Book Vs. Film: Atonement

Book Vs. Film: Atonement

SPOILER WARNING: Book Vs. Film is a column comparing books to the film adaptations they spawn, often discussing them on a plot-point-by-plot-point basis. This column is meant largely for people who've already been through one version, and want to know how the other compares. As a result, major, specific spoilers for both versions abound, often including dissection of how they end. Proceed with appropriate caution.

 

Book: Atonement, Ian McEwan, 2001

Film: Atonement, adapted by Christopher Hampton, directed by Joe Wright, 2007

Let's just get it out of the way up front: I loved Atonement the movie. It made my top 10 list for the year. I think it's spectacularly rich and beautiful and emotive, well-acted and well-written, and very powerful.

Then I read the book and found out that, comparatively, the movie I had just loved was a pretty shallow experience. But I'm determined not to hold that against it.

On a sheer story basis, Atonement is a highly faithful adaptation; screenwriter Christopher Hampton (who is, incidentally, currently scripting the film adaptation of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and good luck to him on that no-doubt challenging project) sticks closely to the book's plot and its specific dialogue, trying to bring it to the screen completely intact.

But short of a voiceover narration that never shuts up for a single second throughout the film, there was no way he was going to be able to bring the whole book to the screen, because the book largely takes place almost entirely inside people's heads, which turn out to be insanely complicated, nuanced places. In virtually any given moment that the movie summed up with a longing glance or an angry glare, the book gushes on through ultra-long sentences, ultra-long paragraphs, and ultra-long scenes, explaining not merely what a given character is thinking, but how it connects to what s/he thought in the past and will think in the future. Things get tremendously wordy and dense.

Here's a fairly typical passage. In the film, this sequence amounts to a single brief shot of 13-year-old Briony Tallis (played by Saoirse Ronan) running around in a field, just before lower-class friend of the family Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) calls her over and asks her to deliver a note that will have fatal consequences. Briony is raging because the play she wrote earlier in the day has, to her mind, been ruined by her cousins Lola, Pierrot, and Jackson, who are, respectively, too controlling and not talented enough to put it on exactly the way it appeared in her head:

 

It is hard to slash at nettles for long without a story imposing itself, and Briony was soon absorbed and grimly content, even though she appeared to the world like a girl in the grip of a terrible mood. She had found a slender hazel branch and stripped it clean. There was work to do, and she set about it. A tall nettle with a preening look, its head coyly drooping and its middle leaves turned outward like hands protesting innocence–this was Lola, and though she whimpered for mercy, the singing arc of a three-foot switch cut her down at the knees and sent her worthless torso flying. This was too satisfying to let go, and the next several nettles were Lola too; this one, leaning across to whisper in the ear of its neighbor, was cut down with an outrageous lie on her lips; here she was again, standing apart from the others, head cocked in poisonous scheming; over there, she lorded it among a clump of young admirers, and was spreading rumors about Briony. It was regrettable, but the admirers had to die with her. Then she rose again, brazen with her various sins–pride, gluttony, avarice, uncooperativeness–and for each she paid with a life. Her final act of spite was to fall at Briony's feet and sting her toes. When Lola had died enough, three pairs of young nettles were sacrificed for the incompetence of the twins–retribution was indifferent and granted no special favors to children. Then playwriting itself became a nettle, became several in fact; the shallowness, the wasted time, the messiness of other minds, the hopelessness of pretending–in the garden of the arts, it was a weed and had to die.

No longer a playwright, and feeling all the more refreshed for that, and watching out for broken glass, she moved further round the temple, working along the fringe where the nibbled grass met the disorderly undergrowth that spilled out from among the trees. Flaying the nettles was becoming a self-purification, and it was childhood she set about now, having no further need for it. One spindly specimen stood in for everything she had been up until this moment. But that was not enough. Planting her feet firmly in the grass, she disposed of her old self year by year in thirteen strokes. She severed the sickly dependence of infancy and early childhood, and the schoolgirl eager to show off and be praised, and the eleven-year-old's silly pride in her first stories and her reliance on her mother's good opinion. They flew over her left shoulder and lay at her feet. The slender tip of the switch made a two-tone sound as it sliced the air. No more! she made it say. Enough! Take that!

