The French screenwriter Carlo Rim once said that “An honest adaptation is a betrayal.” His aphorism, applied to a series of literature-to-film adaptations that inspired the New Wave filmmakers of the 1960s, stridently asserts that film must be a genre unto itself rather than merely an illustrated afterthought for a previously existing artwork. Rim attacks the desire for fidelity and implies that flat-footed honesty in the transfer from page to screen may actually be unethical.
Around the time of the Academy Awards, as the popular press joined in applauding 2007 for being one of the best recent years for movies, a student of mine opined that too many of the Best Picture contenders were adaptations and therefore “not creative enough.” I detect a certain lack of historical sensitivity in my student’s comment, just as I sense an urgency to redeem 2007 (a mixed bag like any other year) by calling it superlative. What I share of my student’s view is the desire for film versions of books to be fresh in their own right. The workmanlike fidelity in the Harry Potter film series makes them feel like belabored pictorial editions of the novels, drained of dramatic energy and almost unwatchable for the uninitiated. In that series, only Alfonso Cuarón’s The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) succeeded in capturing the magical whimsy of the books by daring to add visual flourishes like galloping ghosts to introduce or conclude scenes of plot development. In refusing to be flatfootedly honest in his adaptation, Cuarón achieved a more engaging sort of fidelity.
In the case of Atonement, the film (2007) by Joe Wright based on Ian McEwan’s celebrated novel (2001), the problems of adaptation, fidelity, and betrayal are central not only to the aesthetics but also to the ethical concerns of the story. In both versions of the work, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis, a precocious writer, misperceives her older sister Cecilia’s romance with Robbie Turner and then adapts her perception of their affair to fit a fictional tale of rape. The Tallis family are the wealthy owners of a country estate, and Robbie is the son of their housekeeper. These differences give rise to a class-based anxiety that partly instigates Briony’s suspicion of him, a suspicion exacerbated by her own youthful infatuation with the boy and jealousy of her sister. The abiding theme of Atonement is whether falsehoods can be corrected by the sanctioned falsity of art and whether a tale told well can forge an atonement between people broken by lies. We encounter Briony in three stages of her life: girlhood, young adulthood, and as an old, retired writer suffering from dementia. In each phase, the need to express herself through words amounts to a desperate attempt at making peace with her family, a peace she seems ultimately to be denied.
This intense focus upon the value of written narrative seems somewhat out of place in a visual medium. Writing is an occupation that does not have much dramatic energy, and Wright strains to give it the sort of visual weight needed for the narrative. From the moment the title appears on screen, looking like old typewriter font and accompanied by the familiar mechanical tattoo, we are asked to face the written word, much as Briony must do throughout her life. Whereas McEwan’s novel exhibited such elegant narrative control that it hardly seemed “writerly,” the film takes great pains to establish this as a world of writers. Robbie (James McAvoy) at his desk composing his apology/erotogram to Cecilia (Keira Knightly) becomes a montage of exertion with the familiar tropes of balled paper and partial readings in voice-over. That is until Robbie, in a fit of exhaustion and perverse humor, types a message to Cecilia more suitable for Larry Flynt than for his demure object of affection. The particular anatomical word choice to describe his beloved is what remains shocking, and Wright skillfully avoids having his characters pronounce the word. Instead, we see it typed across the full screen, inviting us to say the word silently to ourselves and making us complicit in the humorous vulgarity of the scene. Robbie’s vulgar message is mistakenly delivered to Cecilia by Briony, who reads the note herself and becomes convinced of Robbie’s sex mania. The humor and horror of this discovery is shared by the audience, and thus we are invited into the act of writing.
I should pause here to admit that I have never found this scene entirely convincing for the story. It announces itself as a narrative device and veers so closely to Alan Ayckbourn or Georges Feydeau style farce that it becomes distracting. Rather than just a surprising turn emerging from a distracted lover, Robbie’s mistaken message feels like a narrative trick imagined by a writer. In the film, Wright’s sleight of hand is well played, as his rapid editing removes our sense of space for Robbie’s room and thus allows us to overlook the intended letter sitting on the desk while the coarse joke goes into the envelope. Where the device avoids those farcical precursors is that the mistaken delivery does not in itself spark a row, but rather forces Cecilia’s hand, makes her more aware of her own feelings, and provokes her into inviting Robbie into precisely the sort of activity his eros-laden letter describes.
