WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Never Let Me Go and Season 1 of The Promised Neverland.
An orphanage in a beautiful country estate. The children there are raised happily, but in truth, nothing waits for them in the outside world, besides certain death. Soon, their very bodies will be turned into fuel for the powers that govern this world. If you found out that this was your fate, what would you do? Would you fight against it -- or make most of the time you had left?
This is the main difference between popular manga and anime, The Promised Neverland, written by Kaiu Shirai and illustrated by Posuka Demizu, and the award-winning novel, Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Both feature idyllic orphanages that hide terrible truths: one exists to create food for demons, while the other exists to provide harvested clone organs for wealthy patrons.
The settings and stakes are very similar but the attitudes and capabilities of the characters within their worlds are very different. A big part of this is tone, as The Promised Neverland is more of an adventure story while Never Let Me Go is much more of a meditation on mortality and fate. Still, the similarities are worth noting, and the differences are worth going over.
Never Let Me Go vs. The Promised Neverland's Characters
If we take a quick look at the central characters in The Promised Neverland and Never Let Me Go, we can see the divergent approach of both source materials.
Never Let Me Go features three main characters -- the point of view character Kathy, and her friends Tommy and Ruth. The first and most important fact about these three is that they are perfectly average people. None of them are exceptionally intelligent or special in any way, and certainly don't approach the brilliance of the children of The Promised Neverland. This is to say they are realistic depictions of teenagers/young adults. Kathy can be overly critical, Tommy has a terrible temper and Ruth is obsessed with her peers' acceptance. They are much more caught up in the minutiae of their social lives than they are in any larger problems.
Meanwhile, The Promised Neverland's main characters -- Emma, Ray and Norman -- are all incredibly intelligent individuals. Upon realizing their situation, Emma and Norman are quickly forced to play games of mental cat and mouse with their "Mom" in order to not be immediately killed. This involves careful planning, double-crossing, intuition, and all against someone with a lot more life experience and a lot more power. In addition, as Ray found out about the children's dire situation at a very young age, he has been playing double agent for years. This involves not just the intellectual ability of his friends, but also immensely powerful, emotional self-control.
Never Let Me Go has central characters who are very ordinary; The Promised Neverland has central characters who are extraordinary. But there is another main difference between the works, one that speaks very powerfully to their respective themes.
Indoctrination & Fatalism in Never Let Me Go & The Promised Neverland
In The Promised Neverland, once the characters learn their fate -- that they are going to be eaten by demons -- they do everything in their power not just to escape, but find a way out for every child in the orphanage, no matter how young and tactically "useless" they are. Some of the characters are more pragmatic -- Ray is the most obvious, as he was willing to watch members of his adopted family go to their deaths, knowing that if he tried to save even one of them without ample information they would all die. Emma serves as the moral compass, refusing to compromise even one of her family to save the rest. Still, by the end of Season 1, the plan works, and they manage to get away.
In Never Let Me Go the characters are doomed to a similar fate. They are clones of wealthy patrons and will have their organs gradually harvested. The organs will go into the original patrons leaving the clones to gradually sicken and die. So, what do Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth do when they find out about this fate? Do they try and escape? Are they pragmatic like Ray, or optimistic like Emma?
... Well, neither. The twist of Never Let Me Go is that the children are raised knowing their fate, and are indoctrinated to the point that they don't even think of resisting. Throughout the story, Kathy serves as the narrator looking back at her younger days, and at no time is there any real talk of escape, or of resistance. Indeed, the only attempt to escape their fate lies in a rumor that if the clones can prove they have truly fallen in love, then they will be shown mercy. As time goes on, they are forced to confront the fact that this is only a rumor, in a particularly heartbreaking sequence that we won't spoil here.
Kathy, Tommy and Ruth spend most of their short lives ignoring the terrible fate that waits for them. They find it easier to focus on their own personal lives and their careers rather than face the horror of their imminent deaths. It's hard to stress how fatalistic they are, but it's interesting to note that they never really blame society or the people who paid to have them created in the first place and will soon be harvesting their bodies. It's been drilled into their heads from day one that this is simply the way things are. There is no room in their minds for alternate options.
In the end, no one would doubt that Emma, Norman and Ray's situation is very grim indeed. Still, there is some hope in their world -- they have their love for each other, their intellect, and their knowledge of their enemies' demonic nature. Never Let Me Go shows us a world without hope, in which ordinary people are put under the knife not by demons, but by other human beings. There can be no escape when your mind can't even conceive of it in the first place, and true love won't get you anywhere. All you can do is accept your fate -- and make the most of what little time you have.