Soon, it was the action itself that absorbed her, and the newspaper report which she revised to the rhythm of her swipes. No one in the world could do this better than Briony Tallis, who would be representing her country next year at the Berlin Olympics, and was certain to win the gold. People studied her closely and marveled at her technique, her preference for bare feet because it improved her balance–so important in this demanding sport–with every toe playing its part; the manner in which she led with the wrist and snapped the hand round only at the end of her stroke, the way she distributed her weight and used the rotation in her hips to gain extra power, her distinctive habit of extending the fingers of her free hand–no one came near her. Self-taught, the youngest daughter of a senior civil servant. Look at the concentration in her face, judging the angle, never fudging a shot, taking each nettle with inhuman precision. To reach this level required a lifetime's dedication. And how close she had come to wasting that life as a playwright!

 

Note that all of that is just three paragraphs, and three paragraphs in which, outwardly, nothing much happens. The scene stretches out for several more pages, as Briony wallows in solitary self-pity and self-aggrandization, then ultimately decides to stand by the road until something important and real and significant happens, no matter how long it takes. And then Robbie comes along with the fateful letter.

This whole scene illustrates several key differences between the film and the book:

• The book has a certain wry sense of humor that the film almost completely lacks. The whole business about Briony executing her cousins and then going on to become an Olympic nettle-slasher, while presented in an elaborately dry literary tone, is pleasantly goofy. The film, on the other hand, rarely cracks a smile.

• The book is densely wordy where the film is spare, and deeply internal where the film deals with the surfaces of emotions between people.

• The book's style is thick, lush, and heavy. Charles Dickens came to mind several times when I was reading it; it took a while to ease into McEwan's structural complexities and slow, calculating pacing. By contrast, the film, with its long silent pauses, spare dialogue, and striking images that speak for it, is much more accessible. It's no Dude, Where's My Car?, but it's easier to take a passive role in letting the film roll over you, whereas the book requires some concentration.

• McEwan closely tracks the changes in people from moment to moment, particularly with Briony, who is developing as a person in virtually every second of the book, though generally considerably less than she thinks she's developing. For instance, in the scene above, she consciously dispenses with childhood, but it rapidly becomes clear from her actions that growing up is more complicated than beheading a few nettles. The film adopts a slower, broader pace, following events rather than micro-changes in personalities, and in the process, it misses a lot of the symbolism and important moments that McEwan focuses on. On the other hand, it doesn't get bogged down in detail.

For the most part, the book is hugely wordy, and as if in defiance, the film goes in the opposite direction, marking most of the big emotional moments with tense silence: When Briony sees her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) strip to her underwear and jump into a fountain in front of Robbie, she observes quietly, shocked and immobile. When she later catches the two of them in flagrante in the library of the Tallis home, none of them has any words that rise to the occasion; Briony calls Cecilia's name, but then they all disengage and leave without speaking. When Briony subsequently wrongly accuses Robbie of raping her young cousin Lola (Juno Temple), Robbie, too, calls Cecilia's name, and then is taken away without a word in his defense. The film next finds him four years later, too late for whatever protests he may have mounted. The film is full of these moments, when characters pause for thought, or regard each other wordlessly, or in some cases fill a tense moment with nervous, meaning-light chatter instead of the words they clearly want to say.

While the film is caught up in the tension of individual moments, the book focuses closely on the fact that virtually every time two people meet, they have entirely different expectations and understandings of what's going on. For instance, the film has the scene by the fountain play out twice—once silently, from Briony's perspective, and once from Robbie and Cecelia's perspective, so viewers can hear their dialogue. McEwan goes farther, playing the scene out from each of their perspectives in turn, to let readers know what was going through their heads, and how each of them misread the others. The book is full of moments like that, seen from different perspectives to make it clear how little these people understand each other.

All of which leads, in my mind, to a little more sympathy for Briony's fatal decisions in the book. In the film, the consequences of her actions are clear, but her motivations seem fairly simple. In the book, they're vastly complex, caught up in a web of justification and self-invention, in her triumphantly over-the-top image of herself. The childish, creative arrogance that leads her to imagine herself an Olympic nettle-whacker in the scene above similarly leads her to imagine herself as a righter of wrongs and a champion of justice when she accuses Robbie. But it's even more complicated than that—she's also caught up in her transition between childhood and adulthood, and in her writer's sense of narrative balance, and in her resentment over the fact that she wants to be mysterious and important, but she completely lacks secrets. ("Nothing in her life was sufficiently interesting or shameful to merit hiding; no one knew about the squirrel's skull beneath her bed, but no one wanted to know. None of this was particularly an affliction; or rather, it appeared so only in retrospect, once a solution had been found.")

