16 January 2008

Does Atonement the Movie Betray the Book?

Filed under: Fiction, Movies — ktismatics @ 8:43 am

I previously wrote a short post about Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Yesterday I saw the film version, which for the most part renders the book faithfully. The cinematic version diverged significantly on three points from (my memory of) the book, each of which I regard as a significant distortion of the original.

Firstly and most trivially, the “bad guy” is American in the book but English in the movie. It’s not enormously important to the story, but when McEwan made this conscienceless opportunist and war profiteer an American he was, I thought, adding to the political subtext. Robbie, the tragic hero, is lower class and hence expendable, both in the romantic intrigues of the upper class and in war — this is explicit in both the book and the film. But the opportunity to convey McEwan’s commentary on possibly dishonorable American motives in WWII is lost.

Secondly, when I read the book I thought the first half, which takes place entirely in the protected world of the aristocratic English countryside, was rendered more completely, compellingly and realistically than were the parts set in wartime France and London. In the book these latter scenes felt more wooden, 2-dimensional, contrived. In the movie, by contrast, these wartime scenes were presented surrealistically and spectacularly, even to the point of overwhelming the first half in terms of sensory and emotional intrusion on the viewer. This surreal spectacle might have made more sense if we were meant to be perceiving these events from beyond the grave as it were, from the perspective of those spectral characters who dominated this part of the story. But we come to find out that, whereas the teller of the tale actually participated in the English countryside part of the story, she was fabricating the wartime narrative as a romantic wish fulfillment of her own. In that sense the second half really was less real to the storyteller. It manifests certain unconscious longings to be sure, but the sense of walking ghostlike through a nightmare wouldn’t have been her perspective as the contriver of a happily-ever-after scenario.

Thirdly, the end of the movie betrays, I believe, the end of the book. The book is called Atonement for a reason: it’s about the storyteller’s lifelong attempt to atone for a wrong she committed as a young girl. In the book the atonement is deferred until it’s too late, not just in the failure to make things right for those who were hurt by the original betrayal but also in the failure to bring justice and punishment to those who benefited from it. One is left with the sense of the girl having always managed to evade the consequences of her moral failing, her bad conscience never keeping her from enjoying success and acclaim, never provoking her to exercise the extreme bad taste of ruining rich and powerful people’s reputations. In the movie, by contrast, the atonement succeeds in the end. Through her power as a storyteller the girl, now an old woman, enwraps the tragic victims of her wrongdoing in a painful yet ultimately satisfying reconciliation. Sure it’s fictional, but it’s what she can do, it’s her responsibility to make things right for them as her last creative act. She bestows upon herself a heroic sacrificial mien in the film, whereas in the book she rejects this self-delusion.

I regard each of these three deviations from the book as unfortunate. It would have been good to see an American bad guy. We moviegoers have become accustomed to seeing war scenes as surrealistic spectacles, to the point where we’d probably be disappointed if we were to arrive at a real war scene and not see an anomalous merry-go-round spinning around on a sepia-toned, overexposed beach. To see a more obviously staged war scene would have disrupted our cinematic expectations far more than the admittedly wonderfully realized scenes shown to us in this movie. We want our atonements to succeed, and it’s disturbing when we fail, which we so often do even when we persuade ourselves of our own moral rectitude. Each of these three cinematic deviations from the book is, I think, a conciliatory gesture to the movie-going marketplace, to American sensibilities, to those Hollywood insiders who vote on the Oscars. It’s an act of bad faith, even a moral failing, perpetrated presumably for art’s sake but more likely for the sake of money and acclaim.



  1. You’re wrong on the first point. He’s just as British in the book.
    The second is a matter of opinion…
    But in the third I don’t see what the difference is. In both film and book Briony doesn’t achieve anything real. Just a fictional account in which her crime doesn’t prevent the couple from ending up together. I don’t understand what it is you think she gets in the film that isn’t also in the book.


    Comment by Anonymous Coward — 16 January 2008 @ 8:56 am

  2. Really? Paul Marshall the chocolate magnate and pedophile is British in the book? It’s been a while since I read it, but I wonder why I remember him so distinctly as American. Is it because I think he should have been American? I’ll have to go to the library and look it up.

