Exploring Adaptation: Atonement

Atonement by Ian McEwanI 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

Exploring Adaptation: Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice by Jane AustenI’ve recently decided to embark on a lengthy exploration of adaptation. There are so many of my favorite books that have been adapted for the screen, whether they’ve become films, mini-series, or full television series; many have been adapted multiple times and all across the different formats; there are different kinds of adaptations in other ways as well, such as those who extend beyond the original source material or who modernize or otherwise alter it almost beyond recognition.

I chose Pride and Prejudice to begin because it is a book that so many are familiar with, and because there are so many familiar with (and strongly opinionated about) two of the most prominent adaptations: the 1995 mini-series and the 2005 film.

So to begin this exploration of adaptation, I feel like I need to lay out what the key factors are when adapting a book for the small or big screen. In no particular order, I find them to be character, plot, theme, and aesthetic.

The characters are what make me care about the story being told, not just how they’re portrayed (though that is obviously essential), but their relationships with one another and how those are captured in the adaptation, for that’s where so much of the emotion lies.

The plot itself can be tricky because there’s rarely just one thread and there’s almost never enough time to include all of every one of them, no matter how long the adaptation may prove to be. Streamlining and altering for a better fit is absolutely necessary but, ideally, it’s accomplished in such a way that aspects like pacing don’t fall by the wayside and that there remains at least some connective tissue between events—that there’s demonstrative motivation at the front end and consequences at the back end. This is where so many adaptations can get rocky, forcing people to rely on the source material to fill in the gaps.

I fear I might place more importance on theme than most, but it’s always a huge pet peeve of mine when an adaptation undermines the message of the source material at hand, whether it alters things so that it’s a direct contradiction or if/when details are trimmed that are vital to understanding the themes at hand. It can show a fundamental misunderstanding of the work (and likely, it’s appeal). Sometimes it’s simply due to one theme speaking to the adaptors more than another that speaks loudly to me… but either way it can be disheartening when an adaptation fails to capture what made the original story so meaningful at a personal level.

And finally, the aesthetic of the adaptation with its many layers of visual and audio cues, from how it’s filmed and presented to costumes and the score. As with theme, there are many ways that the aesthetic approach of the adaptation can either enhance or undermine the story being told—though it can be more difficult to pinpoint and is probably also the most subjective. But then, personal biases and predispositions could probably be considered a fifth key factor.

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