ATONEMENT ssss Directed by Joe Wright adapted by Christopher Hampton from a novel by Ian McEwen With James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan, and Vanessa Redgrave

When Norman Mailer died last month, some obituaries lamented not only his passing but the demise of the novelist as a major player in America’s cultural life. Mailer himself perceived a downward trend: interviewed by Charlie Rose not long ago, he observed that most young writers now are less interested in novels than in blogs or screenplays. But no one could come away from Ian McEwen’s 2001 novel Atonement thinking the form has lost any of its vitality or versatility. Writing in measured prose and confining himself to a reasonable 350 pages, McEwen manages to tell a psychologically precise tale of love and betrayal, evoke a critical moment in world history, and, most impressive, question his own storytelling process without ever surrendering to the preciousness of metafiction.

There’s an old saw in the movie business that great novels yield mediocre movies (like The Great Gatsby) while mediocre novels can be turned into great ones (like The Godfather). Atonement is the rare exception, a fine novel that, with modest alterations, has been translated into a fine movie. Screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, The Quiet American) and director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice) have smartly dramatized the book’s human conflict and convincingly realized its historical landscape. But the story’s first half, which maps the relations between a British family and its houseguests as a scandal unfolds over two days in 1935, loses a noticeable amount of McEwen’s social detail and emotional insight; the second half, which picks up five years later in the midst of the Battle of Dunkirk, is often more focused and powerful on the screen than on the page. This points up the real difference between the two forms: the novelist’s best friend is a character at rest, while the filmmaker’s best friend is a character in action.

The movie’s first hour is essentially a chamber drama: though the action takes place indoors and out, it’s restricted to the country estate of the nouveau riche Tallis family (the witty opening shot frames not the mansion but a miniature of it sitting in a child’s bedroom). Wright has clearly resolved to maintain some visual momentum in this languid environment: the plot is rigorously paced, marched along by a propulsive piano score, and the camerawork is tastefully kinetic. It helps that the central story carries so much sexual heat, generated by the recent reunion of the family’s elder daughter, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), and the housekeeper’s son, Robbie (James McAvoy). Abandoned by his father in childhood, Robbie has grown up alongside the Tallis children and been put through school by their generous father; now graduated, Cecilia and Robbie treat one another with polite hostility, partly because he’s outperformed her scholastically but mostly because each of them secretly wants the other.

Colliding with this unspoken passion is Cecilia’s 13-year-old sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan), a willful child and aspiring writer who badly misunderstands what’s going on between the two adults. From a second-floor window she glimpses a particularly charged flirtation in which Cecilia angrily strips down to her slip and dives into a fountain to retrieve a shard from a vase Robbie has broken. Later in the day Robbie asks Briony to deliver a sealed note of apology to Cecilia. The little girl opens the letter, finding not the intended note but a vulgar confession of lust that Robbie has written in jest and meant to destroy. The coup de grace comes just before dinner, when Briony happens into a darkened room and catches Robbie and Cecilia finally consummating their desire. When the sisters’ visiting teenage cousin is raped later that night, Briony convinces herself that Robbie is the culprit, and her false testimony sends him to prison.

Hampton’s screenplay is admirably concise in dramatizing all these developments and presenting the same events from both Briony’s and the lovers’ perspectives. But the movie never really explains why all the Tallises except Cecilia would side with an impressionable girl and turn their backs on a young man who’s been part of the family for 15 years. The answer to that question lies with the one character who can’t be rendered well on-screen: Emily Tallis, the family matriarch, who suffers from migraines and must lie quietly in a darkened room to avoid them. In the movie Emily is a stock character—a woman of leisure, and the brittle guardian of propriety—but in the novel McEwen devotes two entire chapters to her interior monologue. This feverish assortment of family secrets, class resentments, and ruthless personal judgments explains a lot about the Tallises.

As these pages reveal, poor Robbie has the misfortune to be Mr. Tallis’s pet project, “living proof of some leveling principle he had pursued throughout the years. When he spoke about Robbie, which wasn’t often, it was with a touch of self-righteous vindication. Something had been established which Emily took to be a criticism of herself. She had opposed Jack when he proposed paying for the boy’s education.... ‘Nothing good will come of it’ was the phrase she often used, to which Jack would respond smugly that plenty of good had come already.” Emily’s silent resentment of Robbie must be compounded by the fact that she knows her husband cheats on her, regularly phoning from his London office with the transparent lie that he’s spending the night at his club. When Emily throws Robbie to the wolves, she seems to be settling a personal score—though McEwen never makes this explicit. It’s the sort of connection a reader has to work out for himself, and it’s beyond the scope of the movie to convey.

McEwen’s real masterstroke, however, is the abrupt change of setting at the story’s midpoint: five years after the events at the Tallis estate, Robbie, Cecilia, and Briony have all been swept into the vast confusion of World War II, and the balance of their intimate drama plays out against the backdrop of history. Here Hampton and Wright take greater liberties with the novel, omitting a fair amount of incident as Robbie, who’s enlisted in the army to get out of prison, tramps across the French countryside with two fellow soldiers, pushing back toward the coast so he can be evacuated and, he dreams, reunited with Cecilia. His experience in battle has been crystallized into a series of overwhelming images: in one scene, Robbie stumbles into a clearing and the camera slowly pulls back to reveal a field of French schoolgirls who’ve been massacred; in another, he wanders into a deserted movie theater and, dwarfed by a gigantic close-up of two lovers kissing, buries his face in his hands.

Few scenes here illustrate the importance of action in cinematic storytelling as well as the jaw-dropper in which Robbie finally lays eyes upon the bombed-out beachhead at Dunkirk. A thousand extras were hired to play the British, French, and Belgian evacuees, and as Robbie circles the beach, Wright follows alongside, the epic four-minute shot surveying a kaleidoscope of madness: horses are lined up and shot; a soldier casts documents into a fire; another perches atop the mast of a beached ship, playing pirate; a third works out on a pommel horse; a mother comforts the child in her lap; a traumatized soldier stares into space; a Ferris wheel turns lazily on the horizon; a soldiers’ choir performs on a bandstand, its song weaving in and out of the heartrending score; soldiers shout like idiots as they spin around on a children’s ride; a drunken boy weaves around and vomits. The effect is dizzying, and when Robbie climbs up to the deck of a tavern to scan the human carnival once again, the delirium of war has been captured more vividly than it could be in any novel.

The movie fully honors the romance and tragedy of McEwen’s novel, but in the end the book is most fascinating for its self-reflexiveness: as a writer, young Briony is preoccupied with the same interiority that gives the novelist his special power. “Was everyone else really as alive as she was?” McEwen writes. “For example, did her sister really matter to herself, was she as valuable to herself as Briony was? Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony?” In this regard, the scene Briony witnesses between Robbie and Cecilia at the fountain proves revelatory: “She could write the scene three times over, from three points of view.... She need not judge. There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive.” Briony’s sudden insight explains as well as anything why the novel as a form has endured for nearly four centuries: no silver screen can rival the ones we carry inside our own heads.v