Or maybe all this makes her less sympathetic. Certainly in the book, she's a far more nuanced character, but maybe understanding her will just make readers hate her more. Anyone can get something wrong; it takes a particularly complicated, self-important, and childish mind to get things this wrong in this particular way for these particular reasons.

That really sums up the important differences between the book and the film: Internal vs. external, detail vs. overview, the little picture vs. the big one. But for the detail-crazed, here's the usual roundup of semi-significant changes that alter the direction and intent of the story:

• In addition to scenes written from the points of view of Briony, Cecelia, and Robbie, the book contains chapters written from the perspective of Briony and Cecelia's mother Emily. That makes her far more of a character, though she still doesn't serve a particularly strong narrative purpose. Mostly, her thoughts clarify some of the strains going on in the household, providing another perspective on her daughters, and another reason to believe that no one in this book really understands anyone else.

• In a typical bit of literary depth, the book goes into some detail about the origin of the vase that Robbie and Cecelia tussle over, which leads to her jumping into the fountain; it's a family heirloom, valued for its backstory, but considered ugly and overly fussy by the family. Which of course just makes Cecelia's feelings over it being broken far more complicated. We also find out how it eventually comes to be accidentally dropped and smashed, four years later, possibly because the piece Cecelia glued back on came loose at a key moment, causing a servant to drop it.

• In another typical bit, Cecelia spends a great deal of time deciding what dress to wear to the dinner party where she's going to confront Robbie, after receiving his note. She tries on a whole sequence of dresses, dismissing each in turn as looking the wrong way, saying the wrong thing about her age or her sophistication. It says a great deal about her anxiety, her inexperience, and the attraction to Robbie that she refuses to admit to herself. Whereas in the film, she just shows up in the doorway to greet Robbie, perfectly dressed and looking, as she thinks in the book, "sleekly impregnable, slippery and secure."

• In the book, it seems far clearer that the scratch on Lola's face and the bruises on her arm on the night of the dinner party were inflicted by Paul Marshall, not by Lola's brothers, and that for some reason, she's lying to cover for him—several people note that it's remarkable that such small children could mark her. Then, later in life, Briony suddenly remembers that Paul had a scratch on his face that night, matching the scratches on Lola's shoulder. All of which throws a significantly different angle on Lola's character, since she presumably does at least suspect who later rapes her, and she apparently covers for him again, and later marries him. To my mind, this is one of the book's major mysteries: We don't get into Lola's head, so we don't know what motivates her. It seems to me that this is just another way McEwan plays out the theme of misunderstandings and misinterpretations; by that point of the book, readers should know better than to try to guess what people are thinking, since they're so profoundly impenetrable.

• Robbie's wartime adventures in France are far more detailed in the book. As with the film, they begin with him wounded, separated from his company, and traveling with two other people, but the book spells out his relationship to them more clearly—they both outrank him, but neither can read a map, so they're dependent on him, which makes them churlish and contemptuous; they refer to him as "her" and regularly humiliate him. He tries at intervals to lose them as they all trek toward the coast together, encountering locals and other soldiers in a long series of dispiriting anecdotes and devastating attacks. The whole sequence has a noticeably blunter, more direct tone than all the sequences in the first half of the book, which take place in Briony's head; presumably McEwan is consciously drawing a dividing line between Robbie's real life and Briony's self-absorbed fantasies. By contrast, in the film, it seems like the men he's traveling with are his inferiors, given that he speaks French and they don't, he has an elegant accent by contrast with their rough, lower-class ones, and they're childish where he's restrained and calm.

• The scene between Robbie and Briony at the pond, where she jumps in to make him save her, happens almost precisely the same way between the book and the film. But in the film, it's permitted to stand without comment, as a possible reason for her later turning on him. In the book, he dourly thinks about it as a possible reason for what she does, but a switch to her perspective suggests that her love for him was a brief schoolgirl thing, and his thoughts on the matter are just another mangled, incorrect guess at someone else's motivations.

