The film not the book. I’m watching it. I began the book when it first came out but didn’t finish it. Some books require stretches of quiet time to appreciate and to follow and that is something I don’t have around here. I miss the luxury of a commute by public transit; subways and buses give you the empty space you need to read. Now, I only read on planes.
I downloaded the novel to listen to on my iPod, which is how I read books these days. There’s something interesting about the process. It works really well for plot-intensive books, but there are interesting gaps when the books involve long stretches of observation, philosophy, or internal monologue, as tends to be the case with literature. I discovered the joy of listening to books with The Da Vinci Code, which was so atrociously written that I could not get past the first page, and expanded it with Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, and then used the trick of listening to the books to get through George R. R. Martin’s four installments of A Song of Ice and Fire.
I’ve already written about Ondaatje and how I ploughed through most of his oeuvre aurally (the ones I haven’t covered are the early ones, which aren’t available on iTunes). During my recent trip to Montreal, I reread Anil’s Ghost, which I think is my favourite Ondaatje (The English Patient is also up there), and I supplmented my listening with reading, because I decided that writers like Ondaatje write as much for the page as for the ear, and so I wanted to see the words too. And there were things I’d missed, like the layout of the different parts of the book, the relation of the chapter and section titles to the whole, the arrangement and formatting of the words on the page.
And so to Atonement. I had planned to listen to the book before I watched the film, but grew impatient and watched the film anyway. I’m glad I made the choice, because the film is worth watching for itself. I doubt it would have impressed me as much if I had read the book first, because I’d be too caught up in what was missing, what was emphasized, rather the way I felt when I first watched Lean’s Passage to India (one of my favourite — scratch that, my favourite — Forster). A good film, I thought, and true to the spirit of the novel, I thought, and just about as good an adaptation of any book I’d seen, I thought, especially a book the size of Passage, but just not the same.
This film, though, is lovely as a film. The moments are frozen with composition and setting, with backdrop and framing, and we are not presented with the didactic interpretation of what must be lines and lines of internal action on the page. There are holes in it, there’s space in it for a watcher to fill in, to put in the colours as it were, just as in a book there’s space for the reader to sketch in his or her own landscapes, faces, locales. The film has those; but it leaves the space for emotions and tranformations open. The images, the composition, the settings, the scripting — these provide signposts and directions for the watcher, but the watcher is not led by the hand along any single path. This I like very much.
I stopped the film just after a scene, a long, surreal, Hitchcockesque scene (Hitchcockesque because of the long camera shot and the stagey, nightmarish, unreal reality of the beach after battle, the transormation of the hotel and the pier and the bandstand and the eating and drinking establishments into the horror of the occupation of war, and the lunacy of it all) which impresed me enough to make me want to write this post. And that’s really all there is to it, really.
Which leads me to say this:
If you haven’t seen the film, then see it.