Atonement vs. Atonement?

by | Jan 3, 2008 | Books | 40 comments

As the self-appointed Chairman of the “Can’t We Just Give Ian McEwan the Nobel Prize Already??” Committee, I’ve blogged often about my esteem for McEwan, which borders on the fanatical and which I have so consistently expressed that I have a blog tag for all things Ian McEwan. (I’m expecting the restraining order at any moment.)

While I haven’t read all of his books (YET), ATONEMENT is my favorite, and not only my favorite McEwan novel, but rather it is my favorite novel of the last ten years.

There are many reasons to love ATONEMENT, from the beautiful language to the wrenching plot, the rich historical setting to the memorable characters and images, but there are two reasons in particular that I love the novel:

The first is that it is a tremendous example of what I am arbitrarily calling a “backdrop” novel. Although the novel isn’t about World War II, the sense of dread and regret and transgression that McEwan evokes in the first half of the book is truly driven home by the evacuation at Dunkirk and the horrific experiences of Briony when she is a nurse. The novel isn’t “about” World War II per se, but it manages to capture an intense and moving synchronicity of feeling between the war and the lives of the characters, both humanizing the war and contextualizing the lives of the characters. I really love and admire novels that are able to do this because it makes both the historical backdrop and the characters feel richer and bigger and more meaningful. McEwan is a master at capturing a historical period as experienced in the lives of his characters.

The second reason is that it is a meta-novel, in the sense that it can also be read as being about the nature of writing and truth and fiction. And as it examines the nature of fiction and manages to be a novel about itself, it’s not even annoying!

So I was definitely both excited and anxious to see the movie adaptation of ATONEMENT, now in a theater near you.

My thoughts: it was good. You probably couldn’t ask for a more faithful translation from book to film, the acting was great, that famous long shot was, well, long (and amazing)…. but basically it just made me remember how much I love the book.

My complaint about the movie is that it sometimes felt heavy-handed (when Robbie wants to undo the past… he imagines things moving backwards), and the second half wasn’t as intense as the first. Part of this had to do with choices by the filmmakers, part of it (such as the ending) were faithful to the book but seemed a little bit hollow on the screen.

Ultimately: the movie was good. But you just can’t top the book.

Have you seen “Atonement”? Read the book? What did you think?


  1. Anonymous

    Another you might like, because of putting the characters into historical context, is Beth Gutcheon’s Leeway Cottage. The middle section deals with the saving of Denmark’s Jewish population in WWII, and it’s really, really well done. Wondering if you’ve read it? Wendy Weil reps her.

  2. Nathan Bransford


    No, I haven’t read that one but I’ll add it to my list!

  3. Josephine Damian

    What I think is: Nathan, you’re posting later and later in the day.

    Atonement? I’ll best your opinion by saying it’s my top #1 fave novel of all time (never mind the past 10 years my young friend). Did you see the review where it said: “If God could write a novel, it would be Atonement”?

    Could not agree more. “Saturday” was a disappointment (I’d use stronger language but I know how much you hate it when I’m critical) and “Chesil” was decent.

    “Enduring Love” was a stand-out thriller of sorts from him, and “Cement Garden”, his first novel – showed great promise (i recommend both books).

    The “Atonement” movie? The trailer alone was enough to for me to see the movie does not live up to the book (felt the same about “Cold Mountain” after seeing that movie), so, no, not gonna see the movie version.

    A Nobel? I think his chances are slightly greater than McCarthy’s – meaning doubtful – seems the Nobel crew likes more political books with a global perspective than what those two have written. Ditto for Roth.

    BTW. I think the “Silence of the Lambs” movie was a huge improvement over the book (anybody else agree on that one?). Ted Tally deserved the Oscar for that script.

  4. Anonymous

    Nathan have you read “The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruis Zafon?
    You MUST add it to your list, it is fantastic.

    It is set in Barcelona 1945 and year by year it follows this boy who may have the last book by an author (Julian Carax)who has had all his book sytematically burned/destroyed by a group of people trying to make him and his work forgotten. There is the man with a burned face who…well I won’t spoil it for you. I’m just going to say it is one of the best I’ve read in a long time.

    Anon # (looks at posts) 2

  5. Sam Hranac

    Having read the book recently, I was against seeing the movie at all. Now, on YOUR recommendation, I’ll go see the movie. I’ll let you know if it breaks my faith in you.