With the exception of these passionate moments, the first part of the film has little action, at least by comparison with the later scenes of hospital and war. Much of the intimate dialogue is filmed in close-up and even extreme close-up, with just Briony’s eyes, nose bridge, and facial mole in the frame. This framing allows for more emoting with less movement, and all three actresses playing Briony at different ages (Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, and Vanessa Redgrave) make use of this intimacy. Critics have generally been put off by the film’s first half because of its intimate setting and minimal action. But I would add that the largely uncinematic focus on writing is to blame for the staid tone of the exposition. By too honestly adapting the source material, Wright betrays the seething-yet-repressed emotion of the novel and the consequences for atoning for sin through art.
One danger in faithfully adapting a British novel set in a manor house is the unfortunate association with Merchant Ivory retreads like Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993). If there is anything in Joe Wright’s film that keeps it out of Merchant-Ivory territory (besides the absence of Anthony Hopkins crisply muttering his lines), it is the prolonged tracking shot of the village of Bray-Dunes at the evacuation of Dunkirk that establishes Robbie’s feverish state amid the chaos of troops awaiting their return home. The camera glides from one awful sight to another: ghostly-looking wrecked ships, limping and bloodied men, a series of horses shot in their heads. In mechanical imitation of the horse killings, men pound the radiators of several automobiles, and we watch their life pour out. A Ferris wheel emerges in the distance, and men giggle on a broken merry-go-round like a carnival gone awry. The whole scene has the look of misplaced footage from Apocalypse Now where the horrors of war blur into surreality, and a few melting clocks and men with bowler hats for heads would not be out of place. Some of the credit for this scene may be due to screenwriter Christopher Hampton, who imagined a similar whirling scene in Phillip Noyce’s The Quiet American (2002) with Michael Caine reeling from a nearby explosion in a café. The horrible visual poetry of this tracking shot emblematizes the second half of the film which is more visceral, emotional, and cinematic than the scenes in the Tallis home. And this shot has no direct equivalent in the novel, though there are scenes of beach chaos among the troops. Wright and Hampton excel when they adapt the novel less dogmatically.
The weakest part of the film, however, may be the final framing device which takes McEwan’s gesture toward meta-fiction and turns it into an anemic afterthought. If you haven’t seen the film or read the book, you may want to stop reading here, since the only way to discuss this aspect of the work is to reveal plot spoilers. Vanessa Redgrave’s Briony tells us that her new novel is her last, and the events we have seen are merely her imagined resolution to the problem she caused as a child. The ending of the book calls the entire narrative into question in a section called “London, 1999.” But the film suggests that only the “resolution” between Briony, Cecilia, and Robbie is fabricated. To emphasize this point, Wright shows us Robbie’s feverish death awaiting counter-deployment, and Cecilia’s death by drowning, her body swept through an air raid tunnel in cruciform. Cecilia’s real death with its martyr’s posture appears more contrived than the fictional reunion between the estranged sisters.
In the novel, too, this ending is unsatisfying. McEwan’s work initially struck me as a carefully crafted novel with a bit of half-baked postmodern trickery tacked onto the end. The “London, 1999” seemed like a narrative cop-out akin to the “it’s all a dream” ending that stopped being fresh somewhere around Dorothy’s return to Kansas. Critics like the Chicago Reader’s J. R. Jones have said that McEwan excelled at his ability to “question his own storytelling process without ever surrendering to the preciousness of meta-fiction.” I agree that there is no surrender such as we find in recent works like the tediously self-conscious detective fiction of Brock Clarke. But the kind of self-consciousness McEwan employs feels unprepared for by the 330 pages that precede it. Without becoming merely precious, an author might gesture towards the problems of storytelling throughout the work rather than waiting for the last twenty pages to unveil the artifice.
By making the sound of typewriting essential to the score, Wright tries to keep us immersed in the writer’s world. But, his equivalent to the “London, 1999” section—Vanessa Redgrave being interviewed on television in extreme close-up—merely explains away the primary scene of atonement between Briony and Cecilia. In the film, writing is ultimately a disappointment, since no true healing has occurred and even the writer herself is losing her mental faculties. The novel raises a deeper ambivalence by calling into question the very artwork the reader holds in her hands. To make up with Atonement, Wright’s film needs more attention to the betrayal of storytelling that McEwan deems so crucial. A more thoroughgoing interrogation of the act of storytelling could give both versions of Atonement greater fidelity to their aims.
Charles Andrews is Visiting Assistant Professor of Humanities and English in Christ College at Valparaiso University.