if the character were nothing but thin-lipped hatred for everyone and everything, it would be hard to blame her. If you leave the theater thinking about the two lovers, Ruth is the sort of character you find yourself thinking about much later--like the vampire's roommate in those Let the Right Me In movies. Kathy may allow brave tears to roll down her adorable cheeks, and Tommy may yell and wave his arms around trying to punch the Cosmos, but Ruth is the embodiment of a silent scream. She gives her own motives as jealousy, but I think she hurt the people she could hurt because she couldn't hurt the people she should hurt. If only someone had given that little girl a flamethrower.

I'm only dwelling here on Ruth's character because she's the hardest to pry open and see inside. I wouldn't have liked this movie so much if Tommy and Kathy's characters hadn't been even more heart-rending.  In fact, every part is perfectly cast. It was hard to imagine how any movie could become the slow, heart-burrowing worm that was the novel, but Andrew Garfield (getting shafted for the second movie in a row), Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkings (not so happy-go-lucky now!) and above all Carey Mulligan each have at least a quarter-novel's worth of heartbreak written on their faces without having to say a word. The English seaside, with its bitter grey light and hair-ruining wind, probably works even better visually than it did in Kathy's written decriptions.

Speaking of visuals, it's strange to reflect that while the novel's brilliance lay in the way it carefully talked around the graphic horror of it's central premise, the movie achieves a powerful effect by going at least a little way in the opposite direction. Sudden images of scarred and bandaged bodies are used sparingly and with precision to smack the the audience out of wistfulness and back toward rather more appropriate horror. Poor Ruth in her final moments doesn't even merit the merciful cut-away that Tommy receives. It feels like all of us, together with the film-makers, conspired to carve her open and leave her alone on that table. Nope, nobody ever loved you Ruth, not even out here in the audience. But I'm glad they didn't literally cut out your heart; that would have been a little heavy-handed. I'm already pretty suspicious that stranded boat was some kind of symbol.

I've said in the past that I usually can't enjoy remakes or adaptations in cases where I'm familiar with the original, because I'm endlessly distracted by all the little changes I detect. But in retrospect, maybe I just started saying that so people wouldn't lynch me for not loving Lord of the Rings. After seeing Let Me In and now this movie, I've begun to suspect that maybe some adaptations are just better than others. But there was one change in this case that I found first distracting and then fascinating. There's a scene where the young Kathy is listening to music (including the song that gives the story its title), and turns--in both versions--to find someone watching her. In the book it's Madame, who is weeping at the sight for reasons Kathy doesn't understand until much, much later. In the movie it's Ruth. At first I didn't like this change. In the book, Madame's grief as she watches Kathy has huge thematic importance. It's the one opportunity in the story for the rest of mankind to shed a few tears for the Devil's bargain it has made. And why do we need Ruth watching, anyway? Do we really need to further establish her jealousy? Well, upon further reflection, maybe we do. Or rather, what might need to be established is the nature of Ruth's jealousy. Sure, she's jealous of Kathy because someone loves Kathy. But maybe the point in this scene is that she's also jealous of Kathy because Kathy loves someone. Ol' hard-luck Ruth not only never found someone to love her, but also never felt love herself. So one way of interpreting this change is that a scene which in the book is about the relationship between the characters and the external world has been replaced with a scene about the internal relationships between those characters.

And this gets at the question which for me hangs over both the book and the movie. To what extent should this story be understood as personal; to what extent is it allegorical; to what extent political? Okay, clearly there's an allegorical layer. But is it a personal allegory or a political one? The movie seems anxious to steer us toward the personal. A line has been added at the very end -- the one line I would've deleted from the script. In a bit of screenwriter sock-puppetry that should earn her a high-five from Rashida Jones' character in The Social Network, Kathy reflects that she and the other Donors aren't so very different from the rest of us. We all stumble out of the fool's paradise of childhood onto a slaughterhouse conveyor-belt that no one can stop. We all have to watch as the world slowly saps our vitality and that of our loved ones before finally destroying us.

This interpretation helps explain why the characters in the movie never pick up Kalashnikovs or need to be hunted down through leaky old buildings by an exhausted Harrison Ford. Or rather, it explains why their complacency isn't explained: the story isn't all that concerned with seriously exploring its nominal science fiction premise. If it were, I think we'd need to hear more from the rest of this fictional society. After all, if those organs are being used to save dying children then a strict Utilitarian might be forced to defend the whole system on moral grounds. But please don't ask me how many children I would sacrifice to save Carey Mulligan. You don't want to know and neither do I.

Still, institutionalized organ theft is too provocative and morally barbed an idea to fade away into the fuzzy allegorical glow. I mean, if the kids were dragged into the woods by unseen monsters when they turned 25 or suddenly became mannequins or something I'd say yeah, sure, it's basically an episode of the Twilight Zone that's really about the tragic brevity of life and I shouldn't get caught up in monster/mannequin logistics. But you can't just toss in ideas like human cloning, life extension, and organ farming without significantly shifting your thematic center of gravity. These are big, raw, current social issues. And yet, as I say, the story seems to be missing some pieces if we try to interpret it as a serious ethical thought experiment.  Is this ambiguity a defect, or is it brilliance? Or am I just clueless?

Finally, as someone who's interested in interactive storytelling, this movie brought something else to mind. Roger Ebert is infamous in the video game world for supposedly believing that video games can never be "Art," precisely because they are interactive. A movie like this might be used as an exhibit in making his case. Part of the agony of watching the three main characters suffer, waste precious years of their lives and finally die is that they seem so close but we can do nothing to help them. If only we could just get our arms through the screen to wrap Kathy H in a big bear hug. But no.

Of course, I could point out that life itself is an example of a fully interactive medium which is full of heartbreak we are powerless to prevent. So maybe I don't fully understand Ebert's point. But ask yourself how much money you would have been willing to spend, as you watched the ending of Never Let Me Go, if you could enter the screen, land your helicopter next to Carey Mulligan and shout "Hop in! We're getting the f*ck out of here!" I'm just saying there's a lot of money to be made here if we can solve a few technical issues.

"Wait a minute," says Kathy H. as we lift off, "if you could enter the story at any point, why didn't you save Tommy or Ruth?"

"Shh," I say. "Don't try to think about it. You've been through so much. Just rest your head on my shoulder..."