A Need For Atonement?

"Atonement” is an almost classical example of how pointless, how diminishing, the transmutation of literature into film can be" - The New York Times

"Atonement” is one of the few adaptations that gives a splendid novel the film it deserves." - The Los Angeles Times

An article in Wikipedia discusses how: "the word 'atonement' gained widespread use in the sixteenth century after William Tyndale recognized that there was not a direct translation of the concept into English. In order to explain the doctrine of Christ's sacrifice, which accomplished both the remission of sin and reconciliation of man to God, Tyndale invented a word that would encompass both actions. He wanted to overcome the inherent limitations of the word "reconciliation" while incorporating the aspects of "propitiation" and "forgiveness". It is interesting to note that while Tyndale labored to translate the 1526 English Bible, his proposed word comprises two parts, 'at' and 'onement,' which also means reconciliation, but combines it with something more. Although one thinks of the Jewish Fast of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the Hebrew word is 'kaper' meaning 'a covering', so one can see that 'reconciliation' doesn't precisely contain all the necessary components of the word atonement. Expiation means "to atone for." Reconciliation comes from Latin roots re, meaning "again"; con, meaning "with"; and ultimately, 'sol', a root meaning "seat". Reconciliation, therefore, literally means "to sit again with." While this meaning may appear sufficient, Tyndale thought that if translated as "reconciliation," there would be a pervasive misunderstanding of the word's deeper significance to not just reconcile, but "to cover," so the word, 'atonement' was invented."

The movie “Atonement” is based on the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan. The story is a look at the way one childhood lie tragically wrecks several lives.

The Christian Science Monitor in its review said: Set primarily in 1930s and '40s England, it's about the British class caste system and the tragic consequences of a lie. Thirteen-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is the precocious younger sister of Cecilia (Keira Knightley), who is powerfully drawn to Robbie (James McAvoy), the caretaker's son. Thanks to her well-to-do family, Robbie has attended Cambridge and plans on a medical career. Bewildered and angered by the obvious mutual attraction between these two, Briony commits an unspeakable action that eventually annihilates all three lives.

BeliefNet continues: This immature mistake is raised to the level of Shakepearean tragedy as Robbie is sent to jail and then to war, separating him from Cecilia. Cecilia breaks all ties with her family -especially Briony - and waits with longing for Robbie to return to her. As the story cuts back and forth through time, different versions of different events are given, and the audience only finds out the true story of what happens to these three characters at the very end of the film. Problems with “Atonement” lie almost entirely in the second half of the film, when it switches to Robbie’s time at war and to Briony’s search as a young woman for forgiveness for her childish actions. There is the symbolism of Briony working in a hospital as a form of penance, and there is a confession of sorts at the end of the film, it becomes obvious that Briony continued to make cowardly choices in her adult life that only added to the suffering of herself and others. She wants reconciliation with her family and craves for mercy to cover her sins, but she doesn’t seem to grasp that the cost of receiving both will take great courage on her part.

The New York Times was singularly unimpressed with the movie saying in its review that “Atonement” is fundamentally about guilt and the attempt to overcome it, and about the tricky, tragically imperfect power of art to compensate for real-life crimes and misdemeanors. In sharp contrast, The Los Angeles Times said that as an assured and deeply moving work, "Atonement" is at once one of the most affecting of contemporary love stories and a potent meditation on the power of fiction to destroy and create, to divide and possibly heal. It is the kind of novel that doesn't get written very often or, if it does, rarely gets transferred to the screen with the kind of intensity and fidelity we find here. For this is one of the few adaptations that gives a splendid novel the film it deserves.

Christianity Today felt that the film raises "important questions about the relationship between honesty and kindness, between truth and grace, between memory and wishful thinking, and it ends on a surprisingly powerful note that asks whether there can ever be true mercy without truth. Can one find redemption in a lie, if it is told with kindness? "Atonement" seems to be about people who cannot let go of the past, and are indeed haunted by the past and their knowledge that it can never be undone. Briony, in particular, is searching for grace and forgiveness, and the fact that she can't quite find it makes Atonement one of the more devastating films in recent memory".

