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Garland, Ishiguro avoid pitfalls on Never Let Me Go

Alex Garland and Kazuo Ishiguro at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sept. 11, 2010.

Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail/jennifer roberts The Globe and Mail

Two writers, one movie and a continuing friendship. Yet in their look and manner, they couldn't be more different. Just turned 40, one has the jeans, the runners, the rough London accent and the twitchy alertness of a refugee from a Guy Ritchie flick. In his mid-50s, the other is tailored from tip to toe in elegant black, wears prim wire-rimmed glasses, and speaks in the plummy tones of a Mayfair barrister. One wrote the screenplay based on the other's novel, and still their friendship survived. Meet Alex Garland and Kazuo Ishiguro.

The book is Never Let Me Go, where Ishiguro does something unique: It's a work of science fiction that forgoes the future for the recent past, swapping an England we clearly remember for an invented dystopian alternative. As in many of his novels (most famously The Remains of the Day), the first-person narrator is semi-reliable at best, in this case a soft-spoken young woman whose voice is the fabric of the entire book, not only essential to its delicate tone but also to the subtle plot revelations. In short, this is a hell of a book to adapt. How do you get that crucial voice off the page and onto the screen?

Ishiguro sympathizes with the difficulty, but is quick to add: "My philosophy is that the author of the book should keep out as much as possible. Alex and I have been friends for a long time, but I see my job mainly as supporting him, giving him permission to do his own thing. But I know the biggest challenge in adapting this book is the tone. Unless you handle it really carefully, the material can slide off into horror-genre stuff."

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Garland, in a separate interview, echoes this conclusion: "Yes, I had to completely remove the elliptical tone, which worked so perfectly on the page. And I knew right off I had to use some voiceover, with the woman's character, but I didn't know what it had to say. That voice was very hard to get right."

So voiceover narration was the answer. The picture is framed in it, both the key opening and closing scenes. Alas, in many films, voiceover is a solution that creates other problems, a danger Garland fully recognizes: "Well, it can work beautifully. Think of Clockwork Orange, Trainspotting, Goodfellas. There, the voiceover is integral and organic and, without it, the film would be properly diminished. But, of course, voiceover is also used as a cheap, after-the-fact fix in the editing room."

Ishiguro both agrees and doesn't: "I love voiceover when it's done well, but it's gotten a bad name because it's used badly so often. Really, though, film tends to be third-person anyway, even if you use voiceover. It's very hard to get an equivalent to a first-person narrator."

Don't be fooled. All this may sound like just a technical debate, but it touches upon a highly emotional one - the whole, fraught relationship between the novelist and the movie born from his work. Garland, his wounds clearly still fresh, gets near-apoplectic on the subject: "I've had two of my novels adapted into films that I wasn't connected with. One of them, The Beach, was both pleasurable and frustrating to watch. The other, The Tesseract, wasn't just frustrating but laughable. That book particularly meant something to me and I found what they did to it embarrassing. I realized I was being too cavalier with my stuff. Just because some guy offers you money doesn't mean you should take it. So I thought, 'I'm not going to do that again.' Then again, you find yourself doing it in other ways. It's hard, it's the real world, you know."

In this context, at least, the world has been kinder to Ishiguro. His Booker-winning The Remains of the Day got the Merchant/Ivory treatment and, despite having "no part in the process," he was pleased with the result. Indeed, absenting himself from these adaptations is an act of faith with him. Ishiguro also writes screenplays ( The White Countess) but never from his own work: "I wouldn't ever want to adapt one of my books because, one, it's healthy to have a completely fresh eye, and two, for me, it would be like going back to school, sitting exams again. This is stuff that I've finished with. It was a huge struggle at the time. You move on. I can't imagine what it would be like, having to unravel it again, this time with everything up for negotiation. I know that some novelists do it, but a lot find it very painful."

Garland feels exactly the same way, but with a proviso: "No, I don't want to adapt my own novel, but I don't want anyone else to do it either. I've learned that the money doesn't compensate for the frustration, so forget it."

Maybe that's why he hasn't written a novel in over five years. Instead, he's turned to screenplays, twice with director Danny Boyle in 28 Days Later and Sunshine. Garland is a big fan of Boyle: "The traditional relationship between the writer and the film is bullshit. I'm not writing a screenplay and then just handing it over like a baton. But Danny, perhaps because of his background in theatre, was never threatened by writers. In fact, I never got a sense that film directors were threatened by writers until I started working with other film directors."

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He mentions no names, but his eyes flash, those cheek muscles twitch, and the battle is joined: "The whole thing is all about combat. Writing novels, you're fighting with yourself. Writing films, you're fighting with other people. Broadly speaking, I'd rather fight with other people."

No need to ask Ishiguro which battle he prefers - his "huge struggles" are purely interior, on the page. But, here in a Toronto hotel, no less than in their London neighbourhood, these opposites definitely attract. And when their paths briefly cross, in the hallway at the humming centre of the publicity mill, they pause just long enough to exchange a knowing smile. Two writers, one movie and a continuing friendship.

Never Let Me Go opened in theatres on Friday.

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