After last week’s post I was challenged by two people on roughly the same point; that a film based on a book has to be considered an adaptation – both made the point in a different way and both very eloquently too -(you can check them, and me out on Twitter *SHAMELESS PLUG*.) The point they both raised was, I hope, well taken and I edited the article to admit that I was splitting more hairs than someone with trichotillomania in a hair salon.
However, I think that this week’s article will help me explain my point about the artistic problem of making an incredible literary/film adaptation. Step forward Ian McEwan. Put simply I believe he is one of the best writers currently living and working in the United Kingdon, nominated for the Man Booker Prize a frankly stunning, six times. He’s a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Royal Society of Arts and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He’s been awarded the Shakespeare Prize, appointed as the first visiting scholar and writer at Dickinson College, given a CBE and if that were not enough, The Times named him as one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. In short, this man has got some serious game.
So, if this is one of the UK’s finest writers who isn’t dead then it must be quite the ballsy step for a director to try to take on McEwan’s complex and inter-textual work – so who would step up? One of the heavy hitter’s of Western cinema? Well, how about a school drop out who left education with no GCSE’s? Step forward a certain young director – Joe Wright.
Joe Wright released his version of McEwan’s eighth novel in 2007 as his second feature film, Atonement starring Wrights near-ever present muse of Keira Knightly as well as the exceptionaly talented Saoirse Ronan. Almost immediately the critical reception was, bluntly, arse-kissingly good. Atonement and it’s newbie director set records as Wright became the youngest director ever to open that year’s Venice Film Festival at the tender age of just 35.
So, there’s the background. So, now, onto the critique…
And you know what? I think this might be one of the best adaptations I have ever seen. Seriously, it is just brilliant. From the opening credits the film demonstrates how to take a source material, (in this case the 2001 novel) and make into something uniquely filmic – not by trying to copy the methods of McEwan’s literary work but by using the film medium to do something the novel could not do. The way the title is brought up on-screen is simple, visual and yet nods to the inter-textuality of the original book. The letters appear as if ‘typed’ onto screen and the opening shot of Bryony Tallis’s doll house gives immediate foreground of the manipulation that she works in her fiction work and the real world relationship she destroys.
I will try not to provide too many spoilers, (this could well be futile as both but the book and the film were massively popular and deservedly so) so I will just say this. The plot of the novel hinges and depends on observation, point of view and the interpretation of things that we see not necessarily adding up to what we think. By and large I think this is a trick that the film pulls off a little better than the thoroughly excellent novel. The scene at the fountain in the novel’s opening section is a case in point. Here we read the same scene from the two opposing perspectives, Bryony from the window and Robbie by the fountain. The book dwells, (not unreasonably) on Bryony’s reactions and the scene forms, we later learn, the back bone of a short story.As much as I enjoy writers with the talent to pull off POV switches the whole things, when considered through hindsight feels more than a little like Mrs. Dalloway. This is in fact later added to the novel as a fictional publishers letter and makes the self-awareness feel like trying to have one’s cake and eat it…
The film, is in a sense less limited than the authorial voice and as such the sequence feels like it carries more weight, it’s quick but not superfluous and we as viewers see the tragedy of Bryony’s perception without the self-conscious literary-ness getting in the way. This really should go without saying as multiple camera angles are a stock in trade hall-mark of modern cinema and fit the bill perfectly for the scene at the fountain and in the library. Ronan really shines in the opening parts of the film, managing to convey not only the immediate reaction to what she see’s but also managing to show the viewer the immaturity of her character that leads her to these assumptions and the fateful accusation. The power of film is that it manages in moments what the novel would take pages to do. In seconds we can see the same event from multiple POV, and whilst as an English student I adore the writing of authors who master close third narration, the film switches things so immediately that it hightens the emotional heft of the crucial scenes, – the library and the fountain etc.
To be honest I think this would be something one could say about the whole film, whereas Robbie’s time in France are given over to his thought of his beloved and the limitations of being a solider by McEwan, Wright simply blows this part of the novel to dust. The five-minute tracking sequence, (a Joe Wright trademark) is simply jaw dropping. The viewer is given a sense of scale and mass suffering that the book comes nowhere near to accomplishing. The sequence in the cinema is another particular highlight, combining self-aware cinematics with pitch perfect romance.
Other particular stand out things about this as an adaptation is how the whole mechanics of the film work together. Everything here is contributing to the wider aim, the score especially does a great job, the type writer effect in the opening moments being an extremely good example and Wright’s arts training shines in the overall look of the film – the dress Knightly wears being declared as the most stylish to appear in film. To sum up, it capture the essence of the book and helps it transcend the limitations placed upon it by the novel form.
Just pause here for a second, because here comes the BUT that the whole article has been building up to. Ready??
There is one area where I feel that this transition from literature to film, as well as it is achieved, doesn’t quite work – the ending. Whereas the ending in the novel aims at pathos as Bryony is brought back to the scene of her crime and her internal guilt is left with her. Whilst the ending of the film is very VERY good the nature of the TV interview seems designed at explication of guilt rather than acceptance. In the book, Bryony recognises that she can give them happiness, but that it would be ‘self-serving to let them forgive me.’ As haunting as Vanessa Redgrave makes the final scene, to me it smacks a little of self-justification, which is a little beneath this film and book. (Damn it, realised I said I wouldn’t do this!) Whilst that is just my opinion, I think the exteriority of a TV interview fits in with the very film-ness of Atonement as a whole, though personally I
Oh, and if you haven’t seen Benedict Cumberbatch’s scenes go away right now and watch the film. See? Fucking terrifying! And don’t over simplfy, it isn’t just the overall creepiness of the scene with Lola or even the fact that he’s a rapist. It’s this. He marries his victim and NO-ONE says anything about it. No-one. At all. Not even Lola. Just think about that, but not for too long or you’ll have nightmares about that marriage…Now, back to the point.
So, there you are. An adaptation of grace, poise and cinematic worth that does credit to the original source material. Despite my few niggles with this I still think it’s just brilliant British culture at its best. Reading over, the keen-eyed reader may come to the conclusion that all I’ve done is, yet again, spend my time splitting hairs. But thanks to Ian McEwan and Joe Wright, they are, at the very least, interesting hairs to split.