    Regarding the end of the movie, didn’t it leave you with the feeling that Briony felt good about what she had finally done, that at last she had set things right? Of course she still felt remorse, and what’s done is done, but in her own way she had done what she could through the power of fiction. In the book it’s clear that Paul and I think Lola too are dead, so they can’t be hurt by the revelation — that’s why she delayed publishing it. I believe she gets self-justification in the movie in a way that’s denied her in the book.


    Comment by ktismatics — 16 January 2008 @ 9:30 am

  3. Thanks for the tip, Ktismatics, I’ll check it out.
    You say the lyrics are based on the book of Revelations but, how close are they to the Bible? I’ll go check that too.
    The song is supposed to be traditional, isn’t it?

    There seems to be plenty of connections these days…

    By the way, I think Prop O’Ghandi is a brilliant title, I’ll keep on reading.


    Comment by Mujoland — 18 January 2008 @ 3:43 am

  4. We just had a discussion of Inland Empire on the Eastern Promises post: Jonquille doesn’t like the movie at all, whereas Parodycenter loves it (and talks about it constantly). In my last comment I printed the text of the Bible passage; here is a link to the Sinnerman song lyrics. You’ll see that the song reflects the subjective response of one person living through the Apocalypse, when the mountains won’t hide the sinners from the wrath of the Lamb. Yes, Sinnerman is an old American Negro spiritual. The lip-synched version in IE is by Nina Simone, recorded probably in the 60s. If you get a chance to see Tarkovsky’s Stalkers you will observe the strong influence he must have had on Lynch. Parodycenter is perfectly happy to acknowledge this influence because, as a Serbian, he grew up under Russian artistic influence and he too is a member of the “superior” Slavonic and Byzantine culture of the East. Now, living in the Netherlands and under sway of Hollywood pop culture, he endures perpetual psychological and spiritual torment.

    I’m glad you like Prop O’Gandhi as a title. You’ve arrived back at Ktismatics just as I’m trying to stop blogging and start writing fiction again.


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 January 2008 @ 6:31 am

  5. Even worse is Wright’s admittance — and this could just be a rumor — that the Dunkirk sequence was “just for [him] to have fun.” That the film’s emotions are best penetrated retrospectively neglects how experiential it wants to be.

    But I probably should read the book!


    Comment by Seyfried — 28 January 2008 @ 6:36 pm

  6. “That the film’s emotions are best penetrated retrospectively neglects how experiential it wants to be.”

    Hmm… I’m not sure I follow, Seyfried, but here’s what that says to me. The ending of the film makes you want to go back to the parts you’ve already seen, equipped with new knowledge that had been withheld at the time. But e.g. the Dunkirk scene is so engaging that it’s hard to achieve enough distance from it, hard to enter it as the dream within a dream it turns out to have been. Something like that?


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 January 2008 @ 9:57 pm

  7. Basically. The Dunkirk long-take seems satisfied with only superficial resonance; we’re moved by the inherent pathos of shooting a scene in that way, but ultimately it’s because of this that we’re directed towards the film’s emotional gape: we just don’t care about Robbie and Cecilia. Retroactively, Wright ‘fixes’ this (I think), but the film’s inability to instill such a reaction during ultimately weakens it. It’s probably because of how capricious the POV is in the earlier parts of the film (IMHO, I think Zodiac suffered the same problem, but that’s another story.)- almost as if they weren’t sure who’s sympathies were more important to get across, ours or Briony’s. I’m not sure how the book balances this dilemma, specifically how it avoids vacuous romanticizing of the love affair or shallow empathy for Briony. You wrote:

    ‘Sure it’s fictional, but it’s what she can do, it’s her responsibility to make things right for them as her last creative act. She bestows upon herself a heroic sacrificial mien in the film, whereas in the book she rejects this self-delusion.’

    And I’m trying to concoct just how that would affect (or clear up?) the ‘problem.’