Can there be mercy without truth or redemption in a lie?

Posted December 14, 2007


Avid Reader said...

I haven't seen the movie yet but I have read the book and I found it a difficult read but in a strange way worth it at the end. I will get to the movie this week but my reaction to movies of books that I have read is that they are never as good as the book - but then again maybe the movie will be a bit easier to follow. Will comment more later.


Joan Ferguson said...


The movie IMHO is not as good as the book but then that is the reaction that I have had to every movie I have seen based on a book that I have read. I was particularly disappointed in the movie version of Angela's Ashes but then when one thinks about it a movie is just a set of short scenes dealing with incidents from a book. As such it can be no better than a glorified comic/cartoon/funnies version of a book.


Megan Zamprelli said...

Haven't seen the movie yet but enjoyed the book though in parts I thought it dragged somewhat and I had to push on with the story. But a great story it was!


Avid Reader said...

I would recommend as ‘must reading’ Brian Finney’s essay entitled Briony's Stand Against Oblivion: Ian McEwan's Atonement which is a comprehensive analysis of this book. The essay is about 20 pages in length.

Here is an excerpt to get you started:

My reading of this novel is of a work of fiction that is from beginning to end concerned with the making of fiction. When we first meet its female protagonist, Briony, at the age of thirteen, she is already committed to the life of a writer. She ruthlessly subordinates everything the world throws at her to her need to make it subserve the demands of her own world of fiction. Brought up on a diet of imaginative literature, she is too young to understand the dangers that can ensue from modeling one's conduct on such an artificial world. When she makes public her confusion between life and the life of fiction the consequences are tragic and irreversible except in the realm of fiction. She attempts to use fiction to correct the errors that fiction caused her to commit. But the chasm that separates the world of the living from that of fictional invention ensures that at best her fictional reparation will act as an attempt at atoning for a past that she can not reverse. Atonement, then, is concerned with the dangers of entering a fictional world and the compensations and limitations which that world can offer its readers and writers.

Briony, who became a successful novelist, has been the author of the entire novel and has taken a novelist's license to alter the facts to suit her artistic purposes. Despite the description Briony gives in Part Three of Robbie and Cecilia living together after his return from Dunkirk, we learn on the penultimate page that Robbie died before he could be evacuated from Dunkirk and that Cecilia was killed by a bomb three months later.

The novel's epigraph, a quotation from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, serves as both a warning and a guide to how the reader should view this narrative. Austen's protagonist, Catherine Moorland, who is reprimanded by Henry Tilney in the quoted extract for her naïve response to events around her, is the victim of reading fiction - the Gothic romances of her day and failing to make a distinction between the fictive and the real.

Although there is only one narrative voice that turns out to be that of Briony, the aging novelist, McEwan employs what Gérard Genette calls variable internal focalization in Part One, that is, narrative where the focal character changes (whether the narrative voice changes, on not it doesn't in Atonement). In the case of Atonement, it is first Briony, then Cecilia, then Robbie, and so on. McEwan employs this particular "modal determination" (Genette 188) partly to distinguish his narrative from the classic realist novel's association with an omniscient narrator (Briony's lie came from positioning herself as such a narrator in her fictionalized scenario of events), partly to demonstrate Briony's, the adult narrator's, attempt to project herself into the thoughts and feelings of her characters, an act which we will see is crucial to her search for forgiveness.


Diana Malcolm said...

