Saturday, October 24, 2009
Atonement: Novel within a Novel
Posted by JaneGS
I enjoyed both the novel and movie immensely after putting them off for so long, but I still am struggling with how I feel about the ending. I'm hoping that writing this post will clarify my thoughts. Ready for a ramble?
I found the double ending and the shift to first-person narrator in the last part to be intriguing but unsettling. I thought of Hamlet and the play-within-a-play when I realized that Atonement is a novel within a novel. The next question I asked myself was whether McEwan also intended to use this literary device "to catch the conscience of the king" as Hamlet did.
The double ending certainly drives home the point that the story is a fiction, created by a godlike author, who can create a happy ending or a sad ending or a bittersweet, bleak, or hopeful ending. It also underscores beautifully the novel's theme of truthfulness and the fallibility of one's own perception. Readers depend on authors to tell them true stories, especially if those stories are fiction, but authors can only tell the truth as they perceive it at any given time.
Initially, I admired the artistic aspect of the double-ending and the novel within the novel, but on a purely visceral level found the experience jarring. I felt a bit as if the rug had been pulled out from under me. Hearing or reading stories fills a hole in my psyche--Atonement, because of its structure, didn't do that. When I finished the book, I felt a bit hollow, cheated, and confused--I wanted my happy ending back! The disconcerting part is that I also felt like I had just read a terrific book, and it's taken awhile to figure out how I could feel disappointed and impressed at the same time.
Watching the movie helped. I felt that the first part of the movie, which matches the first part of the book--i.e., the time at the Tallis's home in England--was probably the most faithful adaptation of a book I have ever encountered. It was almost as if the book provided the screenplay, that the screenwriter simply transposed one to the other. True, a bit of the backstory was missing--particularly that of Jack Tallis's philandering in London rather than coming home--but it wasn't really missed.
Harriet Walter as Emily Tallis was picture perfect--the headache-prone, upper-class matron who is more part of the problem than part of the solution. I think this might be my favorite role for Keira Knightley (i.e., as Cecelia Tallis) and James McAvoy as Robbie Turner was terrific. Saoirse Ronan as 13-year old Briony Tallis was much grimmer than I had imagined her in the book, but I quickly came to see that she played it with an eye towards how the 18-year old Briony was, and then it gelled for me. Benedict Cumberbatch and Juno Temple as Paul Marshall and Lola Quincy were both truly creepy--I was a bit surprised when I first saw Temple, but she worked for me as Lola.
The second part of the movie, that which follows Robbie on his voyage across France to Dunkirk, was far less faithful to the book in scenes though I think it did a good job of capturing the tone and horror and dislocation of war along with Paul's developing fever. I'm not sure that I would have understood this part of the movie at all if I hadn't read the book. So much of it was surreal, with flashbacks and hallucinations, that pinning it to a historical event would have been pretty challenging had I just watched the movie. I also kept on waiting for the German planes to attack them along the way, and was surprised when they reached Dunkirk without diving under trucks to escape strafing. That was such a big part of the book that I'm surprised they didn't include even one attack.
The final part of the movie digressed most from the book in that Briony's birthday party and the enactment of her first and only play, The Trials of Arabella, were completely left out. Instead, Vanessa Redgrave as the aged Briony, gives an interview and in so doing the novel becomes a novel within a novel. I think the screenwriter/director made the right choice here as the return to the Tallis house and the enactment of the play would have taken too much time for roughly the same affect--i.e., focusing on Briony's obligations as an author who is yearning for atonement.
However, the interview scene doesn't include one aspect of Briony's decision not to publish her novel, Atonement, sooner--the book makes it clear that she can't publish it while Paul and Lola Marshall are still alive, rich, and powerful. In the middle section of the movie, Briony (stoically played by Romola Garai)realizes that Robbie's name can never be cleared because once Lola is married to Paul she can't/won't testify against him. In the book, Briony waits to publish until after Paul has died. In the movie, no explanation is given for her waiting so long to publish the novel that is supposed to set the record straight.
This all leads back to the main question--does Briony ever really atone for what she did? I have to say no. As a child, she told a lie because she couldn't comprehend the truth. As an author, she told a lie when she changed the ending of Cecelia and Robbie's story. She said that she was trying to give Cecelia and Robbie the happy ending that her initial lie had robbed them of, but by changing the ending of their story she robbed them once. Once again, she's more concerned with herself (i.e., feeling that she has given them something back that she prevented) than the truth of their lives.
Initially, I felt sympathy for Briony when she is a nurse. The only time I cried during the book or movie was when she consoles the dying French man in the hospital, and at that point I felt that I could forgive her for everything. Upon reflection, however, I think the discomfort I felt at the end of the book is actually anger towards her. As a novelist, Briony has an obligation to tell the truth as she knows it. That's all a writer can do--that, and admitting when the truth eludes us. But to alter a story, to knowingly tell a false story, is wrong. It gets muddy here but the point I want to stress is that I believe there are true fictional stories and false ones. McEwan wrote a true story about a writer, Briony Tallis, who wrote false stories.
Good book. Good movie.