Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Atonement - Ian McEwan

One of the movies in theaters right now that I am anxious to see is Anna Karenina.  Keira Knightly stars in the novel adaptation directed by Joe Wright.  This pairing of Knightly in front of the camera and Wright behind has already produced together two of what I believe to be the best films of the twenty-first century thus far.  The pair teamed up first on Pride and Prejudice and then Atonement.  The former is well known, particularly to anyone who has participated in a girls' night since its release in 2005.  The latter, though critically acclaimed, seems to have garnered less common knowledge notoriety since its 2007 debut, at least among my peers.  While nearly everyone has heard of Pride and Prejudice, when I mention Atonement, most people have no memory of it.  Despite my adoration for the film rendition of Ian McEwan's story, I must admit I had not read the book until now.  I was only vaguely aware that it had been based on a book, but was reminded when McEwan released his newest work, Sweet Tooth, earlier this month.  Before I allow myself to indulge in the newest McEwan work, I determined to visit the source of one of my favorite films.

For those unfamiliar with the story, I offer a brief recap.  Briony Tallis, younger sister to Cecilia, spends her childhood days fantasizing and writing.  One summer day, Briony witnesses a series of events which lead to a life changing accusation.  Atonement centers on just that: Briony's lifelong need to find atonement for her actions.

The book has a bit of a slow start, but I believe this actually sets up Briony's actions even better.  McEwan describes Briony as a child on the brink of adulthood; she understands that there are parts of life and emotions to experience which she cannot yet grasp.  This frustrates the writer in her.  She wants to be daring and adventurous so as to further her ability to write, but her meticulous attention to detail and need for control are overwhelming.  As McEwan puts it, "Her wish for a harmonious, organized world [deny] her the reckless possibilities of wrongdoing."  Briony herself even writes,
"My darling one, you are young and lovely,
But inexperienced, and though you think
The world is at your feet,
It can rise up and tread on you." (from The Trials of Arabella by Briony Tallis)
She knows the world contains more than her limited scope, but she has no way to access it beyond her imagination.  Therefore, her imagination rules her. The slow start of the book, to me, only emphasizes how dull Briony finds her life and her deep desire for a real life story worth writing about.  On that summer day, Briony creates a story out of the people and events around her.  This story, once believed by the authority figures in her life, changes lives forever.

I typically maintain a very strict standard of reading a book before I see a movie and, more often than not, the book wins out.  There are so many movies that, if seen before reading the book, can ruin the reading experience.   Because I consider myself to be such a lover of the 2007 film, I worried the book would vary immensely from it and I would be left with a guilty conscience for loving the movie so much.  McEwan, though, assuaged any fears I had.  Atonement met my high expectations and I enjoyed it just as much if not more than the film.  Written word maintains a complexity which remains difficult to translate to the screen.  Joe Wright did splendid work translating McEwan's words to film, but, as always, some things get lost in the translation.  For me, one of the highlights of the book is seeing the story from several different viewpoints.  While this happens to an extent in the film, you can see many more layers of how various characters interpret the events of that day in the book.  McEwan is able to express much more of the emotional aspects.  For instance, in the book, the reader learns that Robbie has a completely different interpretation of the events than Briony.  He takes his knowledge and uses it to apply the best sense he can to a bad situation.  It really demonstrates how different people can view the same circumstances so differently because they approach it from a different starting point.
"It wasn't only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you.  And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value.  That was the only moral a story need have."  
In this statement, McEwan captures concisely one of the things which is so great about this novel.  Every character sees the plot points differently and act accordingly.  Briony sees dramatic events akin to those she writes about in her melodramas.  Robbie sees an adolescent girl with a jilted crush acting out in revenge.  Cecelia sees an impetuous child acting out of a need for attention at the expense of others.  Even a brief subplot suggesting that the Tallis patriarch, Jack, may be having an affair is seen through the eyes of his wife Emily, who chooses not to see it for the sake of preserving her lifestyle.  Every story is different.  Every person has a different explanation for their actions and the actions of others.

Atonement relates true human experience and emotion.  McEwan's characters do not pull punches in their depth of emotion.  They behave true to life.  All this plays against a rich cultural background of WWII England and France.  Though I know little about what a war experience is like, Robbie's experience trekking across northern France toward Dunkirk in the midst of the German invasion comes across as painful, disorienting, and exhausting - much how I imagine war in actuality.  McEwan brings a balance to the book by giving rich detail in both character and setting, a satisfying and rare combination.  Atonement remains one of my favorites - the film and now also the novel.

What has been your experience with the differences between books and movies?  Have you ever found them to be of equal quality?

Pages: 368
Date Completed: November 25, 2012

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