The movie compared to the book: This conversation has outlived its usefulness. Not to mention its appeal. The movie might hatch from the book, but as soon as it’s out the two need to be considered separately, like distinct organisms. I don’t think it’s necessarily a success when the adoring readership of a book deems the movie version satisfactory. It was no one’s responsibility to make it so.
Take The Shining, for example. People who love the book tend to pooh-pooh the movie, and people who love the movie can usually take the book or leave it. Stephen King apparently wasn’t satisfied with Kubrick’s adaptation, or at least he thought he could do better himself. To that end he later attached himself as executive producer to a completely gratuitous remake serialized for cable TV, starring that guy from “Wings,” and adding about as much to the legend as a computer-generated Jabba the Hutt added to a re-released Star Wars. To judge from this Shining redux—the “writer’s cut,” if you will—King’s main beef with Kubrick’s vision was the director’s substitution of a hedge maze for the author’s enchanted topiary animals, which would almost certainly have turned out a clumsy disaster. In the event, book fans who felt similarly cheated by the missing topiary had only to wait 20 years to see King’s vision restored with cheesy digital effects. Justice, as they say, can be slow in coming.
Generally speaking, I have a soft spot for spectacularly miscarried movie versions of books I like, David Lynch’s bloated treatment of Dune being just one example, albeit a spectacular example, and another miscarriage of authorial vision “corrected” by a later miniseries. To be perfectly honest, though, I read so little fiction that any familiarity with a novel that’s been turned into a movie is a rare serendipity. It’s more rare still that I track down a book after watching the movie. Most of the time I can go to the movie unencumbered with any attachments to the book, which is exactly what happened with Atonement.
Briefly, Atonement follows the lives of two lovers and a little sister from 1935 to 1940. Cecelia Tallis (Keira Knightley) is the beautiful daughter of an upper-class family in love with Robbie (James McAvoy), the groundskeeper’s son, who aspires to be a doctor but whose lowborn status affords him little traction with his would-be in-laws. Robbie’s father, we learn in passing, “did a bunk” 20 years earlier, though it’s not clear in the movie whether that means he abandoned his family or deserted from the army—20 years earlier would have made it 1915—but either way we understand that by background and pedigree he’s a dark horse in the race for Cecilia. The apparent frontrunner is a caddish twit who arrives for a visit oozing all the louche entitlement you’d expect from a dandy poised to reap the benefits of aristocratic interbreeding and de facto arranged marriage. It’s not exactly Jane Austen’s day, but one can sense that even the free-spirited Cecelia must eventually capitulate to societal pressure unless something big happens.
Then two big things happen. The tension between Robbie and Cecelia comes to a head in the study, and another weekend guest commits a heinous act that sets the family baying for blood. But whose blood? Thirteen-year-old sister Briony, meanwhile, having already misinterpreted several exchanges between Cecelia and Robbie, feels a mixture of jealousy and fear for her sister’s welfare and chooses this moment of crisis to make a rash decision. She steps forward to testify as the closest thing to a reliable witness, tells a big fat lie, and sets another disastrous series of events in motion that carries the threesome into World War II, culminating in the British evacuation from Dunkerque.
Story wise, Atonement is old hat: star-crossed lovers cast adrift on the tide of history, “a crime he didn’t commit,” his slow trudge toward redemption, etc. It’s essentially Jane Austen manners updated with 20th century material and iced with Golden Globes and Oscar buzz to make it one of those pre-approved must-sees. It didn’t quite match my expectations, which again were based exclusively on the hype and not at all on the book, but it’s still a fine movie. The main attraction is the chemistry between Knightley, who lately has been appearing in lots of mannered period fare, and McAvoy, an appealing actor still glowing with the first flush of discovery by American audiences. Little sister Briony is played at different stages by three different actors (Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave), all complimentary performances bound by closely observed mannerisms. The cinematography, almost gratuitous to add, is superb, particularly in the bucolic interbellum scenes at the family estate and most self-consciously in a five-minute tracking shot that takes in the Bosch-like atmosphere of Dunkerque at a roundabout stroll.
My only quibble—and this is always a quibble for me—is that Atonement has one of those “twist” endings that makes a second viewing interesting and a third viewing as pointless as reading a whodunit novel a third time. It did make me wonder how certain things were treated in the book, but not enough to reach for my library card. Or my picture identification to watch it again when the DVD comes out.