Atonement, by Ian McEwan

Like most readers, I usually despise films made from books that I've loved. Most of the time, they are ruined by the cuts necessary to compress a book into a two-hour film, not to mention the distortions added by studios in search of blockbusters, like the smooch scene added to the end of the version of Pride and Prejudice that came out a few years ago. There are always exceptions, of course, like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but they are rare.

So I wasn't sure I wanted to see this film. I usually dislike McEwan’s characters but always admire his writing. And Atonement is a masterpiece. I couldn’t bear to think of it being ruined by a film. One of the things that I particularly liked about this book was that the conflict, the violence came from within the family, instead of from some diabolus ex machina dropped in to jumpstart the plot.

My book club talked forever about this book, caught up in its ambiguities. We compared notes on the possibility of atoning for things you have done from the perspectives of our different religious backgrounds and from our own experiences. We discussed redemption and how it differed from atonement.

Several people disliked the first section of the book, when Briony is a child, complaining that it was florid and overwritten. As most people already know, she happens to see a scene involving her older sister and a young man. Briony's misinterpretation of the scene has tragic consequences. The second section follows the young man as a soldier in the Great War, while the third section deals with the years just after the war, when Briony and her sister are both nurses in London. A brief final section is set in the present.

The style of each section is markedly different. It seemed to me—and this was my defense to my clubmates—that McEwan deliberately wrote the sections in styles reflecting the literary styles of the period in which they are set. The first section, the idyllic country house and family life, seemed to me like the romanticism of some Georgian literature, Rupert Brooke's poetry for example. The Great War section was written in the gritty realist style of Graves or Owen, while the immediate post-war years section reminded me of “angry young men” such as John Osborne and Alan Sillitoe. The final section, of course, is pure post-modernism, playing games with the narrative and structure.

Well, I'm just a reader and experts in lit crit will undoubtedly find my summary laughable, but I still think the progression of literary styles in Atonement is remarkable. The film, despite the necessary elisions, manages to preserve these differences while crafting a coherent story. Well done, I say.

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