Kazuo Ishiguro: The Nobel-Prize-Winning Author’s Film Adaptations

While the literary chops of, say, a Robert James Waller (“I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea.” — The Bridges of Madison County) or E. L. James (“Vaguely, I’m aware that I’m still in my sweats, unshowered, yucky, and he’s just gloriously yummy, his pants doing that hanging from the hips thing…Finally, my medulla oblongata recalls its purpose. I breathe…” — Fifty Shades of Grey) are much more formidable, the CFS™ grudgingly accepts the news that Nagasaki-born, British-raised writer Kazuo Ishiguro has been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature.

While I’d love nothing more than to book-club the Ishiguro canon with you (literary snob alert: I’ve read three, chomp in it!), this is a movie blog. Thus, we need to stay focused on all things celluloid. Luckily, Hollywood came knocking twice on Ishiguro’s door, first in 1993 with an adaptation of his novel The Remains of the Day and, 17 years later, with a take on his book Never Let Me Go. Let’s examine both to a) see how the films stack up against the novels on which they were based and b) see how they work on a strictly cinematic level.

The Remains of the Day

The Novel (released May 1989) — Fully engaged in the cloistered, beer-soaked world that was college at the time of the novel’s release, the CFS could’ve been smacked upside the head with the hardcover edition and been none the wiser to its existence (or that of its author). What finally brought me ’round to The Remains of the Day (three years later) was a mention that a movie adaptation by the formidable filmmaking triumvirate of James Ivory/Ismail Merchant/Ruth Prawar Jhabvala was in the works. Intrigued, I hustled to my local Crown Books to grab a paperback. Why the urgency? Because the CFS can’t stand when publishing houses swap the original cover art (below, left) for dopey airbrushed movie tie-in photography (below, right) to drum up additional sales.

As you’d expect from a Man Booker Prize-winner, Ishiguro delivered the goods, his understated prose telling the story of Mr. Stevens, a man so dedicated to the art of service (he’s a butler, the majority of his career for Lord Darlington) he [spoiler alert!] fails to recognize his employer’s rather significant failings (Darlington, like other aristocrats at the time, naively dabbles in diplomacy in the years leading up to WW2 with disastrous results) or act upon the attraction he has for Ms. Kenton, the estate’s housekeeper.

The book is presented as a series of first-person recollections by Stevens as he ponders his life and craft while on a “motoring holiday” to visit Ms. Kenton, who is long gone and, it seems, unhappily married. While the trip is framed by Stevens as an opportunity to recruit his old co-worker to help run the manor for its new owner, a wealthy American, it quickly becomes apparent that he’s nursing hope that she still harbors romantic feelings for him.

When their meeting, while pleasant, doesn’t have the desired result, we find the heretofore emotionless Stevens brought to tears as he walks alone in the early evening on a pier in Weymouth, pondering the efficacy of what amounts to subjugation to his craft, an unshakable loyalty to Darlington and, in terms of Ms. Kenton, the lost opportunity for love. Ever the repressed, stiff-upper-lipped Brit, Stevens quickly recovers, refocusing his energies on the “remains of the day” — his plans for running Darlington Hall for his new employer and, more subtly, what’s left of his sad-sack life.

The Film (released November 5, 1993) — Although well-regarded as filmmakers since the 1960s, the prolific filmmaking trio of James Ivory (director), Ismail Merchant (producer) and Ruth Prawar Jhabvala (screenwriter) didn’t become household names (at least with the great movie unwashed) until the early 1980s, when they went on an extraordinary run: Heat and Dust in 1983,  A Room with a View in 1985, Maurice in 1987, Howards End in 1992, and, finally, The Remains of the Day in 1993.

With unimpeachable literary adaptation and period-piece bona fides, they were the perfect team to bring Ishiguro’s novel to the big screen, which they did in spades. From the magnificence of Darlington Hall…

…to the strangeness of the upstairs/downstairs interplay to the pervading sense of repression and regret, the book was translated from page to screen with perfection. Beyond a few minor additions/subtractions, the movie doesn’t stray too far from the source material. Oftentimes in film, this can be detrimental — see the (slavishly faithful) first two Harry Potter movies for proof. Luckily, it works just fine here. Interestingly, it could be argued that, because Stevens isn’t given his moment of tearful regret at the end (as in the book), the film presents an even more repressed and bleak version of events, a surprise considering Hollywood’s love of happy ending catharsis.

Of course, without the right cast, all the fine direction, writing, cinematography and art direction can only take you so far. Luckily, the filmmakers (and casting director) made all the right moves. After all, who better to play a supremely proficient yet emotionally distant butler than the supremely proficient yet emotionally distant actor Sir Anthony Hopkins? The guy was born to play this role. Ms. Kenton, on the other hand, didn’t leap from the page quite so obviously in terms of a recognizable face. That said, Emma Thompson proved to be a perfect choice, her warmth and good humor a nice counterpoint to Hopkins proficient coldness.

(Quick movie-nerd aside: Thompson has said in interviews that she felt a little guilty receiving such a large paycheck for so little screen time as Ms. Kenton. (The film was definitely a Hopkins’ showcase.) However, she notes that she made peace with the discrepancy by treating the windfall as something of a make-good for her much larger role in the previous year’s Howard’s End, a role she was paid a pittance to play. (Of course, she did win the Oscar for Best Actress, so that must’ve helped soften the blow, too.)