    Is it like The World According to Garp book was better than the movie sort of thing or was the gap even wider? I just want to prepare myself. Please don’t let it be the Huck Finn meets Disney sort of gap.

    By the way, what do you think of the Bandy Papers series? Much lighter, I know, but a very enjoyable backdrop story.

  6. Christine

    I’m reading the book now, am only about a fifth of the way through it, and really enjoying it. The characters couldn’t be more alive if they had a pulse.

  7. Anonymous

    Am I the only person on the planet who had a hard time with the book? I tried at the first 100 pages, really I did, but I found the prose stilted and the plot plodding and the characters moderately annoying. It all seemed so self-important that I put it down. Apparently it gets much better shortly after the point I put it down. But sheesh, everyone else gushes about it so much I guess I have to give it another shot.

  8. Anonymous

    Well, I thought the movie was cinematic and rather slow and I’m sure it will win awards, but the good news is it made me want to read the book. I am positive there’s more to the book than the movie portrayed. At least I sure hope so.

  9. Dave Wood

    Excellent! Another book recommendation. 🙂

    I really enjoyed Spin — another background book, I think, in that story is about the characters’ relationships set against the huge stage of the science fiction story. And I just finished The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. That one took me a bit to adjust to — the voice held me back at first — but it just kept getting better. I’ve got Cormack MacCarthy next on my list, and now Atonement.

  10. Anonymous

    Anon, I found the book hard to get through as well. Self-important and sluggish really described it for me.

  11. Anonymous

    I read it when it first came out and though I didn’t hate it, I wasn’t all that impressed.
    Then I started reading all the hoopla about it, made me want to give it another read, because apparently I missed something. But so far, I haven’t been able to persuade myself to pick it up again.

  12. AM

    Ian McEwan’s seemingly effortless molding of the English language is something to behold. Each sentence in Atonement is carefully wrought, rhythmic; he is a master of craft. As for his characters, the fair Briony is painfully real, especially in the first third. But what completely undid me was how Mr. McEwan presented each character’s perspective of the “misunderstanding.” A tweak here, a shift there amd everything changed.

    As for the ending, the Washington Post book blog listed Atonement as one of the books to throw against the wall because of its ending. I won’t divulge it here, but suffice to say a writer, someone who builds worlds for a living because this one is sometimes too painful to bear, would understand.

  13. Nona

    I haven’t read “Atonement” but I LOVED “Saturday.”

    “Chesil Beach” was okay. Very well-written but such a downer. I just wish that people weren’t so weird that someone could write an entire book about one isolated incident of sexual dysfunction. And on their wedding night! How sad.

  14. Anonymous

    The book bored me to tears.

  15. Nathan Bransford

    ok, it’s kind of getting funny now. Why are all the people who didn’t like the book commenting anonymously? Do you think I’m going to be mad at you because you didn’t like the book? Do you think Ian McEwan is going to be mad? I mean, his forces are strong but…

  16. SightsUnseen

    Anonymity creates bravery Nathan. They think you will be heartbroken by their differing opinion and that when they query (and perhaps link their blog), you will remember them and turn them down because of it.

    Er…at least that is my opinion on the matter.

  17. Morgan Dempsey

    I’d email this to you, but well, since your email is for queries only, guess I’ll drop it here:

    I’m not sure if Blogger’s going to cut that. I’ve heard noises about them being mad at links. Er, well.

    Notable excerpt: “Among the ones that hardware hacker Igor Skochinsky uncovered and described on his blog are a basic photo viewer, a minesweeper game, and most interesting, location technology that uses the Kindle’s CDMA networking to pinpoint its position. There also are some basic location-based services that call up a Google Maps view to show where you are and nearby gas stations and restaurants.”

    Thought you might be interested. Send your thanks to Slashdot.

  18. tkersh

    Here’s an article for all of you Kindle-heads on newly-discovered hidden features:

    “…a basic photo viewer, a minesweeper game, and […] basic location-based services that call up a Google Maps view to show where you are and nearby gas stations and restaurants.”

    They’re going for ubiquitous device, which will probably be the only way to sell it (or certainly the best)!

  19. tkersh

    Er, what Morgan said!

    Hats off to the faster typer!

