Monday, January 28, 2008

Tone Deaf

(Editor's note: While The Man from Porlock recovers from non-blogging-related injuries, we are pleased to offer a review from guest-blogger Helen, over to visit from a neighboring manor....)

I’ve been looking at some reviews of Atonement to see what people are saying about how close the movie comes to the spirit of Ian McEwan's novel. A lot of people are saying that this particularly complex novel must have been so nearly impossible to compact into a screenplay—and that the movie, after all, is beautiful and haunting—so it must have done a pretty good job of it somehow. Many reviewers brush over the topic lightly, saying that the movie doesn’t quite catch the right tone, but without going into any details about it. David Edelstein has more specific things to say, and I found his thoughts helpful because I think one of the key areas in which the movie misses the mark is the way young Briony Tallis is characterized.

In Atonement: The Book, Briony is in a kind of a fever after working on her play non-stop for days on end. She has a debilitating crush on Robbie, is precocious and convinced she was beginning to grasp the secret workings of the behind-the-door adult world, and has a vivid and imaginative inner life. Atonement: The Movie, however, doesn’t make time to let us see these parts of Briony’s personality—the Briony we see here is a bit like a possessed character out of early Stephen King, driven by some kind of unstoppable mania. She goose-steps around the mansion, in time to the sounds of the clicking typewriter, like a frenzied automaton and not the highly sensitive girl from the original story.

I think the clicking typewriter is meant to convey many other things, like the power of fiction, but its dominant, insistent, and steely pounding strongly affects how we react to this central character when we are first introduced to her. And that changes the whole course of how the story plays out in the movie: Briony's mistake feels predestined and inevitable. It happens like clockwork to the clacking of the typewriter keys (and seems akin to Paul Marshall's attitude about the war, that it is also inevitable and unstoppable).

So, where does atonement (with a lower-case "a," in the sense of making amends) fit into this scenario? I think the movie loses the whole sense of Briony's individual responsibility for the personal events, and of our collective responsibilty for the larger political events that unfold. It lacks the very sharp edge that McEwan's novel wields.


Craig said...

This is a fine example of focusing on one specific aspect of a film that did (or, in this case, didn't) work for you, one that's been emphasized in the previews without any real context.

As someone who hasn't seen the film or read the book, how do the rest of the characters compare? And could you talk a little more about the "collective responsibility" you indicated exists in the novel?

Anonymous said...

The other characters seemed more true to the book; Briony definitely stood out as the one movie character that didn't fit with my memories of the text and it's especially jarring because she's the narrator, the central character.

I would have to read the novel again to do your last question justice, but there's a sense of parallel planes of responsibility. Briony's mistaken conclusion causes tremendous personal pain and tragedy. Do individual mistakes like that collectively lead to a world war? When Paul Marshall asserts that the war will happen, and he's glad about it because it will bring his company a fortune, you see an example of a small moment of responsibility that, collectively, led to pain and tragedy on a global scale.