Sunday, December 23, 2007

thoughts from atonement

I went to see the film Atonement today, and let's see, it's been about two hours since it ended and I think I've finally stopped crying. It completely sucker punched me. I knew it was going to be sad (period pieces about WWII and beautiful young people in love usually are), but Lord, I'm not sure I've cried that much in a movie theater since I saw Titanic when I was in sixth grade (don't judge me, for an eleven year old watching Leonardo DiCaprio die of hypothermia was a very traumatic thing). But besides simply being achingly sad, I loved the movie. I thought it was brilliantly acted, beautifully shot, subtle in all the right ways, and full of a delicate simplicity in its depiction of tragedy. But, and here's a big but, I haven't yet read the book. So anyone who has read the book might have a completely different view and think I'm a total moron for thinking otherwise. I could tell that a lot of the people in the theater had obviously read Ian McEwan's book. I noticed meaningful whispers during small, seemingly insignificant scenes or when a new character was introduced. Even before something sad or terrible happened, there would always be a collective intake of breath, because these people knew it was coming. You could just tell that for some of the people in the theater, every little detail carried so much more weight and importance. And I felt for these people.
It is an unsettling and vulnerable position to be in when you watch a movie adaptation of a favorite novel for the first time. Yet speaking personally, time and time again I will stand in line and pay the nine dollars to see a movie version of a beloved book, knowing full well I will leave two hours later feeling vaguely disappointed at best, heartbroken at worst. And it's like the old cliche, being unable to look away from a car wreck. Because you have to watch it, no matter how many times you've been disappointed in a movie version of a book, you can't hep but hope they'll get it right this time, somehow the filmmakers will find a way to do the impossible, translate something from page to screen without losing any of its integrity or beauty. If you love a book, you're always going to be tempted by the chance to see all of these scenes and characters made into reality. But the problem is, a movie will never be the same as a book. It's can't be, hence the two different mediums. It can be a great, Oscar-winning film, but if it's made from a book you truly love, there will be something missing. If they do a really good job, maybe it'll just be a tiny subplot or line of dialogue that's gone. You'll feel a little cheated but you can still walk away positive. But if the filmmakers do the unthinkable, and do a careless, shoddy job with the adaptation, then it's like watching someone take a beloved friend and make her over into Britney Spears, or listening to your favorite song remade by Hannah Montana. It's unsettling. It's heartbreaking.
I love books, and I also love movies. Reasonably I should be able to love a book and love the movie version equally. But I can only really enjoy movie adaptation of books I just like. And sometimes if this is the case I'll even like the film better. For me The Devil Wears Prada book was just so-so, but I found the movie to be an improvement, infused with a new kind of warmth and kindness where the book was simply petty and often cruel.
But for books I truly love, well then it's just hopeless. I've gone to see every Harry Potter movie in theaters, each time thinking, maybe, just maybe, they'll come close. And sometimes they do (the third and fifth films come to mind), but even those very good films can in no way
stand up to the books I love so dearly. A tiny moment like Harry joyfully telling the Dursleys at the end of third book about his new godfather, the escaped "murderer", may seem insignificant and extraneous to the filmmakers, as well as to the vast majority of people who watch the movies, but for me to not have that moment in the movie left me unsatisfied. And it's like that for all of the Harry Potter movies, as well as all other beloved book to movie adaptations. I go to see these movies and find myself flinching or cringing every time something I love is missing or changed, even as I can enjoy the visual thrill of seeing the worlds I know so well inside of my head come to life before me on the screen. It's a very conflicted process. Common sense would tell me to stop going to see film versions of my favorite books, yet I know I never will. I'll get excited by the preview, and convince myself that this time will be different. Although if they ever make movie versions of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I might just have to take a Xanax beforehand. Otherwise I could very well end up shouting things at the screen.
So one more thing about Atonement. There's this shot about two-thirds of the way through, a five minute long uninterrupted tracking shot that reveals the hundreds of thousands of British soldiers at Dunkirk, waiting for evacuation. It's staggering. It's one of those rare movie scenes that is so vast and so devastating that you know it will stay with you. It kept making me think of the scene in Gone with the Wind when Scarlett goes to the train station and the camera pans back to reveal the wounded soldiers, and then it keeps panning, and keeps panning, until the screen is filled with an impossible number of wounded men. I remember watching that for the first time when I was little, and even though it's a movie with carefully constructed sets and well applied make-up, I cried like I was watching something real. The scene in Atonement is a lot like that, so chaotic and large scale that you can't compartmentalize it as just another movie scene. It gets under your skin.
So those are the thoughts sparked by seeing Atonement. I heartily recommend it to anyone (just really, be prepared to cry). Yet I will put out the disclaimer that I recommend it purely as a film, not as a book adaptation. I understand that even a film as well made and well acted as Atonement, could be a disaster for someone who really loves the book.

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