Keira Knightley as Cecilia Tallis. Photo from awardsdaily.com
In the first part of this post on how two of my all-time favorite books are being turned into movies this fall, I looked at Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, which became my favorite book when I was 9 years old. And it retained that position for quite a long time--I loved its sequels too, and there were other books I enjoyed, but I don't think it ever had a serious challenger. By the time I was in high school, though, I began thinking it silly that my favorite book was a children's novel. And when I was 15, I finally read a book that knocked The Golden Compass off its pedestal: Atonement, by Ian McEwan.
I read Atonement on a high-school trip to Cuba (a long story which I may get around to telling someday). It was 2003 and the Iraq War had just begun, so you could draw a parallel between that and the depiction of World War II in the novel, though I doubt I was conscious of it at the time. The book had gotten good reviews and was half-price at Costco, so I picked it up rather on a whim--thinking "This had better be good, or I'll be stuck in Cuba with a lousy book."
And at first I read it leisurely--the first section is slowly paced in that classic "British country house novel" way--though I was impressed with McEwen's attention to detail and shifting perspectives. And then, as the book's inexorable chain of events got set into motion, it hooked me in the same way The Golden Compass had. I'd vowed that on our bus trips through Cuba I would observe the countryside instead of reading; soon, that vow was broken. When I finished the book, I stared blankly out the bus window, feeling swelled-up with emotion and ready to cry; just then, we went down a particularly twisty road and the kid in front of me got carsick--the bus had to pull over so he could vomit out the window. That was all anyone could talk about for the rest of the day--"David threw up!" Me, I barely noticed. As it has done to many other readers, that last section of Atonement knocked me flat. Devastated me.
Due to Atonement's critical acclaim and general brilliance, as well as the public's appetite for romantic dramas, I was sure it would be made into a movie someday. Still, I worry that something fundamental may get lost in the translation to the screen. *VAGUE SPOILERS* The end of the book is so powerful because you discover that it's a novel about the act of writing. In order for the twist to function the same way in a movie version, you'd have to make the older Briony a film director instead of a novelist, but I highly doubt that change took place.
James McAvoy as Robbie Turner. Photo from workingtitlefilms.com
All the same, I'm excited about the movie. I was surprised how much I liked director Joe Wright's film version of Pride and Prejudice, which looked beautiful and brought the characters' emotions to life. (You can read my IMDB review here, though it seems that some Austenites took offense at my statement "I admire Jane Austen's novels, but admire good filmmaking even more.") Screenwriter Christopher Hampton proved with Dangerous Liaisons that he can turn a difficult-to-adapt novel into a lively drama. Wright obviously enjoys working with Keira Knightley and she did a good job in Pride and Prejudice--though I wonder if she's too beautiful and glamorous to play Cecilia.
I had a bit of the opposite reaction when I heard James McAvoy would be playing Robbie. Now, as you can see from the photo above, he's not a bad-looking chap, he seems likable, decent, and sympathetic--all qualities that Robbie requires. But I'll admit I pictured Robbie as much more traditionally handsome, and rough around the edges (he's the cleaning lady's son after all) where McAvoy is wet behind the ears. Still, I have heard good things about McAvoy's acting talent and hope to be pleasantly surprised. This movie was made to fulfill Wright's and McEwan's visions, not to fulfill my own romantic dreams, you know!
I will always love Atonement, but I'm less willing to call it my Favorite Book of All Time, as I did when I was sixteen or seventeen. I now think it's a little foolish to single one book out as my all-time favorite, as well as awfully hubristic that both of my former All-Time Favorites, The Golden Compass and Atonement, were written during my own short lifetime. It's exciting, though, that two such high-profile movies based on two such great books are coming out this fall. Often I love the kind of books that would never be made into movies!