Atonement, by Ian McEwan

Despite all the good things I’d heard about Atonement, I hadn’t read the book before going to see the movie the other night.  In fact, I’d decided not to read the book before seeing the movie, because I’d heard people who loved the book say they were disappointed with the movie.  To avoid disappointment, I decided I’d see the movie first and, if I liked it, read the book figuring it would be even better.

This proved to be an excellent choice.

Sherry and I went to see Atonement, the movie, on Tuesday night.  I loved the movie, and promptly stopped at Coles’ on the way out of the mall to buy the book. We had a snow day on Wednesday and by bedtime Wednesday night I had finished the book, so the whole thing was sort of an intensive 24-hour course in Atonement, which gave me a wonderful opportunity to compare the book and the movie.

They are both lovely, richly detailed and beautiful period pieces, but they are lovely in different ways.  The movie focuses on the love story of Cecilia and Robbie, who after growing up as childhood friends (but of different social classes) discover one summer day in 1935 that they are in love — only to have their romance, and their lives, torn apart that same night by a tragic misunderstanding.  The author of the tragic misunderstanding is Cecilia’s thirteen-year-old sister Briony, who witnesses several separate events and connects them in a way that makes sense to her at the time but results in a horrific miscarriage of justice.

The book focuses much more on Briony’s perspective than the  movie does.  This is the first thing I’ve read by Ian McEwan, so I don’t know if he always writes like this, but his omniscient narrator is relentlessly analytical, delving into every nuance of the characters’ feeling and thought.  There are times when this almost becomes overwhelming, and you want to cry out, “Show! Don’t tell!!” But the fact is that McEwan both shows and tells, and does both brilliantly.

The “tell” is stripped away in the movie, the relentless analysis replaced by the beautiful visuals, leaving us with only the highly polished surface of the story.  I think I enjoyed one portion of the book — the part dealing with Robbie’s wartime experiences — better for having seen the movie, because I always have a problem reading war stories and the fact that I had visual images to match to the war scenes helped a lot.  But there are elements of the book that are missing in the movie.  In the book, Briony’s development as a writer is more important than Robbie and Cecilia’s love story, which takes centre stage in the movie.  To a large extent, this is a novel about a novelist, a book about writing, and its resolution is a reflection on how the author creates a world and what she can and cannot do within that world.  Atonement is a beautiful novel, highly recommended, which will linger with me for a long time.



Filed under Fiction -- historical

4 responses to “Atonement, by Ian McEwan

  1. Really?! I’m so glad to hear this…I’ll do the same as you (movie then book).

  2. Karen

    I just saw the movie tonight (having read the book quite some time ago) and I am still struggling with the sadness of the storyline. It is one of those movies/books that stays with you for a long time. I actually enjoyed the book but thought the movie connected with me more (how often does that happen with a movie/book!)…

    A great story, regardless.

  3. I saw the movie two weekends in a row. The first time I saw it I knew nothing about it other than all the Oscar-buzz connected with it. I had little idea of what to expect, and so every scene was a surprise, every detail a revelation. I got home and immediately researched it and all of a sudden it started to come together. When I went the next time, I knew what to expect and began to look deeper. It haunted me for days after both viewings. Now I need to read the book. I bought it, and it’s next on my list.

    The question at the end of the movie, the dilemma the author has about whether or not to give the story a happy ending, is one I often discuss with my academy students who are sometimes frustrated with stories that don’t have happy endings. When we talk about why this mostly is, they says “real life doesn’t always have a happy ending,” which is true. So the question becomes more what we want from our literature if life can’t always give us what we want: realism–the way life is–or fantasy–the ending we’d give ourselves if we had the opportunity…

  4. I read the book first but wasn’t ultimately disappointed in the film because I knew that what McEwan had done with the book simply couldn’t be achieved in that particular medium.

    For me, the core of the book was about a writer using her writing to find redemption. This translated flawlessly in the written medium, as the structure of the narrative and the trustworthiness of the narraration itself become and element of the story. The film never stood a chance (although clearly it was quite a good film in its own right — it just couldn’t compete).


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