Other fine casting choices include James Fox (looking dashing in three-piece tweeds) as Lord Darlington…

…Peter Vaughan as Stevens’ equally serious (and runny-nosed) father, Christopher Reeve (not long before his terrible accident) as an American diplomat who ends up purchasing Darlington Hall, and a very young Hugh Grant (he of as many eyelid flutters per minute as flaps of a hummingbird’s wings) as Darlington’s godson.

All and all a fine adaptation, one of my favorites, actually. Literate, brilliantly acted and filmed, The Remains of the Day succeeds in bringing to (fictional) life the mental images conjured in the minds of those who have read the book. Is the book better? Of course it is. Let’s face it, prose can get inside people’s heads, which allows for an interior complexity that movies simply can’t hope to match. But as adaptations go, this one’s terrific. Here’s the trailer:

Bonus clip! Check out how Reeve delivers this line about “ama-tours.” Has anyone pronounced the word more stylishly? RIP!

Never Let Me Go

The Novel (released April 2005) — The book opens in “England, late 1990’s” with Cathy H., our 31-year-old narrator, noting that she’s worked for more than 11 years as a “carer,” assisting those who are “donors.” We, the readers, assume she works at a hospital, possibly assisting with transplants. Nothing sinister about that, we think, despite Kathy’s strange throwaway reference to those who are on their “fourth” donation.

Anyway, Kathy proceeds to reminisce about her years spent at an exclusive boarding school in the bucolic English countryside know as “Hailsham.” More specifically, she remembers her daily travails, triumphs and adventures with Ruth and Tommy, her closest friends. However, like the beginning of the novel, Kathy continues to drop strange references to things that don’t quite mesh with our understanding of school, boarding or otherwise. For example, the students are compelled to undergo weekly medical exams. They’re also encouraged to create drawings and paintings, the best of which are collected by a mysterious woman known as “Madame.” Sex between students of age isn’t discouraged; if anything it’s the opposite. What’s more, the students seem strangely possessive of certain personal artifacts, trinkets really.

And then, on p. 79, the bombshell [spoiler alert!]: a teacher (or “guardian” as they’re called) named Miss Lucy, troubled by the ruse, breaks protocol and explains to a class that includes our three protagonists that they’re all clones. Even worse, their purpose in life is nothing more than staying healthy until their organs can be harvested by their originals. Ishiguro has pulled a fast one; what looked like a coming-of-age drama has suddenly veered into the realm of science fiction. Apparently, we’re in an alternate reality England in which medical science allows people to live well past 100 years, thus the need for fresh organs. Circling back to the beginning, Kathy’s job as a “carer” is to lend emotional support to her peers as they begin donating organs, something they will continue to do until they die (or “complete,” using the book’s parlance). Creepy. Even creepier? The kids don’t bat an eye at Miss Lucy’s revelation. They seem OK being fated for a short life.

The novel continues to track the trio as, young adults now, they hear a rumor that if two clones can prove they’re in love, they might get a deferment from donating. Which eventually leads to a meeting between Kathy, Tommy, the mysterious “Madame” and the ex-headmistress of Hailsham, Miss Emily. Secrets are reveals, misunderstandings straightened out, all to no one’s satisfaction.

So what is this novel? A coming of age story? Horror? Science fiction? Actually, in the deft hands of our 2017 Nobel winner, it’s all three and more. How Ishiguro can make such a strange and unexpected premise so heartbreaking is a testament to his formidable imagination and talent with prose.

The Film (released September 15, 2010) — While maybe not quite as creatively successful as the Merchant-Ivory’s film, Never Let Me Go isn’t lacking for a first-class adaptation, this from screenwriter Alex Garland and director Mark Romanek. Make no mistake, it’s a fine picture, gorgeously filmed and featuring many nuanced performance by such actors as Keira Knightley (Ruth), Andrew Garfield (Tommy), the formidable Charlotte Rampling (Miss Emily) and, most especially, Carey Mulligan as Kathy.

There are quibbles, of course. The pacing is sedate, even for someone as patient as the CFS. Furthermore, in moving from prose to film, the filmmakers have chopped much of the threesomes’ time together as children at Hailsham, focusing instead on the young adults (not too surprising considering the marquee value of Knightley, Garfield and Mulligan).

What’s more, much of the threesome’s complicated relationship over the years is simplified into a more film-friendly love triangle. And then, of course, we run into the aforementioned Achilles heel of book-to-film adaptations (more detrimental here than in The Remains of the Day): the nuance lost when we can’t examine the interior life of our first-person narrator, Kathy.

All in all, though, a lovely movie, one both hushed and mournful, befitting its uncomfortable subject matter.

Kazuo Ishiguro is a lucky guy. Most book adaptations are seriously flawed (just ask Tom Wolfe what he — we all — thought about The Bonfire of the Vanities). So one figures that most authors would thank their lucky stars to have just one of their books successfully adapted. Ishiguro has two. And a Nobel Prize to boot. Not too shabby.

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