    Comment by Seyfried — 29 January 2008 @ 12:10 am

  8. McEwan does spring the trick ending on the reader, which by now is getting kind of old for me. But from the beginning of the book Briony is the narrator’s focus of attention — which, as it turns out, makes perfect sense since Briony is the narrator, distanced from herself in 3rd-person perspective with privileged access to the main character’s (i.e., her own) inner world. In the early part of the book the narrator focuses more attention on Briony’s theatrical play and the staging of it than on the real people and events of the household. Everyone other than Briony occupies a shadowy presence; everyone is important only in relation to Briony and her fantasies. By the time the story moves to Dunkirk the shadowiness of the world and its people becomes even more apparent, since Briony is no longer present to bestow meaning and substance on everything. The scenes in England come into clearer focus because Briony is present, either materially or fictionally. As this second half of the book plays out the reader is aware that some sort of “atonement” is being worked out, but the atonement itself gradually becomes weaker and less efficacious, while Briony becomes a gradually less sympathetic character. You get a glimpse of this in the movie, where Briony does not stand up to object to the wedding based on what she now knows or admits to herself about the couple’s past. Ultimately atonement becomes not a way of making things right for others, but a way of soothing one’s own conscience, a self-centered gesture. So you see as you follow the story how Briony gradually defers her atoning act until she cannot possibly be harmed by the consequences, and by then it’s too late. So, in sum, the book is always about Briony, and everyone and everything else always occupies a dreamlike insubstantiality that’s signaled right from the beginning with the obsessive attention to Briony’s play. It works better than the movie, I think.

    You’re right about Zodiac. Everyone is held at arm’s length: no sense of sympathy or sorrow, anger or justice, or even of identification. The closest you get to someone real is the Morton Downy Jr. character, but then he’s dropped by the wayside. But the Gyllenhall character too seems remote: we watch him watching, puzzling, prevaricating, poking into artifacts long buried in the archives. I was struck by the idea that this crime, so sensational in real life when it was happening, is re-enacted a couple times a week on crime TV shows. And the resolution of the Zodiac investigation seemed to ignore loose ends — I’m not persuaded they fingered the right suspect.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 January 2008 @ 7:27 am

  9. In defense of Zodiac, it’s possible that the POV oscillation problems in Zodiac might be a deliberate emphasis, as if the city has swelled its residents amidst its own internalized fascination with the events, spectacles. But somehow I doubt such a reading is really satisfactory (like Wright, Fincher appears to do something that his story apparently has no place for). It also doesn’t help how unconvincing (once again) Jake Gyllenhaal is at playing a mature role or aging, for that matter.. But he’s had a rough week; I’ll stay off him.

    ‘So, in sum, the book is always about Briony, and everyone and everything else always occupies a dreamlike insubstantiality that’s signaled right from the beginning with the obsessive attention to Briony’s play. It works better than the movie, I think.’

    It sounds like it. Nevertheless, I still liked the film. Perhaps being confined to cinema a story like Atonement will inevitably be flawed by overactivity: people assume immediate roles as audience surrogates; themes are suggested rather than built, etc. But I think the film (and its success) asserts itself as a curious prism for the taste and benign behaviors of American moviegoers. Rapturously dancing on a beach, we’re able to immediately overlook a lot of things; so used to cinema’s tropes and preprogrammed to react this way or that way to an almost-simulacrum, we’re retroactively adding substance – like an unconscious form of course-correcting for emotional benefits.

    A recent poll on the Atonement board on IMDB showed an overwhelming majority feeling irreversible anger and condemnation to towards Briony. Hm.


    Comment by Seyfried — 29 January 2008 @ 10:45 am

  10. I liked Atonement the film too, even though I harbor reservations and thought the book was better. That’s perhaps an advantage the Coen brothers had with No Country: the book is very lean, directly translatable to visuals and dialogue and plot without losing much psychological or literary texture. And I’m relieved to hear that the moviegoers hate Briony.

    “preprogrammed to react this way or that way to an almost-simulacrum, we’re retroactively adding substance – like an unconscious form of course-correcting for emotional benefits.”

