Friday, January 11, 2008

And then you've got one like this

I saw Atonement the other night, another movie adapted from a book. You may know how I feel about the movie they're calling I am Legend (if you don't, suffice it to say - not good). The adaptation of Atonement, however, is, to quote Goldilocks, "just right."
The movie is beautiful, set in the British country-side that is pastoral and genteel in the way only grand houses of that era can be. It is populated by beautiful people who dress for dinner, who speak with clipped accents, who hide unspeakable behavior beneath the cloak of their clothes and their syllables and their rituals.
There is meat to this movie. A story that rivets you. Performances that mesmerize you. Moments that stay with you. This is due in large part to the director's request that the screenwriter, Christopher Hampton, rewrite his original adaptation. His first iteration apparently unwound the story into a straight line, abandoning Ian McEwan's kaleidoscopic perspective that defines the novel.
Content is about context.
Someone once told me the following story - a man gets on the subway with his three small children and sits down. His kids, meantime, run riot through the car, swinging on the poles, shouting, racing from one end to the other, bumping into passengers. The woman sitting next to the man steams silently, wondering what on earth is wrong with him? Why can't he control his kids? How can he just sit there? Suddenly, the man turns to her, his shoulders sagging, looking unbearably weary. "I know I should say something to them, make them sit and be quiet. But we just left the hospital where their mom died today from cancer. I just can't bring myself to scold them."
Content is about context.
Ian McEwan's reciprocating narrative makes that point so eloquently in his book, and Hampton and Joe Wright, the director, illuminate that message beautifully on-screen. The book was tailor-made for Hollywood, from the love story that is at its heart, to its nearly surgical dissection of people - their motives, their actions, their reactions - to its two endings. There is the sensible ending, and there is the ending that Hollywood demands. Even then, the point is clear - Hollywood demands what the audience wants. And the audience wants wrongs to be righted. Atonement to be made.
Content is about context.

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