Adaptation - Atonement #
Extracts from Christine Geraghty, ‘Foregrounding the Media: Atonement (2007) as an adaptation.’
By Janet Strachan, whose comments are indented and italicised.
• Atonement presents writing, cinema and television in the three sections of the film…
• The film’s ‘happy ending’ may be hampered by the foregrounding of the media.
Just as the novel is a novel ABOUT THE PROCESS of writing novels, the film foregrounds different story-telling processes/ media: writing (the letters), theatre, opera, and film of different genres – from nostalgic country-house drama/police procedural to wartime melodrama and newsreel.
An adaptation… draws attention to the fact of adaptation in the text itself and/or the paratextual material which surrounds it.
The fact of adaptation [should be] recognisable from its own formal qualities… This involves a layering of narratives, performances and/or settings in which one way of telling a story is set against another. Foregrounding media signifiers invites the audience to set one media experience against another…
• Employing the physical properties of books (opening sequence with the typewriter; ending with publication of the ‘happy ending’)
Media varieties #
Atonement draws heavily on writing but also references a wide variety of other media, from opera to newsreels.
Three different media – writing, film and television, are used to tell the story, each has a different actress playing Briony.
- Events in the Tallis country house
- The coda; Briony reflects on what she has done.
- The opening of the film: two acts of writing – during the credits we first hear birdsong then the sound of a typewriter being loaded, the carriage being moved across and the sounds of keys hitting the drum as the word ATONEMENT appears in huge close-up on the screen, underlined against a black background. This typing both provides the film’s title and later becomes the thematic title of Briony’s novel, but this word is not what we see Briony typing. Shots of her back and face and eyes alternate with those which show the typewriter as the camera moves up the keys to the manuscript where THE END is being written. Briony takes the sheet out of the typewriter and puts it on the pile of papers which she turns to show the second title THE TRIALS OF ARABELLA. It seems that the end of one story is the beginning of another as Briony marches off to announce her success to her mother, the rhythm of her walk (comically highlighting the child’s self-importance) matching the staccato music that incorporates the sound of typing. What is less clear is whether the typing of the title can also be ascribed to Briony later in life or whether this is the personless objectivity of the film imposing its authority though the font suggests both scripts were typed on the same old-fashioned typewriter.
But in the opening, Briony is writing a play, so the theatricality of the mise-en-scene foregrounds the power of the medium here. The country house is first seen as a dolls house replica (like a stage set) in Briony’s nursery; the camera pulls back to show farm animals and Noah’s ark animals as if marching silently towards Briony, the centre of her world. The first section of the novel discusses the difficulties of playwriting, depending on actors, unlike novels which rely on words and the readers’ imagination to create setting. By making the opening theatrical, grouping the actors stylistically and posing them against the furniture, Wright employs stage language to convey the artificiality of the scenes. During the writing of the fateful letter, the camera again focuses on the words in close-up as the ominous sound of typing is heard on the sound-track. This first section of the film ends with Briony looking down at Robbie being driven away in the police car from her bedroom window, again accompanied by the sound of typing on the soundtrack. So, in the first section of the film, the foregrounding of writing is indicated by being framed by the sound of typing and close-ups on words.
- The war. Part one= Robbie’s point of view as a soldier in Dunkirk. Part 2 = Briony’s point of view as a trainee nurse in London. The 1935 section of the film presented the audience with a series of theatrical scenes taking place in chronological order on the set of a country house but the wartime section cuts between different spaces with gaps in time indicated by dissolves intertitles and montage. So, in this section, cinema is foregrounded:
• Documentary footage of ‘the epic of Dunkirk’
• Mock newsreel of the royal family’s visit to the chocolate factory
• Intertextual reference to Brief Encounter in Robbie and Cecilia’s scene in the railway cafe: stiff upper lip, clipped accents – doomed lovers meeting in public places.
• Intertextual reference to the Ferris wheel from The Third Man, dominating the beach at Dunkirk
• Formal elements too: five-minute steadicam shot of the beach; scene in cinema where Robbie’s figure is dwarfed by the giant faces onscreen: distortion and glamour of cinema ironic here? Montage presages Robbie’s death as his whole life flashes through his mind: all these devices invite the audience to consider the story-telling medium and to draw attention to its fictiveness rather than to create the illusion of being a realistic representation (of what really happened)
• Foregrounding of cinematic devices like voice-over and flashbacks gives the episodes a dream-like quality, e.g. the surreal arrangement of the dead schoolgirls on the road to Dunkirk which replaces the novel’s more brutally realistic ‘leg in the tree’ scene and the reality of the scene in the kitchen, with all its hyper-reality is subverted by the cinematography even before Cecilia pleads with Robbie, in a very sentimental line straight from a melodramatic weepie, to ‘come back, come back to me’. This scene we learn later, never took place although it ends with Robbie directing Briony to ‘write it all down, just the truth – no rhymes, no embellishments, no adjectives’. This is surely ironic and the section ends, as the first one did, with a close-up of Briony’s face with the sound of typing on the sound-track. This time, though, the cinematography, with its flickering light draws attention to the filmic quality of the story-telling here.
- The third section foregrounds television as a ‘realistic’ medium in which, with no background music and after a complete black-out, multiple television screens reveal an elderly Briony as the source of a voice which has just said, ‘I’m sorry, could we stop for a moment ‘. She is then shown in close-up preparing for an interview in which she candidly reveals ‘the truth’; ironically, the truth that the ending we are about to see is a fiction. By using the conventions of wartime romance to portray this ending, of the lovers, Robbie and Cecilia frolicking on the beach and entering the picture-postcard cottage seen against the background of the iconic white cliffs of Dover, Wright presents essentially the same argument as Mc Ewan in the novel, that is, that although art (writing, theatre, film) can be a consolation and a comfort, it is essentially a fiction, an illusion, a sleight of hand.
It cannot redeem the artist, she cannot atone (be at one, be whole, wholesome, truthful) as s/he cannot escape the world of lies in which s/he plays God. Neither can his/her stories change the world outside the framework of the fiction because ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. (This is a quotation from W.H.Auden’s poem, ‘In Memory of W.B.Yeats’ referred to and quoted from in the novel, pp 213 and 242). The film ends as it began, with an image, not of reality but of a representation of reality; the photograph of the fairytale cottage, like the dolls’ house in the opening scene of the film, is a representation of a representation. This symbolises the illusory nature of all fiction, written, performed or filmed.
Geraghty appears to agree with another critic’s judgement that these cerebral games, this insistence on preventing the audience from suspending disbelief and identifying with the lovers as ‘real people’ prevents us from experiencing the emotional catharsis traditionally provided by cinema.