    That works to the filmmaker’s advantage in trick movies like Memento and Sixth Sense, but not as well with Atonement. Although maybe, because I already knew the trick, it works better than I’m giving it credit for. Anyhow, I still think the Dunkirk scene overwhelmed the story and its narrative integrity for the sake of the American moviegoing tastes, as you say.

    I liked Jake in Donnie Darko, where he got to play a kid. He did look and act kid-like all through the years covered in Zodiac.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 January 2008 @ 11:22 am

  11. One more response before class…

    ” And I’m relieved to hear that the moviegoers hate Briony.”

    I’m neither relieved nor angered. Was this a book response, or did you find her utterly detestable in the film?


    Comment by Seyfried — 29 January 2008 @ 11:26 am

  12. The book; I thought the movie made her look too good, which probably made me hate her more than I had before. The children in the other McEwan books I’ve read are conflicted and lack self-awareness but they’re also at least somewhat evil.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 January 2008 @ 11:48 am

  13. ‘I thought the movie made her look too good’

    Well, it’s paradoxic. The film does make her look good. But at the same time (and as we’ve discussed) it makes the central romance look particularly underwhelming. That the final, everlasting shot is the couple dancing, trotting out amongst the beat-you-over-the-head metaphorical beach makes the public’s enthusiastic support of Robbie/Cecilia a little bit more understandable.


    Comment by Seyfried — 29 January 2008 @ 3:30 pm

  14. Kind of like Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet waltzing in the ballroom at the bottom of the sea, with all the ghosts applauding their endless and unsinkable love?


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 January 2008 @ 9:24 am

  15. Basically. ;) Hence why I’m pulling for No Country. (If the Oscars happen…)


    Comment by Seyfried — 30 January 2008 @ 11:52 am

  16. Atonement looked and felt a lot like Pride and Prejudice, impeccable setting, acting and dialogue. A bit depressing toward the end, i was glad to hear that the ending of the book was better.

    side note: is Briony’s vocabulary realistic for a British 13 year old?


    Comment by patrick — 25 March 2008 @ 10:43 am

  17. I agree, Patrick — the movie was coated in that romantic patina of P&P, which I just saw recently, though it’s not so respectfully mawkish as the typical Merchant & Ivory treatment. We’ll assume Briony is precocious, inasmuch as she grows up to become a storied novelist. Besides, she’s English, and every American understands that any English schoolgirl has greater mastery of the mother tongue than does any American adult. I see you’ve discussed the movie on your blog in Christian terms, so I’ll stop by later and read in greater detail.


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 March 2008 @ 6:25 pm


    atonement SUCKED! that was possibly the longest 2 hours of my life. dont get me wrong, keria was beautiful and but we didnt even get to see her much!and there was no hot guy! whats up with that?
    ive been waiting and waiting to see it and this ugly girl (briony) is the topic of the movie. its no love story! its about this stupid girl!
    and in light of this god awful movie, my mother and i have created a few rhymes…(keep in mind, briomy is prounuced bry-ne)

    briony is grimy
    briony looks like a hieney
    a goat hieney
    and in the end, briony is whiney

    oh and heres a nice conversation
    me:what is up with this girl
    mom: why do we keep seeing her?
    me: what is her problem
    mom: she looks like she could be in a hor-
    me: she does look like a horse!
    mom: no i was gonna say she could be in a horror movie but she does look like a horse
    me:a very ugly horse

    if i must say once compasionate thing,
    briony: im sorry you had to read a really bad four letter word and im sorry you had to see 2 different couples having sex all on the same day when you had never been told of the birds and the bees. im sorry you were so scared but seriously, get over it!


    Comment by Emily Christenson — 29 March 2008 @ 7:34 pm

  19. Of course there was no hot guy, Emily — all of them are English. In the book Briony also has a crush on her brother, but I don’t remember what he looks like in the movie since he’s a very minor character. I personally thought Briony was kind of cute in a sensitively narcissistic sort of way — though I suppose “whiny” is another way of saying the same thing.


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 March 2008 @ 6:03 am

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