In Ian McEwan’s Atonement, the unwavering passion between upper middle class Cecilia Tallis (played by Keira Knightley in the film by Joe Wright) and ‘son of the help’ Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) is tested as the tragedies of the Second World War unfold. But the beginnings of their strange (and slightly bad) romance gains a beginning through the innocent manipulation of Cecilia’s younger sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan).
Robbie and Cecilia by the fountain.
Joe Wright’s film adaptation of McEwan’s masterpiece is probably the only book-to-screen translation that does the original work justice. Some movie adaptations, such as those of the Harry Potter series, try too hard to fit the entire story, making the time of sitting down to see the movie too long. What results are bored viewers (aka non-book readers) who probably don’t get half the story. Why? Because the movie tries so hard to be close to the book, what communicates better on print comes out unclear on screen.
Atonement‘s adaptation, on the other hand, is flawless. As I read the book, I was already imagining the Tallis house from the movie as the setting, and James McAvoy’s gorgeous face as Robbie. These images fit just right as I dived into the details. McEwan’s poetic prose was the hand that fit perfectly into Wright’s mind numbing cinematography. The movie’s visuals ended up being my guide to the story, while McEwan’s beautiful prose did the explaining. It was as if McAvoy and Knightley read the book more than once, because every action, every word, every expression, was personified by these two brilliant actors. Ronan did a fantastic job as the annoying, self-centered, and manipulative Briony. The level of annoyance I felt at her equaled her ability as an actress, especially at her young age.
Both the book and the movie can stand by themselves. You don’t need to read McEwan’s piece to get the “accurate” and “complete” story, but if the beauty of the movie strikes you that much, then reading the book won’t be a redundant act. As a movie, Wright and the rest of the gang utilize the elements of film to tell this heartbreaking tragedy. And as a book, McEwan delves into the confusing flaws of human beings and how it drives all of them mad in their day to day lives. Either way, no medium is short changed.
Of course, there were chapters that weren’t included in the movie. But their omission did not make the movie incomplete either. As I previously mentioned, these chapters–such as the one on Emily Tallis (Cecilia and Briony’s mother) and Jack, their father–would be unnecessary on screen. Wright kept the focus on the three main players: Robbie, Cee, and Briony, the key characters who would dutifully bring the story to life.