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I don't think the adaptation of an overtly metafictional novel is ever completely successful, at least in the eyes of those familiar with the original. A movie that I personally consider to be one of the best adaptations of a novel, The English Patient, succeeds as a movie because it had the courage to BE a movie, to abandon any attempt to capture the essentially literariness of the source.

The movie of Ian McEwan's Atonement is faithful to the book, yet although it is beautiful, well acted, and ultimately moving, is like a kind of Cole's Notes version. In her review, lidocafe, with whom I saw the movie yesterday, wrote that she missed the density of McEwan's work and a sense of a narrator. I think McEwan's narrator or narrators, in truth, are replaced by a filmic narration. You could feel the director pulling the strings, placing clues for us, saying "look here!" "feel this!" If the narrative effects of the novel had been wholly replaced by filmic effects, as in The English Patient, the movie might have been as much of a masterpiece as its original. What I missed was the sense of being lost in the work, of disappearing into another world, another time. The elements in the movie - from the opening shot of a house that is revealed to be a doll's house, which morphs into a "real" country house, to the staccato sound of a typewriter blending with the score, to the jerky, looping time lines - that attempted to capture the metafictional qualities of the novel, had the effect for me of distancing me from the movie. I kept being pulled in and then jerked out again. For this reason, the ending, though moving, was less affective than in the book, where it is devastating. It's impossible to say whether the movie would have more or less power for those who have not read the book. My own feeling is that it might be very confusing without the prior knowledge brought from the novel.

All that being said, it is a very beautiful movie, and has its own power. The long tracking shot on the beach at Dunkirk is brilliant and memorable, not just for its technical prowess but for the surreal vision that it presents of the battle. This was a sequence in which the true power of film-making came to the fore, the one place where I felt the director's vision equalled or surpassed McEwan's. The acting is all very good; I was particularly impressed by James McAvoy and by the girl who plays Briony as a child. Kiera Knightley is adequate - as lidocafe said afterwards, at least she didn't smirk too much. She didn't have much to do, beyond look beautiful and tragic. I was distracted by the bones of her hips and her almost sunken chest. Far be it from me, who has been at most a B cup all my life, to make snide remarks about another woman's inadequacy in that department, but perhaps the flimsy garments she was wearing highlighted her anorexic skinniness. Vanessa Redgrave appears at the end, luminous and deeply intelligent, conveying in her sad eyes the depth of the tragedy. Her presence brings weight and power to the end of the movie.

Ian McEwan's vision is dark, but founded on a remarkable depth of understanding of humanity, and an ability to convey the nuances of life, both social and interior. This movie, for all its strengths, did not quite capture the depths of McEwan's vision.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 28th, 2007 05:40 pm (UTC)
Absolutely. That is an excellent point about the filmic narration. And the typewriter thing did seem to me like something that would come out of a class project on the novel! The director cannot possibly convey the power of McEwan's roving omniscient narration, which is more like the compassionate sparrow-spotting godlike narrators of the great Victorian writers, particularly Eliot and Hardy, than it is like a camera's eye.

Joe Wright has excellent taste in books, obviously, and he is a hottie besides (have you ever seen a picture of him?!), but I'd like to see what he could do without a great novel under his microscope.
Dec. 28th, 2007 06:48 pm (UTC)
This makes me interested in the book, which I haven't read. And how about The English Patient--can I enjoy it without having read the book? Your remarks imply so...

Speaking of metafictional novels (if it's right to use that term for this novel)--have you read Possession, and if so, what did you think? That's one that I think must translate poorly to the screen (I know a movie's been made, but I haven't seen it.)
Dec. 28th, 2007 08:44 pm (UTC)
It seemed next to impossible to me to render the nineteenth-century aspects of Byatt's novel in particular.
Dec. 28th, 2007 09:45 pm (UTC)
I think you would be fine seeing the movie of The English Patient without having read the book. (but read the book - it's wonderful - and read Atonement, which is even more so)

And yes, I loved Possession and saw the movie, which was disappointing. Actually the Victorian bits in the movie were more interesting than the present day story.

Edited at 2007-12-28 09:49 pm (UTC)
Dec. 29th, 2007 03:14 am (UTC)
Gwyneth Paltrow--what were they thinking?
Dec. 28th, 2007 08:35 pm (UTC)
Have you seen and read The French Lieutenant's Woman? Harold Pinter's screenplay uses completely different techniques to recreate the doubleness of the narrative. It does work, but it's a long way from footnotes.
Dec. 28th, 2007 08:45 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that was a bold move. Harold Pinter also adapted one of my favorite, though not metafictional, English novels, The Go-Between. Has anyone read the book / seen the movie?
Dec. 28th, 2007 09:48 pm (UTC)
I've done both, and in fact the movie is gorgeous and captures the book well (another in a short list of extremely successful adaptations). It's Alan Bates (when young and very attractive) and Julie Christie, and Dominic Guard as the boy - what's not to like! I saw the movie first, though, which tends to make you more lenient towards the movie.

And although the movie of The French Lieutenant's Woman failed for other reasons, Pinter did quite a good job of attempting to capture the metafictional aspects of the book. We missed having John Fowles sitting in the railway carriage with Charles and Sarah, though :)

Edited at 2007-12-28 09:52 pm (UTC)
Dec. 29th, 2007 03:16 am (UTC)
The more I think of it, the more I see a connection between The Go-Between and Atonement . . .
Dec. 29th, 2007 05:56 am (UTC)
Yes! That would be a very interesting comparison...
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )


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