The Book is Better: Let Slip to the Ground, the Green Dress of Reality

Words by Ryan Sim

Published on December 16, 2013

Thoughts and memories of film adaptations and the novels that inspired them

I finished reading Atonement on a plane, in the limbo between living and non-existence, time and the absence of time. That sense of confusion was made worse by the fact I had actually missed my intended flight at 11pm the previous night. I was on a standby list, and unfortunately the LA to Brisbane flight was full, so I had to wait until the next day, and travel not to my home city, but to Sydney, then — fourteen hours later — find a way home from there. But I had an entire row to myself, so I stretched out and finished what I had started a few weeks earlier. It’s a novelist’s job to create a mini-cosmos inside his or her book. But to find out, at the end of 370 pages, that McEwen’s characters were now creating these cosmoses as well was a mind fuck, especially when you’re at 30,000 feet with no sense of self.

The thoughts that linger after reading, even now, two years later, are the kind of existential questions that could quite easily give way to an anxiety attack. What I (happily) struggle with most in McEwen’s Atonement is the idea of a fiction within a fiction. For the entire second half of the book, after that fateful first day, events are imagined or at least heavily edited from their reality, by Briony. It is not Robbie telling his story of the war, but Briony. Even throughout Part One the real events that happened in the first cosmos (McEwen’s) are filtered through Briony’s own writing. Her mother’s document of the migraine, Cecilia’s coming to terms with her attraction to Robbie are not in fact their own thoughts, but the educated projections of Briony, the ‘true’ writer of Atonement.

With McEwen’s hand being the only intruder from our world into Briony’s world, I imagine it was quite easy to manage how much he needed to insert himself – how much of Atonement really is a ‘McEwen novel’, amongst its whole as a ‘Briony Tallis novel’. And this is where an important point of difference is raised between the creation of the novel and the film. How many ‘real world’ people actually got their fingerprints all over the multiple, delicately crafted micro-cosmoses of Briony Tallis? It’s certainly forgivable — a small price to pay to see this amazing story brought into life on the screen, but it definitely lost a mystical ambience the book possessed, both as a story (or a set of stories), and as a marvel of modern literature from a technical viewpoint.

In a 2007 interview with The New York Times, Atonement screenwriter Christopher Hampton said, “I like the challenge, and the better the book, the more intent I am. If I love a book, I feel it’s my responsibility to make it survive in an equally lovable form.” Hampton maintained a loyalty to McEwen’s novel in his adaptation, and the way in which director Joe Wright brought it to life sort of blindsides the audience. The wavering sense of reality and the subtle destruction of worlds ride in unseen beneath quintessential British charm and that green satin dress.

But I found it hard to be as absorbed as I was by the book with the immediately recognisable faces of James McAvoy and Kiera Knightley up on the screen (the guy from Wanted! The lady from Love Actually!). Their celebrity was actually a distraction in what is otherwise an intoxicating tale. I’ve recently begun a love affair with James McAvoy. In two of his recent films,Trance and Filth, he is a sexual force, for better or worse (more often for worse). In Atonement, I remember him as too boyish and indirect, but looking back on it, maybe he was perfect. And I am repulsed by Kiera Knightley to the point of attraction. It’s a really counter-intuitive feeling that is out of character for me, but I can’t help it. I am drawn to this person, who, at least on paper, I should otherwise find grotesque. I feel vindicated in this by the way she embodies it in Cecilia, and the push and pull between her and Robbie. It’s as frustrating and repressed as it should be, and when that levee breaks, the desperation and earnestness of their passion is completely believable. This is the element of the film that has translated best from the novel, and probably the reason Atonement in general is automatically associated with these two young, beautiful faces.

People love symbols – something easy to grasp and identify with. In this way, Wright did well in his adaptation. Atonement is so intimate in its writing — it has to be, we spend the entire book inside someone else’s head. Passing this story from the novelist to the screenwriter, then to the director, with no hope of it getting made without cast and crew, intimacy would no doubt get left behind at some point. Add to this the monolith of celebrity, the need to sell tickets at the box office, and the shortcomings of the film almost seem forgivable. But the whole point of the novel is Briony’s regret. She rewrote history because she owed it to her dead sister and her lover. The pain with which she lives becomes obvious in the last few pages. In the film, we get to the end and — maybe this is only because I did read the novel first — it seems like nothing more than, “It was all a dream.”

If McEwen is the lens by which I get to view the universe of Atonement, it’s important to note that the only character I get a clear view of is Briony. All other characters exist only through her lens. It’s odd to get to the end of a book, after feeling so attached to characters, and so relieved for their happy endings, and Briony’s own redemption, only to find the only events that actually happened were those in the first part. And even those were only dictated to us via one of those characters. Maybe this is another reason why I went into the film with a feeling of detachment. The only way they really could have achieved the same effect McEwen succeeded in would be if they had adopted a Peep Show style of cinematography, from Briony’s point of view. It’s neat though — the film’s existence conflicts with my memory of the novel, and the major theme of Atonement is how reality conflicts with memory. Can we re-imagine history and simply in that re-imagining change the course of events? Can we find redemption in simply acknowledging what we wished for those we left behind? In our disloyalty to facts, can we find a nobler goal?