Seems like an interesting book and movie – I will get to see it this week. I looked up McEwan on Wikipedia and saw the following interesting pieces:

1) In late 2006, Lucilla Andrews’ autobiography 'No Time for Romance' became the focus of a posthumous controversy when it was alleged that McEwan plagiarized from this work while writing his highly acclaimed novel 'Atonement'. McEwan publicly protested his innocence; in The Guardian newspaper, he responded to the claim, stating he had acknowledged Andrews' work in the author's note at the end of Atonement. McEwan has been defended by many leading writers, including the American novelist Thomas Pynchon. Comments had also been made about the questionable originiality of his first novel, 'The Cement Garden', and the writer Claire Henderson-Davis suggested to McEwan that his book 'On Chesil Beach' had been inspired by the name of her mother, and the life stories of her parents. Once again, McEwan denied this claim.

2) McEwan is writing the libretto to an opera called "For You", which tells the story of a composer whose sexual and professional prowess have passed their peak. It is being composed by Michael Berkeley and is set to be performed in 2008.

3) In 2002, Ian McEwan discovered that he had a brother who had been given up for adoption during World War II - the story became public in 2007. The brother, a bricklayer named David Sharpe, was born six years earlier than McEwan, when his mother was married to a different man. Sharpe has the same two parents as McEwan but was born from an affair between McEwan's parents that occurred before their marriage. After her first husband was killed in combat, McEwan's mother married her lover, and Ian was born a few years later.

Also in you previous thread on Hitchen’s book “The Portable Atheist” I see that McEwan has an article on various eschatologies entitled “End of the World Blues”.

Di Di

Roger Spenser said...

To me the characters that should have been seeking atonement were Lola and Marshall and not Briony. After all Briony was a child when her mistakes were made to some extent innocently. Lola, on the other hand, was a young adult and Marshall was a man of the world. Lola lied about the bruising of her arms supposedly caused by the twins but actually caused by Marshall. Lola allowed Briony to use Lola’s rape by Marshall to indict Robbie and then as I gather it Lola basically blackmailed Marshall into marrying her to keep her quiet. Marshall allowed a man to go to prison for his crime sacrificing a man of ‘lower class’ to protect himself.


Janet Witherspoon said...

Roger - I agree but then remember that the story from Briony's perspective was partly based on fact and mostly on fiction. We do know, however, from Briony's perspective that she was well aware it was Marshall who had raped Lola and she knew this at the time of the rape. On the other hand, the reader is left in some doubt as to whether Lola knew for sure who had raped her.


Roger Spenser said...

Hi Janet!

I agree that we do have to look at the novel solely through the eyes of Briony. But then there are two endings to the story, the fictional one with the happy ending and the actual one with the tragic ending. Briony's position of the factual yet tragic ending as stated on pages 350-351 of the book is:

How could that constitute an ending? What sense of hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from such an account? Who would want to believe that they never met again, never fulfilled their love? Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism?..... I like to think that it isn't weakess or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand aganst oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end. I gave them happiness.

But isn't she still living in a fantasy world - she gave them nothing but what was in her imagination and what she put into the imaginations of the readers? So in that sense can she not be held accountable for not presenting the story honestly.


Avid Reader said...

Got to see the movie today and to be honest I think that 90% of the people there got lost when the action shifted to the Dunkirk evacuation.

Having read the book I could of course pick up on all the nuances in the first half of the movie. However, in the book each of these nuances is spread out over many sentences but in the movie appear as one single statement from the characters. So a lot of this is completely lost on an audience.

So my advice is that if you haven't read the book do so before you go to see this movie.


Neil said...

Read the book and saw the movie. Enjoyed both immensely but agree with previous comments that unless one has read the book the movie is in parts incomprehensible.

There seems to have been some symbolism with the vase but for the life of me I don't quite get it. Anyone care to explain?


Avid Reader said...

Neil: Re the vase - check out wikipedia


where it says: The vase causes the first “real” encounter between Cecilia and Robbie (who seemingly keep ignoring each other since their return from university), when, by the fountain, they fight over the vase and break off some shards, and Cecilia undresses to get them out of the fountain. This incident also leads to (the different versions of) Robbie's apologetic letter. The subject of the vase comes up again when Briony visits Cecilia and Robbie and mentions that the vase has been broken; Cecilia is clearly unsettled by the news.

Happy New Year Everyone!