My Top Re-read is a book I first read 14 years ago and it really impressed me then. I think it worked even better a second time. This book is……………
Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)
I read and reviewed this back in January, partly because I had agreed to do a piece for Newbooks magazine comparing the book to the film. Obviously, when I first read the book the film had not been made but this was one occasion where the images of the film had seared their way into my brain. I re-read the book before re-watching the film, was blown away by both and wrote a piece for NB 88 which to celebrate the lofty position this book has attained for me this year I’m going to republish here.
Atonement written by Ian McEwan ( Vintage 2001) Vs. Atonement-directed by Joe Wright (2007)
When thinking of a modern novel where the film version is of an equally high quality to the book the first that came to mind was “Atonement”. To see if my initial reaction was correct I have recently revisited both. On re-reading, the book was even better than I remembered, the film, watched so soon after completing the book, slightly less so, but both deserve to be considered as modern classics and offer five star experiences.
Ian McEwan had up to this point, not fared as well as might have been expected with film adaptations. I had high hopes of 2004’s “Enduring Love” starring Daniel Craig but it didn’t match the intensity of the book. McEwan’s 2001 masterpiece is written in four sections- a country house in a heatwave in 1935: at Dunkirk in 1940; at a London hospital at around the same time and London in 1999. The first section translates to film sumptuously, closely follows McEwan’s careful plotting and often dialogue (Christopher Hampton wrote the Screenplay). It is beautifully performed with James McAvoy and Keira Knightley particularly shining throughout.
Where we have a deviation with the intensity of the novel is the second section, particularly on the road to Dunkirk, which to an extent, is glossed over. This is a brutal, visceral section of the book, quite difficult to read and obviously deemed too difficult to watch. The Dunkirk of the film has been rightly praised for the vividness of the depiction but is a place of far more hope than McEwan’s vision and by taking away some of the bleakness it, to an extent, diffuses the power of some of what comes afterwards. This had passed me by on first viewing but with McEwan’s words and images so firmly in my mind it became apparent. I had to keep reminding myself to breathe when I was reading the book, and although, the film was intense, it was less so. To an extent the viewers have been spared quite a bit of the horrors of war, which probably made sense when marketing the film.
The end section avoids the delightful sense of completion to the story but does make a final twist more definite and more shocking which had me scurrying back for the book for confirmation. Without doubt the film-makers got it right and made a film which was stunning in both appearance and content.