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“Atonement” Book vs. Movie

Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel, Atonement, tells the story of thirteen year old Briony Tallis – a young British girl who with one false accusation completely dismantles lives and the relationship between her older sister Cecilia and the love of her life, Robbie. I’ll try my best to not give any spoilers if you haven’t read or watched the movie. This post will mostly focus on comparing the book and movie.

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I won’t lie, the first time I heard of the novel was when the movie came out in 2007, which I didn’t see. I only recently read the novel because I was teaching the novel in my AP Literature class. I read and enjoyed McEwan’s style of writing greatly. His writing style depended on whose story he was telling at the time. For example, the first part of the novel which tells the whole background of the story and the events that occur leading up to Briony’s accusation against Robbie uses very descriptive language whereas the second part which is told mostly from Robbie’s point of view during World War II, is more concise.

I took advantage of my spring break by watching a lot of movies while I relaxed and Atonement was one of the movies I watched. The movie mostly stuck to the novel, but of course cut out some parts. I like that the major plot points were not cut out, but I felt that some key points were not focused on so if you were only watching the movie without having read the novel you may not fully understand how much Cecilia and Robbie loved each other or the real driving force behind Briony’s accusation. This is actually my only real gripe with the film. The movie makes it seem like Briony’s main purpose for accusing Robbie for committing the crime is because she was a jealous 13 year old girl. Jealous that Robbie and her older sister had entered into a relationship with each other. In the novel, the idea of Briony having a crush on Robbie is skimmed over. In fact, there is no real proof of this except for Robbie having a flashback during the war of a young Briony professing her love for him when he gave her swimming lessons. He thinks a lovesick Briony could be the reason she pointed her finger at him a few years earlier, but this is just in his head and from Briony’s point of view the readers are never given that impression.

In the novel, a young Briony, is seen as an aspiring writer and storyteller. She thrives on writing stories and performing her plays for her family. She has this fantastical view of the world and dreams of damsels in distress being rescued. Her accusing Robbie has less to do with her school girl crush and more to do with the fact that she truly believed her sister needed saving and she wanted to be a hero. In fact, when Robbie is arrested and her sister is seen distraught and crying she doesn’t feel guilty for what she’s done because she truly believed that she was telling the truth and that she saved her sister from a horrible fate.

I know my students were really annoyed with the character of Briony and felt like she was an annoying, meddlesome little girl. Yes, things could have been vastly different for the fates of the characters had Briony not accused Robbie of the crime. However, as an unbiased reader you have to look at it that Briony truly believed she was doing what was right and she believed she was telling the truth and rescuing her sister. I wish this imaginative side of Briony had been emphasized in the movie because it really was a huge reason why she did what she did. It wasn’t because of some crush, but because she had this idea in her head that life is like a work of fiction.

Some other things I want to note from the movie…

Saoirse Ronan plays the young Briony. She was so young in the movie! It’s so hard to believe how young she was in the movie, yet Kiera Knightly looks like she hasn’t aged a day since the filming of the movie. One thing that I think is hilarious and I actually laugh a little out loud thinking about is the fact that we see Briony at 3 different ages throughout the novel and for some reason, they chose to have her wearing basically the exact same hair style! It’s a little ridiculous and funny to think that Briony at the ages 13, 18, and 70 something hasn’t changed her hair at all. Check out the pictures below to see what I mean!

Atonement - Young Briony
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Atonement - nurse briony
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Funny, right?

Next, the novel also spends a fair amount of time in one of the parts where Cecilia is trying to figure out what to wear to dinner. She tries on multiple outfits, different jewelry and accessories and finally settles on a slinky, emerald green gown. I was really looking forward to see what the dress would look like in the movie since it was really something she spent a lot of time choosing in the novel. The dress did not disappoint. Keira Knightly looked gorgeous in the green gown. The gown is beautiful and positively seductive which is what Cecilia was going for. Fashion highlight of the movie for sure.

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keira_knightly - atonement
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atonement - emerald green dress
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Overall, I liked the movie and I think Saoirse Ronan, Kiera Knightly, and James McAvoy did a great job portraying their roles. I enjoyed the novel more just because it gave so much more insight than the novel and you not only got a better understanding of the love between Cecilia and Robbie, but also the motivations of Briony. The novel also does a much better job of really showing Briony’s striving for atonement to make up for what she did as a kid.

One of my favorite quotes from the novel is from when we see Briony after 5 years have gone by and she is training to be a nurse – part of her atonement for her past mistake.

“Her memories of the interrogation and signed statements and testimony, or of her awe outside the courtroom from which her youth excluded her, would not trouble her so much in the years to come as her fragmented recollection of that late night and summer dawn. How guilt refined the methods of self-torture, threading the beads of detail into an eternal loop, a rosary to be fingered for a lifetime”

I love McEwan’s descriptive language. It’s so beautiful. The idea that her guilt is like threading beads for eternity and a “rosary to be fingered for a lifetime” – I mean come on, that is good writing!

I highly recommend reading the novel and then after that watching the movie!

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