  20. Bartleby717

    Just finished McEwan’s Amsterdam…Entertaining, but most interesting part was seeing the quantum leap in complexity, depth, context between it and Atonement, written 4-5 yrs. later. Cheers to improving with age! Speaking of book vs. movie, any opinions re: “House of Sand and Fog”?

  21. Mig

    Feel the same way about Mcewan, but am split between Atonement and Enduring Love as my favorite.

  22. Jael

    I didn’t like Atonement, and I’m not afraid to say it non-anonymously… because Nathan already rejected my partial last year. You can’t hurt me, Bransford! Mwah hah, hah, etc.

    McEwan’s a great craftsman, I don’t deny it, but I think I just couldn’t attach to any of the characters. Without sympathy for Briony, or empathy for Cecilia, or curiosity about Robbie, you’re kind of left with a novel that takes a really long time to say: “Consequences suck.”

    It’s interesting, how as a writer it’s really hard to hear “I just didn’t connect with it” as a reason for an agent’s rejection, but as a reader, sometimes that’s just how it is. You can love “the writing” without loving “the book”.

  23. cyn

    nathan, i read atonement and found the war part dragged for me. this is always the case for any book, like war and peace. it’s entirely personal. atonement was the only book i’ve read by mcewan. i think he is a fantastic prose writer but perhaps a bit over written for my taste in some parts.

    the actions of briony was so distasteful to me i couldn’t read the parts where she accused robbie of rape. i despised her, actually. which is kudos to mcewan to craate a situation/character that i felt so strongly about, especially since the story is meant to be written by briony herself.

    i thought the film very well done and faithful to the novel. the casting was spot on and i thought that the hot guy playing robbie was the best of the bunch. he made the character more human to me.

    i felt we were cheated in a way by the ending (an interview versus a bday party), but i understood why it was done that way.

    having said all that, despite the fact that i rarely read literary fiction, i’m interested in reading on chesil beach.

  24. cyn

    addendum :

    and for me, the most genius part of the book was “the twist” at the end. that trumped everything for me.

    i hate cryig and i did not cry over the book. i had to make myself not cry for the film. if i had NOT known the ending beforehand, i would have cried.

  25. cwsherwoodedits

    I just re-read Atonement in anticipation of seeing the movie this weekend. (cyn, I agree, for me the war part drags. Ditto War and Peace, possibly my favorite book). Even though I knew what was coming at the end, I felt just as devastated as the first time I read it. If I have anywhere near the same emotional reaction to the movie, I’ll love it.

  26. Nikki

    I’ll comment non-anonymously (clumsy, but it’s late) too:

    I didn’t like Atonement. Not quite true. I liked it up till the end. Then I threw it out the window in a fit of rage, feeling he’d negated the whole middle of the book.

    I love McEwan’s short stories though.

  27. cyn

    nikki, you didn’t like the twist at the end, do you mean? and how did you feel the end negated the middle?

  28. Nikki

    Cyn, suddenly saying that the middle of the book was Briony’s book seemed to take all the power out of all those words. It didn’t happen that way really, and that made me feel manipulated and cheated. I admire the cleverness with which it was done, it has to be said, but it did feel a bit like ‘and then she woke up and it had all been a dream’.

  29. Melody

    I tried to read it, Nathan, I swear. I couldn’t get past page 19. I re-read the first pages maybe half a dozen times. By the sixth time I was reading passages out loud to my husband to demonstrate just how many words the author used to say so very little. Lovely, lyrical words…lots and lots and LOTS of them. After I saw the movie, I went back and skimmed the rest of the book to contrast and compare. The writing wasn’t quite as dense in the second half, so there’s that. Honestly, all I wanted to do was roll up that damned play and beat Brione about the head and shoulders with it.

  30. Nona

    If it’s any consolation, “Nona” is my real name. So if I ever query you, Nathan, you’ll know it’s me. (tee-hee). Problem is, I’m writing a screenplay and as you said yourself, you don’t handle them. Otherwise, you’d be the very first person on my list once I finish.

    I love STORY but at the same time I’m very, very visual.


  31. cyn

    thanks for answering nikki. my writing group friend said the exact same thing today regarding the “twist”. whereas i and another friend found it to be genius, she felt manipulated and cheated.

    isn’t it nuts how personal reactions are?