• There's an extensive, chilling scene in the book, omitted from the film, in which Robbie witnesses a group of soldiers picking on a scrawny Royal Air Force flier in a bar at the coast, as they wait for rescue; blaming him personally for the lack of air support, they assault him and work their way up toward lynching him. Robbie, resenting his life and his position, seriously considers joining in on the mayhem, not because he blames the RAF man, but because he "understood the exhilaration among the tormentors and the insidious way it could claim him. He himself could do something outrageous with his bowie knife and earn the love of a hundred men." In the end, he doesn't have the courage to intervene or the cruelty to participate, and it's his hated road-companions who step in and cleverly defuse the situation, getting the RAF man to safety.

• Another totally minor but pretty typical book-to-film detail: In the book, once Briony becomes a nurse, she learns not to reveal her real name to patients by observing someone who does, and is harshly reprimanded. In the film, she's the one who makes that mistake and gets dressed down.

• In the film, Briony has clearly written a short story based on witnessing the scene between Cecelia and Robbie by the fountain, with the implication that she's finally launched her career as a writer. In the book, however, she submits the story for publication, and McEwan shows us the rejection letter she gets, which suggests she has great talent but that the story doesn't work, because it doesn't go anywhere. The editor writing to her analyzes the story, in the process unwittingly analyzing Briony's reaction to the scene; he also makes suggestions for how the story might turn out, by for instance having the narrator interfere tragically with the two figures she's watching. Clearly, as a perceptive adult, he's grasped everything that Briony missed as a precocious child. "She had come to see that, without intending to, it delivered a significant personal indictment," Briony thinks about it later. "Might she come between them in some disastrous fashion? Yes, indeed. And having done so, might she obscure the fact by concocting a slight, barely clever fiction and satisfy her vanity by sending it off to a magazine?" All of which foreshadows the end of the film and book, when we find out what became of that story in its final incarnation.

• Finally, the film ends sparingly, with Briony's revelation—at the taping of a television talk show–that she's dying, that she wants to clear the air, and that what we saw earlier of Robbie and Cecelia was a fiction she wrote. And then Wright and Hampton show the lovers together, in an imagined—and, once again typically for the movie–dialogue-free, almost silent scene. The book, on the other hand, gives Briony a lengthy, detailed wrap-up, talking about her life as a senior citizen, how her career progressed during the time McEwan elided, and what happened to various family members, including Paul and Lola, who apparently had a happy marriage and went on to be fantastically rich, much-respected members of the community. Toward the end, Briony attends a birthday party at her childhood home, with some 50 relatives, and the children perform The Trials Of Arabella, the play she wrote as a child, in the opening scenes of the book and the film. When she makes her confession about what happened to Robbie and Cecelia, it's alone, at night, to her writing, though it's clear because of her fame that the story will eventually come out.

What the book does better: It explains what's going on. Baffled by that opening shot of a parade of plastic animals lined up across the floor? Wondering what this look means, what that pause means, what anyone is thinking during any given second? Wondering what the whole story is really trying to say, on a thematic rather than a strict narrative level? Read the book.

What the film does better: The film, on the other hand, gives the proceedings a sense of urgency and tension that the more sprawling, thoughtful, emotionally exploratory book completely lacks. The soundtrack music helps immensely: For instance, in the opening sequence, as music meshes with typewriter noises, and Briony rushes through the house with the play she's just finished writing. The soundtrack drives the scenes and gives them a taut, crisp energy, especially when nothing's being said. That aside, the cinematography is breathtakingly beautiful, particularly during the Children Of Men-like virtuoso scene on the beach—a full five minutes of carefully choreographed, chaotic wandering assembled without a single cut.

Petty little altered detail: The book doesn't explain exactly when it's taking place for more than 80 pages, and even then, it's an offhanded mental remark, as Robbie considers that 20 years of living will "sweep him forward to the futuristic date of 1955." Prior to that, context clues hint at the era without specifying it, leaving the book floating in a sort of weird unmoored chronology. By contrast, the film smacks the date onto the opening shot, in a practical, direct way.

Does the film version "get" the book? Much as with The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, I think the film and the book were ultimately about very different things, and that Wright and his team were never trying to bring across all of McEwan's subtleties. Instead, they're stripping out the pure story and putting that onscreen. And really, that alone turns out to be enough.

Book, film, neither, or both? They're both impressive craft-fests, excellent on their own fairly separate merits. I suspect, though, that this is one of the cases where reading the book first might make for a more satisfying experience, since it'll be clearer what's going on below the surface.

Next time on Book Vs. Film:

And coming soon:

More Book vs. Film