I started this explorative journey with Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice as one of the adaptations I was looking at and it really gave me the urge to rewatch Atonement which he also directed, also starred Kiera Knightley, and works as an adaptation for me so much better. So let’s begin in the same place as before, with the characters, plot, themes, and aesthetics and the original novel by Ian McEwan. While it was easy to talk about them one at a time before, in this film adaptation they bleed together, much as they do in the novel itself.
First off, I don’t know whether to be glad or disappointed that this was the first McEwan novel I read because it is leagues ahead of all the other works of his that I’ve read since. This novel isn’t singlehandedly responsible for my deep (occasionally obsessive) interest in perspective and narrative (and memory) but it certainly had a very significant impact. Being given the initial incidents in the three central characters’ perspectives—two active participants and one observational but wanting to be active—plays with characters’ understandings and projections onto each other as much as their own feelings about given events.
The first third or so of the story is very sequential, that is where most of the story’s plot occurs too, with the rest being the lingering fallout of that plot, meandering toward the confrontation with Briony’s apology and the final revelations. It’s looser in many ways than something like Pride and Prejudice which has such a strict pattern of one event directly leading to another, and so on and so forth. The absolutely-must-include scenes for Atonement are probably the fountain scene, the library scene, the search and its aftermath, then the journey to and arrival at Dunkirk, Briony meeting with Cecelia and Robbie, and the final interview with its revelation. The cast of characters is on the smaller side (compared to Pride and Prejudice) as well, which makes balancing them within the story more manageable (many from the first stretch only make what amount to cameos in the later half of the story/film), alluded to rather than physically present. Aesthetically, I don’t remember much about the novel’s style beyond its narrative style (I did, for the record, read it a year or two before the film adaptation hit theaters and that was 90% of why I was excited to see it) but the film’s approach and execution aesthetically still give me chills when I watch. What’s more, the Atonement adaptation is the perfect opportunity to bring up another challenging aspect of the adaptation process: the iconic. Many works have iconic moments, costumes, sets/scenery, dialogue, etc. and how they’re handled in an adaptation can help make or break its reception with existing book fans. I’ll address it later, but for Atonement the iconic element that immediately comes to mind is Cecelia’s green dress.
I guess all that’s left to do is dive in and see where the flow of getting my thoughts down takes me. Continue reading