For the last three decades, Ian McEwan has been at the forefront of the British literary scene – a multiple prize-winner and author of innumerable critically-lauded books that have seen him inducted into the Royal Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and even given a knighthood.
His very first collection of short stories won the Somerset Maugham Prize back in 1976, and considering Maugham’s long association with Hollywood it is perhaps only fitting that McEwan’s Booker Prize-shortlisted 2001 novel Atonement should now receive the movie treatment.
Yet the trouble with McEwan’s novels is that they’re never simple. Although a number of his novels and short stories have been adapted for the screen – and though McEwan himself has written a number of screenplays – his books are not of the easy, inherently cinematic kind. Instead, his are the likes of the infamous tale of incest and depression The Cement Garden, controversially adapted for the screen in 1993, or the tale of predatory homosexual obsession Enduring Love, which made it to the big screen with Daniel Craig in the lead back in 2004. He’s hardly a Michael Crichton or Tom Clancy, in other words.
Atonement is an even more unlikely candidate to be turned into a movie – not so much because of the subject matter, but because of the complexity of its writing style. Split into four parts, told from the perspectives of numerous different characters, and set over a period of 75 years, though the central tale of false accusations and misunderstandings may be fairly simplistic, it is this convoluted literary style that really made the book stand out. Without the multiple perspectives and complex structure, much of the book’s subtlety is bound to be lost, surely?
Such is always the curse of adapting literary novels – but if you can have decent adaptations of the likes of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or The Lord of the Rings, why not this?
Yet despite the inevitable fears whenever a highly-regarded novel ends up with the film treatment, Atonement has been placed in good hands. The major plus point is the screenwriter, one Christopher Hampton – the chap who wrote Dangerous Liaisons and the Michael Caine-starring version of The Quiet American. Add to that the talents of up-and-coming young director Joe Wright, BAFTA-nominated for his surprisingly good 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and the signs look very promising indeed.
And then, of course, there’s the stars who will doubtless get all the credit for a movie that has already been hotly tipped for the Oscars, so successfully have Hampton and Wright gone about their business. Though this has been said before, this may yet prove to be the long-awaited film that shows that Keira Knightley really can act and isn’t just a pretty face. It could also be the one to get rising star James McAvoy a major acting award, and might even land the veteran actress Vanessa Redgrave yet another Oscar nomination.
One thing that is certain is that this isn’t a lightweight piece of escapist fluff, like most movies these days. It’s a heavy-hitting emotional journey with no easy way to sum it up in the usual clichés endemic to film criticism. In other words, it’s surprisingly faithful to the book, and the critics, at least, will love it.