Several months ago we did a “movies better than their books” segment. This was not one of those. But. It was a masterpiece; one of those at least as good as the book, though different, because in a completely different medium. That being said, Atonement, the book, though itself indisputably fantastic (Ian McEwan has come to be one of my very favorite contemporary authors), was not one of my favorites, while the movie might be. Here’s why.
The cinematography is GORGEOUS! Really, really breathtakingly beautiful. You could stop the film at any point, and that screen shot could be its own beautiful work of art. The colors are vivid, the wardrobe is very authentic-seeming. Visually, just too beautiful for words.
The casting was superb. Excellent choices, and very true adaptations of the characters in the book. Just in general, its closeness to the book made it really very good. And McEwan himself was a producer on the film, so he was there on set and had significant influence on the project. I think that helped and added to the overall consistency in feel.
Adapting this book to film would have been a challenge. A lot of what goes on in the novel seems like internal struggle, and repeated perspective, and it would have been (I would have thought) very difficult to do. But they did a great job.
Also (for me anyway, and I could be exposing my own simplicity or weakness, here) the movie made sense of the story in ways that the novel itself did not. I was a bit confused by portions of the story reading it. So either the movie explained it for me, the screenwriter having understood, or the screenwriter didn’t understand it either, but explained it in such a way that I could understand at least his interpretation of what he thought was happening.
I will say that the first part of the story plays better in film than in writing. At least it was more entertaining. Reading it, the first portion of the novel was so dull I almost didn’t make it (as it turns out, there is a literary technique at play that kind of makes this makes sense, but at the time it is a challenge).
There are a lot of shifts in time and perspective, fiction interwoven with, well, also fiction, but there is the story itself (i.e. the “non-fiction,” at least for the story’s perspective) and then stories interwoven into that “non-fiction” (i.e. fanciful story and fiction, as written and thought by the characters in the story).
The sound/soundtrack was also really good. Very pretty in places, and added to the suspense and feeling in others.
There is tension between the two main characters in the story (like good, angsty, passionate tension). It is palpable in both the movie and the book. Different, but both very good in their own unique way. My favorite part of both interpretations.
Comparing books to movies is very difficult, and always a sort of apples to oranges comparison. Even books to other books is different, even when written by the same author. Every work of art is its own unique entity, like every person. We like some more than others, but that doesn’t make them inherently better or worse, just different.
But this movie was exceptional, and deserving of the praise and award nods it received. Romantic and lovely, I would encourage you to see it, if you find yourself in that type of mood. Cheers!