Storydome: Atonement

The simple truth of life is that other people are as real as you.  

Briony considers herself to be quite the writer. All of her stories have order and everyone always lives happily ever after because in the worlds Briony creates, she makes all the rules. There can be nothing in Briony’s stories that she can’t explain, that she can’t make sense of. Every little detail is crystal clear to her. But life isn’t a story, and life isn’t always so clear, especially to a young girl. So when Briony sees something that she doesn’t fully understand, she has to create a story to make sense of it. But this story has consequences. Consequences that destroy a couple in love and send a young man to war.

Can there be a happily ever after when these two stories face off?

Two stories enter, one story leaves when Atonement steps into the Storydome.

The Contenders 

The Book
Title: Atonement
Author: Ian McEwan
Published: 2001
Pages: 371
The Movie
Title: Atonement
Director: Joe Wright
Released: 2007
Length: 123 minutes
Starring: Keira Knightly as Cecilia Tallis
James McAvoy as Robbie Turner
Saorise Ronan as Briony Tallis age 13

It should go without saying. There are SPOILERS ahead.

Briony is writing her first play in honor of her older brother coming home. She has written a number of stories, but this is her first play and she wants it to be perfect. Briony has an active imagination, and she is always creating new stories in her head, but in her head the stories all have a specific order, and they follow her instructions. The same could not be said of Briony’s cousins, who were forming the cast of her first play, and were seriously testing Briony’s patience.

Cecilia is Briony’s older sister who is staying at the house for the summer on leave from Cambridge. Cecilia is very much the opposite of her little sister; she doesn’t have the need to keep things in order and is much more unpredictable. Cecilia feels an awkward sort of tension around the family’s gardener, Robbie Turner, which is strange because they have known each other since they were children and even went to Cambridge together. When Cecilia goes to fill a vase in large fountain in the yard, she runs into Robbie, who offers to fill it for her. She refuses, and he insists, and they wind up breaking off a piece of the vase that falls into the fountain. Without saying a word to Robbie, Cecilia removes her clothes and dives in to get the piece, and once she is out of the fountain she puts her clothes back on, and storms off into the house.

Robbie tries to write a letter to Cecilia to apologize for what happened and how he acted, but nothing seems to work. As a bit of a joke, he writes a lewd letter that he only ever intended to be seen by him. Long story short — Briony reads it before giving it Cecilia. From reading the letter, and from what she saw at the fountain from her bedroom window, she believes Robbie to be some sort of “sex fiend,” though she doesn’t fully understand what that means. So, when she happens upon her cousin, Lola, being attacked, she blames Robbie for the crime. Robbie is sent to prison, and then becomes a soldier in World War 2. It is only later in her life that Briony begins to understand what really happened, and that there may be no way for her to make things right.

Based on appearances, Atonement would not be my ideal choice of movie or novel. I’m not a big fan of romance stories, which is what I thought this story was. I was sort of wrong, because while Atonement has romantic elements, there is more to the story

If you were to compare the novel and the movie side by side, you would not find any real differences. At least not when it comes to the story and it’s central themes.

However, critically, the book far surpasses the movie. The book featured at the top of many critics’ lists for best book of the year, and TIME magazine called it one of the hundred greatest novels ever written. That’s some pretty steep competition for the movie to overcome.

Fortunately for the movie, none of those critics are writing this blog.

I really did enjoy reading the book, but I don’t think I fell in love with it the way most critics did. And to the movie’s credit, when I was watching it, I felt like I was reading the novel for a second time.

So then, if I feel like I just saw the same story twice — once on page, and then again on the screen — how do I determine the winner?

I am not a romantic, so that aspect of the story wasn’t a huge draw for me. But I do enjoy writing, and this book was written for writers. First off, a person can learn a lot about writing simply from studying this book and how McEwan crafts each page. But the part I really enjoyed was that the main character is a writer. McEwan seems to tell, through Briony, everything he wants to say about being a writer. I suspect that Briony is being used as an intermediary, especially in those moments where she makes rather strange observations and writes about them. Through Atonement, the reader gets an in-depth look at how McEwan creates a novel.

Winner of Storydome: The Book, via unanimous decision.

I would like to offer some final thoughts on Atonement, but most of my thoughts are on the story’s ending. Even though the audience sees Cecilia and Robbie reunited during the war, and from there we can assume they live happily ever after, we’re wrong. At the end we find out that Atonement is a novel within a novel. Briony is writing this story some sixty years after everything first happened, but she has changed the story around a bit. Robbie and Cecilia never get their happy ending, they both died during the war, and this novel is Briony’s way of making things right. There is much more to this ending than the “it was just a dream” aspect that some stories use, which I’ve always felt is like a giant metaphorical middle finger to the audience. The story was Briony’s way of giving Robbie and Cecelia the happiness she robbed them of in life. It is another inside look into the mind of a writer. Writers are able to create worlds and able to destroy them. They can change history, and give people an ending that life was too cruel to offer them. I think that was always the most appealing thing to Briony, and it seemed like the perfect way to end the story.

On a side note: I like to imagine that in Robbie’s letters to Cecilia he, at some point, told her that she was breaking his heart and shaking his confidence daily. (Someone please get that joke!)

Disagree with my assessment? Let me know about it in the comments section.

I’ll be back next week, as a new story steps into the ring.

— Tim Fitzpatrick, Editor

Editor’s Note: Tim Fitzpatrick is an English major at Lewis University with a focus on creative writing. Tim is 26 and is only just now starting college. He has always enjoyed telling a good story, and he is at Lewis to learn to do that better.

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