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.