  32. Magee

    The ending is genius – though if all novels ended like that you’d probably stop reading them. ( The twist at the end was foreshadowed by Cyril Connolly’s letter, IMO. A pivotal few pages. )
    I can understand why some people hate the book, however. The pace and mood is calibrated for those ( many not English ) with a nostalgia for big houses, 1930s England, etc. No novel can sail above the cultural preferences of the reader. Similarly, Saturday was detested by many for the depiction of privilege.

  33. Travis Erwin

    Read the novel. Loved it and the book ending had me thinking for weeks afterward.

    I’ve been trying to convince my wife to see the movie with me, but I might give up and go alone.

  34. asif din

    Haven’t read the novel yet. I’ve tried to read McEwan but his writing just doesn’t work for me at all (perhaps I need to try one. more. time.).

    However, I did watch the movie and I thought it was absolutely amazing. Loved the way the movie unfolded, the scenes from dual perspective aspect was used beautifully. The war scenes did drag a bit but I definitely felt the intentions of it so I was okay with it. The cast in its entirety was top class and Oscar-worthy, especially James McAvoy, Kiera Knightly, and the young girl who played Briony (too late/lazy to actually look up her name).

    If nothing else it does make me want to perhaps check out the book.

  35. Christine

    I just finished Atonement, and as my husband is out on his poker night, there’s no one in the house to share how absolutely amazing this book was, and I needed to share/agree/close-the-gaping-hole-that-is-my-mouth, and as I read about this book here first, your blog was the first thing I thought of. The ending! Oh my goodness!! How could anyone have thrown that? What was the man from the Post thinking?? At first, the last section threw me off – I wasn’t sure whose perspective we were on, or why the book was still going after it wrapped so perfectly, but holy crap! That ending was absolutely amazing!

  36. Joe Rivera

    I just returned from seeing the film, after having read the book two months ago. I was actually going to skip the movie altogether, but curiosity got the best of me (and it happened to be playing at the exact time that I wanted to go in and watch something.)

    All in all, I think the filmmakers did a decent job of editing the book to work in movie format. The plot was obviously shaved a bit, you miss many of the smaller relationships and subtleties, but that is to be expected.

    I felt that the casting was fantastic – aside from Keira Knightley who was woefully miscast and not nearly talented enough to pull of such a complex character. Every close-up of her says one and only one thing: please feed me.

    The art direction was beautiful, truly capturing the feel of every location in the book. At times it was a bit computer-manipulation heavy, and had an otherworldly appearance, but not in a good way. The filmmaker is guilty of some over-stylizing, colorization and pumped color/contrast and such, which can pull you out of the gravity of the story at times.

    My one large concern with the film is it’s ending. I felt that the book’s birthday party and the surrounding scenes actually lent themselves very well to film and I’m baffled why the director didn’t follow it. Those scenes really help to transition you from the end of the story and into the present day and are imperative in leading up to Briony’s shocking revelation at the end.

    The movie was clumsy and used a TV interview format to replace all of that subtlety. It came so fast and so out of nowhere that it rips you out of the story and has no context (literally since it is Vanessa Redgrave speaking against black.)

    The actual written content of the interview also causes a HUGE change to the end of the story.

    In the book, Briony’s finally admittance of truth comes via a private, written reflection while she is alone in her room. It is also made clear that her book has NOT been published and would not be until after her death. In other words, she has chosen, rather selfishly, to duck telling the world the harsh truth of what she caused and will go to her grave having left a lie behind that makes her look like a better person than she actually is.

    In the film, I feel they went out of their way to make Briony look sympathetic in the end – she has confessed her sins in the book and then confesses the missing truths to an interviewer on television. Essentially the complete opposite of the book.

    When reading the book, I hated her for once again allowing fiction to ruin other’s lives (or, in this case, deaths) by choosing falsity over truth to make herself feel better. When watching the film you feel – well, at least she finally told the truth. To me, a startling difference.

    I’m sorry that the filmmakers didn’t approach the end of the story in a more subtle, revealing way. I think filmgoers miss out on the breathtaking final two pages of the book — which really, in every way, totally reshape all story that comes before.

    I’m interested in hearing how others interpret the end of the novel – and if this disparity exists for them as well.

  37. Moose

    I’ve neither read the book nor seen the movie but the commercial running on tv reminds me of the fragrance commercials of a few years ago, frinstance Obsession from Calvin Klein.

    Maybe if Calvin Klein comes out with a fragrance for men called Atonement maybe I’ll try it.


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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