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.