Book vs. Film: Atonement

We compare Ian McEwan's Atonement to its cinematic adaptation, a film that stars Keira Knightley and James McAvoy

Ian McEwan has been hailed as one of the most promising British writers of a generation, which is why perhaps his most recognisable title Atonement was adapted for the big screen in 2007. Starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy and a young Saoirse Ronan the film became an immediate hit for its nostalgic, stylised and beautiful 1930’s setting which contrasted to the later harrowing scenes of war-torn Britain and France.

The novel itself however is an extremely interesting piece of modern literature which the film – depending on whether it is viewed after or prior to reading the novel itself – provides a dreamy visual reality for the story to develop. Notorious for its poetic and strangely romantic use of the ‘C’ word, Atonement is truly a heart-breaking tale of unrequited love, childhood jealousy and terrible naivety.

Set in the summer of 1935, the first part of the novel focusses on 13 year-old prodigal and aspiring writer Briony Tallis. Briony is on the verge of blossoming into womanhood and is in the midst of writing a play though she is grossly inhibited by her childish temper and priggish self-awareness. She is already irritated and on the verge of a creative breakdown when her cousins, including the outgoing elder girl Lola, come to stay with the family.

Taking place in the Tallis family’s sprawling country estate, we learn that Briony’s elder sister Cecilia has recently returned from University and is becoming extremely frustrated living back at home. Her relationship with the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner has become somewhat strained of late with Cecilia resenting the way that her father has paid for his University education and is to pay for his Medical training. Robbie too notices that there is a change between himself and Cecilia. During a heated and sexually strained argument between the two, Briony witness their seemingly strange encounter at the garden fountain from her bedroom window.

The family prepare through a hot summer evening to welcome the eldest Tallis child Leon who is returning from London with his friend Paul Marshall (eagle eyed cinema-goers may have spied that Marshall is played by Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch in the film). Whilst wandering the grounds before dinner, Briony encounters Robbie who has written a letter to Cecilia. However, Robbie, who discovers he has grown a deep attraction to Cecilia, gives Briony the wrong note which contains a most explicit and eroticised message. It is from here that Briony’s misunderstanding and childhood crush prove to be very potent dangers indeed.

Naturally, it is difficult to picture the illicit and incriminating library scene of the novel without recalling Knightley in a clinging silk green gown and McAvoy as her restrained and besotted lover. Knightley was born to play a woman of such elegant grace, poise and upper class status; so much so that it is virtually impossible to imagine a Cecilia in any other incarnation, whilst McAvoy is the epitome of an all round ‘good-hearted man’. Saoirse Ronan earns her acting stripes as Briony; a character reaching maturity whose wide-eyed innocence in her understanding of the world is undermined by an almost cruel and vindictive child-like jealousy.

It is, in fact, Briony’s interception of Robbie’s letter and an accidental discovery of the pair engaged in a mutual tryst which grows into a terrible destructive lie that sees the lovers separated and their lives torn apart.

It is from this point in both the novel and the film that we find out the fates of all three protagonists. Cecilia is now a nurse who has distanced herself from the Tallis family in protest to her younger sister’s horrible confession. Robbie is now in the army serving in France having maintained his love with Cecilia over time and great distance via letter; promising the readers and the audience an eventual reconciliation. Briony however, now 18 and a nurse in the war effort, has realised the impact of her mistake and is faced with the opportunity to rectify the damage before it is too late.

The remaining chapters take us from the safety and luxury of the Tallis household and pre-Blitz London to the war-ravaged countryside in France where Robbie is now enlisted. Whilst the novel depicts matter of factly the horrors of the war in gruesome yet plain-faced detail, the film opts for a more dramatic and emotional setting. The agonizing scene of Dunkirk is particularly harrowing both in the novel and the film.

However, the live action continuous shot of the soldiers singing ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ on the beach is more effectively haunting and foreboding than the its telling on paper. It is definitely one of the moments that will send chills up your spine. That said, these chapters in the novel are no less anxiety inducing.

Missing from the film are some of the equally disturbing recollections from the now older Briony (later played by Ramola Garai) in her position as a nurse tending to the victims of the war. It is these horrors that push Briony to remedy.

Whether you choose Joe Wright‘s film adaptation or the award-winning novel, you know what is coming. A terrible conclusion, whichever way, is always inevitable and fills you with dread throughout. The ‘running out of time’ sensation is always on your mind. Unfortunately, there are some things absent from the film that may seem like plot holes, but are actually omitted conclusions. In the novel we learn the exact moment of reason that allows Briony to realise her mistake and also the ultimate fate of Briony herself. This is present to an extent but is seemingly glossed over in the novel’s adaptation.

The surprise twist however is much more tear-jerking and heart-wrenching in the film as we watch Cecilia and Robbie live their separate lives and their relationship simultaneously before an elderly Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) reveals the truth. This aspect is mentioned simply in melancholic passing in the final chapter of the novel and is not given enough room for the reader to grieve. Perhaps this is due to the years of grief we suspect Briony has had to endure as result.

The cinematography of the film by Seamus McGarvey allows the characters to grow without all the necessary inner-thought workings that the first part of the novel provides. We can almost feel the hot, unbearable summer heat which lights the passion in Robbie and Cecilia’s lustful encounter.

Overall, the novel and the film are perhaps on par in terms of narrative greatness and vivid imagery. Whilst the novel leaves a lingering taste of sadness, the film hits you with a more direct sense of desperation for Briony and the two lovers. A very haunting and poignant piece of literature indeed but the film has that extra factor of projecting McEwan’s beautiful and vivid descriptions on-screen, fully immersing you into in to the fateful summer’s day in 1935.

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