I made a mistake by watching the movie first before I finished reading the multiple award-winning, critically acclaimed novel Atonement by Ian McEwan. Admittedly, the movie moved the story along a little faster, and intrigued me from the beginning with its casting of Keira Knightley as the lead actress, long before I set eyes on the novel itself.
But when I picked up the novel and read this synopsis on the back of the book:
On the hottest day of the summer 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of her country house. Watching her is Robbie Turner, her childhood friend, who, like Cecilia, has recently come down from Cambridge.
By the end of that day, the liver of all three will have been changed for ever. Robbie and Cecilia will have crossed a boundary they had not even imagined at its start, and will have become victims of the younger girl’s imagination. Briony will have witnessed mysteries and committed a crime for which she will spend the rest of life trying to atone.
I decided to plough ahead with the reading. However, halfway through chapter six, unable to withstand the suspense, I succumbed to temptation and put the video on. The pace and dramatic tension sped up quite a bit in the film, and I like how it stuck pretty much close to the book and retain the use of the three main characters’ perspectives and flashbacks to bring the story across. The only difference was in the way Briony chose to reveal the truth at the end.
Praises must be given to Keira Knightley and James McEvoy for their powerful performances of the star-crossed lovers, while the young Briony played by Saoirse Ronan is suitably memorable for the unpardonable miscarriage of justice she dealt the pair. In the book, her anguish and remorse, and her cowardice in remedying it, is a lot more poignantly written, but this sensitivity is not carried forward in the film, and not well developed. In fact, I couldn’t help comparing the ‘trial’ of Robbie to that of the Salem ‘witches’ in The Crucible. It was based on a single character’s imagination and in the end, a grave betrayal was committed.
Where the movie did well was the drama building up to the accusation and the memories of Robbie’s tour of duty at Dunkirk. I would recommend reading the book first before the movie. On the other hand, if you’re not given to analyzing and understanding motives, and checking for influences of other literary works, the sequence wouldn’t matter much.
Reading Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence transported me to a New York on the cusp of a change, where the old-fashioned high society still lives by a set of rules and strictures which the upstart noveau rich are slowly, but surely eroding and changing. Besides giving her readers a glimpse into the social history and beginnings of modern-day American society, the book deals, through the impeding divorce of Ellen Olenska and the reactions from her various relatives, the lack of women’s rights in those early days.
The book revolves around Newland Archer, who is newly engaged to May Welland, and who feels compelled to champion the disgraced Ellen when she arrived in the city after separating from a philandering husband, intending to sue for divorce, a prospect that is so scandalous it sent both sets of families into a panic. Against his conscience, Newland advised Ellen against it, but in the ensuing argument, he found his admiration of her spirited and unconventional personality threatening to blossom into deeper feelings that have no place in the staid and polite but plastic high society.
Fearing the depths of his feelings, Newland abruptly decided to visit May in Florida to persuade her to hasten the wedding date, but receiving a noncommittal response, he returned to New York. Just as he confessed his love to Ellen, May’s parents relented and agreed to shorten the engagement. The couple soon married and settled down to wedded bliss, but when Newland is unexpectedly reunited with Ellen, and along with it, hopes of rekindling their affair. Fate intervenes again in the form of May’s pregnancy and Ellen’s sudden decision to return to Europe, and the affair that never was became one that never will be.
Reading these two books on star-crossed and unrequited lover left me feeling a little melancholic and yet hopeful. It is indeed ironic that while it can lift you up, and give you the courage to face life’s challenges, love can also bind you with the ties and obligations that accompanies it.
Briony’s betrayal was guided by her love for her sister, and her misplaced desire to protect her cousin and avenge a perceived wrongdoing; while May’s unwitting imprisonment of Newland is again motivated by her love for him and a sense of preservation. In the end, circumstances may conspire to make you arrive at the same decision. I can still recall the suppressed anguish and passion that simmered between glances in the screen version of The Age of Innocence, while the last tender parting of Cecilia (I will wait for you) from Robbie left a lump in the throat long after Briony has confessed to ‘doctoring’ the lovers’ story.
Both print and screen versions stood out on their own, as both books had powerful story arcs that resonate with different audiences.