The Sins of the Sister

by Jennifer Makowsky

13 February 2008

A director can translate a writer’s words to the screen beautifully, but he can never alter their power on the page. The book and film versions of Atonement prove this all too well.

The recent film Atonement has brought Ian McEwan, one of my favorite living authors, into the mainstream spotlight.  McEwan’s 2001 tour de force proves that he is a literary master. His gorgeous text, talent to make the imagined strikingly real, and ability to get into the minds of his fully-realized characters offer prose enviable to a writer and admirable to a reader.  In Atonement, he takes on the difficult task of telling the story from several points of view.  This is a stylistic technique that I normally dislike, but McEwan not only pulls it off effortlessly, he actually makes it enjoyable to be on the other end of the page, experiencing it while it’s happening. 

The story starts from the point-of-view of 13-year-old Briony Tallis.  It’s a scorching summer day in pre-World War II England and her three cousins, glossy 15-year-old Lola and nine-year-old twin brothers, Jackson and Pierrott, have come to live with the family as a result of their parents’ recent separation. 

cover art


Ian Mcewan

(Anchor; Reissue)

Briony is trying to cast the three of them as actors in a play she has written. She wants to perform at a gathering later that evening in honor of her brother, Leon. Unfortunately for her, the twins are uninterested in learning their lines and the production is scrapped, much to Briony’s dramatic disappointment, Right away we learn that Briony is fond of manipulating her performers and putting words in others’ mouths—something vital to the plot and the story’s outcome.

With the play on hold, Briony sets off on her own and witnesses a mysterious exchange between her older sister Cecilia and Robbie Turner, the son of the family’s housekeeper. From a window, she sees Cecilia strip down to her underwear and jump into the fountain at the front of the house while Robbie watches.  Briony’s curiosity is so piqued that she begins to write about the incident—finding new intellectual inspiration. 

Later, she is spun from curiosity into shock when she intercepts a note to Cecilia from Robbie.  The note, which was supposed to be a love letter, is actually a sexually explicit confession using the “C” word (an early draft that the young man never meant to send). As a result, Briony is convinced that Robbie is a pervert and that her sister needs to be protected. 

It isn’t until we get the story from Cecilia’s and Robbie’s perspectives that we understand just how distorted young Briony’s viewpoint has been. By the end of the evening, Briony’s over-active imagination and a seemingly innocent little white lie that she tells the authorities will land Robbie in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and cost Cecilia her one true love.

The aftermath of Briony’s accusation fills the remaining three parts of the novel, which focus on Robbie’s time as a soldier in World War II and Briony’s career as a nurse in war-torn London and later as an old woman and successful novelist in the 20th century. 

McEwan’s novel is so brilliantly built that it seems impossible not to foul it up on film. I went into the theater, just knowing I was going to hate the movie.  Leave it to director Joe Wright to prove me wrong.  After spinning Pride and Prejudice into a splendid cinematic adaptation, he succeeded in doing the same wtih Atonement, along with help from screenplay adapter Christopher Hampton (currently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay). 

Keira Knightley and James McAvoy

Keira Knightley and James McAvoy

Keira Knightley appears again as a romantic lead in a Wright film (she was in Pride and Prejudice), this time playing older sister, Cecilia.  In the book, we see Cecilia’s thoughts and learn that she’s a disorganized mess who’s desperately bored being at home all summer after leaving university. Knightley is able to convey these traits within the first few minutes of the film as she sulks languorously with one cigarette after another in the sultry heat. James McAvoy is equally excellent as Robbie, capturing the character’s controlled emotions with tight expressions and wet cobalt eyes.

The romance between Robbie and Cecilia is played up in the film in a much more theatrical way than it is in the book.  The sweeping scenery and shots of the two lovers longing for one another lends a highly dramatic effect to the affair that is otherwise present in the book, but not nearly as exaggerated.  In fact, the ad for the film makes it look as though the film is strictly a romance.  In a way it is, but not entirely. The story is possibly more Briony’s than it is Cecilia and Robbie’s.  This does tend to get overpowered by the film’s concentration on their love affair, however.

Indeed, at its heart the novel is about the relationship between Briony and her sister—something watered down in the film. Yet it’s integral to the overall story. For example, throughout the film, Cecilia whispers to Robbie: “Come back to me.”  In the book, however, Cecilia first whispers this line to Briony whenever the girl has a nightmare.  Here we see the strong bond the sisters share, and its absence in the film results in the lessened impact of Briony’s actions on the sisters’ relationship.

Saoirse Ronan, who plays young Briony, readily transmits the character’s brusque mannerisms and sly spirit.  In fact, McEwan has described the actress’s portrayal as “remarkable”.  It’s no surprise then, that she too has been nominated for an Academy Award for her performance.

One thing missing from the screen, however, is the presence of the young girl histrionics that made Briony so dislikeable as a character in the novel’s first part.  McEwan made her such a brat that I wanted to punch the pages of the book.  This seemed to lend credibility to the character’s immaturity, which contrasts her mature adult personality later on.  In the film, Romola Garai plays Briony as a young adult (Vanessa Redgrave takes on the task later on). 

Keira Knightley and Saoirse Ronan

Keira Knightley and Saoirse Ronan

Robbie gets almost as much screen time, if not more, than Briony.  A large chunk of the film takes place in France during World War II where he is a soldier trying to make it to Dunkirk while dodging German air attacks. What should have been a nightmarish war landscape in the film seemed a little too arranged and unreal.  Normally, I have a very hard time watching any war scene, but while viewing Atonement, I was constantly reminded that it was “just a movie.” In contrast, the book’s depiction of the war and its horrific results are genuine and ring with dreadful clarity.

The novel ends with Briony coming to the realization that no amount of atonement or attempted re-imagining of her sister and Robbie’s fates will make up for what she did as a young girl.  In the film, Redgrave does an amazing job of portraying this staggering realization. She addresses the viewer in tight focus, ruminating on the relationship between truth and fiction, deciding that, as a novelist herself, fiction can help heal the hurt caused in reality. But fiction can never change what really happened.  Indeed, a director can translate a writer’s words to the screen beautifully, but he can never alter their power on the page. Both versions of Atonement prove this all too well.

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