AtonementRead about the other adaptations on the list.
Ian McEwan has said of Briony Tallis, the writer at the center of his 2001 novel Atonement, “I think she is perhaps my fullest invention, as a person—deeply flawed and yet I hope still sympathetic.”
He describes Briony’s yearnings and dissemblings in sinuous prose in the languid and impressionistic first section of the novel, which takes place during a summer heat wave in 1935 in the English country home of the Tallis family in Surrey. Papa is away in London. Mum is in bed. Briony, a precociously orderly 13-year-old, has written a play to celebrate her brother Leon’s homecoming. He’s brought along a doltish but wealthy classmate for sister Cecily. But Cecily is smitten with Robbie, the housekeeper’s son (they’ve both just graduated from Cambridge, Robbie with help from the Tallis family). Also on hand: coquettish cousin Lola, 15, and her twin younger brothers. By the end of the day, the twins have been lost, Lola raped, and Briony has pointed the finger at Robbie.
Joe Wright’s 2007 film version (with a screenplay by the playwright Christopher Hampton) follows the novel’s structure. Keira Knightley and James McAvoy sizzle as the young lovers in summer; Saoirse Ronan is eerily controlling as young Briony, watching their sexual explorations with a mixture of confusion, envy, and manipulative resolve.
Both novel and film give a spectacularly intricate rendering of the shattering 1940 British retreat and evacuation at Dunkirk and the experiences of young women nursing the wounded. The last scene finds Briony at 77, an accomplished novelist now, facing dementia, still haunted by her actions, as unreliable a narrator as ever. The novel describes a family reunion in the country for Briony’s birthday. The film simply focuses on Vanessa Redgrave, who brings to Briony’s final devastating monologue a subtlety and raw power to match McEwan’s remarkable novelistic skills.
Atonement also appears on John Mullan's lists of ten of the best scenes on London Underground, ten of the best breakages in literature, ten of the best weddings in literature, and ten of the best identical twins in fiction. It is one of Stephanie Beacham's six best books.
Also see: Best book to film adaptations.