I finished reading Atonement last week. It moved me to tears, which surprised me as I knew the story, having read it some years ago and I’d watched the film last weekend. I have written before that I am often disappointed seeing the film of a book and I think TJ in his comment identified my problem when he said that he likes to keep his own images of characters and settings in his head, rather than some cinematographer’s. That is just how I feel. I also don’t like it when the film moves too far away from the book.
In this case the film is mostly faithful to the book, with minor alterations, except for the ending. I prefer the book’s ending. I don’t want to write too much about the plot because if you haven’t read the book or seen the film I don’t want to spoil it by giving away too much.
In my view the book is superior overall to the film. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001, which that year was won by Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang (which I couldn’t read beyond the first chapter – maybe I should have another go?). It’s a complex story, split into four parts and told from several points of view. In both the book and the film we see different versions of the same events, which adds depth and introduces uncertainty and ambiguity about what actually happened.
It begins on a hot day in the summer of 1935 when Briony, then aged thirteen witnesses an event between her older sister Cecelia and her childhood friend Robbie that changed all three of their lives. It’s a captivating story of the use of imagination, shame and forgiveness, love, war and class-consciousness in England in the twentieth century. The depiction of the Second World War is both horrifying and emotional as British troops were withdrawn from France in 1940.
As well as being a love story and a war novel it’s also a mystery and a reflection on society and writing and writers. Briony when writing her novel based on the initial incident considers that:
The age of clear answers was over. So was the age of characters and plots. Despite her journal sketches, she no longer believed in characters. They were quaint devices that belonged to the nineteenth century. The very concept of character was founded on errors that modern pyschology had exposed. Plots too were like rusted machinery whose wheels would no longer turn. A modern novelist could no more write characters and plots than a modern composer would a Mozart symphony. It was though, perception, sensations that interested her, the conscious mind as a river through time, and how to represent its onward roll, as well as all the tributaries that would swell it, and the obstacles that would divert it. … To enter a mind and show it at work, or being worked on, and to do this within a symmetrical design – this would be an artistic triumph.
As indicated in this quotation Briony is an admirer of Virginia Woolf and stream-of-consciousness writing, and her novel is rejected by the editor who considered it “owed a little too much to the techniques of Mrs Woolf.” Her novel draws on what she saw as a child, which she hadn’t understood. Her imagination takes over providing her with a version of events that may or may not be right. She becomes confused and as she matures begins to reflect that what she “knew” may not have been what really happened.
I like the way McEwan interweaves the story, with its vividly-drawn characters and harrowing descriptions of war with reflections on the process of writing and the interpretation of novels. I found it a thought-provoking book with several layers. I’ve read several of his books and I think this one, along with Enduring Love, is my favourite.