WARNING: SPOILERS FOR "ATONEMENT"
"Atonement," the book, is fantastic. It's ravishing in its details, and it keeps building. It might build a little bit too much, to be honest—the war section gets a little irrelevant to the bigger story— but what it builds to is genius.
"Atonement," the film, is good. It's got admirable performances, production design, cinematography, writing, but the main reason it works is Joe Wright's fast-paced direction that fills in the important details of the book subtly, and without voiceover, which should be CELEBRATED. That's a difficult task. Instead of voiceover, Wright uses the telephoto lens and dynamic camerawork to establish relationships and perspective. (In particular, I love how he implicates Paul Marshall as Lola's rapist with his camera placements.) While the fast pace makes the film lose a bit of what makes the book fantastic, it's still great.
Until the ending.
The film closes with a televised interview. Briony talks about her new novel "Atonement" being her swan song, claims she's dying, and, most importantly, says that Robbie and Cecilia died. She says she feels guilty about causing their deaths (duh) and then the film ends.
The novel is in the third person until this final chapter, when it becomes first-person. She writes about going to the doctor on her seventy-seventh birthday, finding out she's dying, becoming nostalgic, becoming more nostalgic because her first play, "The Trials of Arabella," is read at her birthday party, and she retires to her room. You know the book is ending because you can see the text stop. You're aware this book is about to end. And Briony says she could never end her book by telling people that Robbie and Cecilia died and were never reunited. She questions how she could do that. What message would that leave readers with? How could she not give them the easy, happy ending we want?
If I was describing my experience with the ending of the film "Atonement," I would say it was a good plot twist. It was unexpected. It was sad.
If I was describing my experience with the ending of the novel "Atonement," I would say I felt cheated. How could you do that to me? Seriously? It was the FINAL PAGE. I was so close. It comes out of nowhere. I'm sad about the reality of what happened, I'm angry about it coming out of nowhere, I'm disappointed that I couldn't get my happy ending.
And that's why the book works. The book ending stayed with me. Because I was SO DAMN CLOSE to what I wanted.
The film is very blatant with the facts. It spells it out for us in one final scene. But the book says "By the way, you don't get what you wanted because that's life, bitch." and leaves us there. Ian McEwan gives us reality passively. The film gives us reality blatantly. And if there's anything I know about art, it's that blatant is bad.