Sitting in a screening of Atonement last night, Dorothy leans over to me and whispers those words. It had been a while since I’d seen the film and, sure enough, there he is in the role of soon-to-be-known as bad-boy Peter Marshall, chocolate tycoon. I’m terrible at recognizing faces and, with the little reddish moustache, it probably would have taken me a while to figure out why he looked familiar.
But the entire screening was like seeing the film for the first time. We were at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for the Books on Film series and I had dutifully read Ian McEwen’s novel in the days before the screening. I guess that’s the point of the series: to understand how books are made into films.
To assist the audience, the screenwriter for the film Christopher Hampton had been invited to join interviewer Eleanor Wachtel on stage after the screening. As you may be aware, it is not obvious who the narrator is until the end of the novel, where there is a surprise regarding the veracity of certain scenes near the end. Hampton’s first draft of the screenplay began with this end. When the director was switched out and Joe Wright took over, he asked Hampton why he had chosen to do this, and on subsequent rewrites, the screenplay switched back to follow the narrative line of the novel more closely.
One other large change between the novel and the film was that final scene. Originally set in the the Tallis home, which has been turned into a hotel, the narrator returns there for a birthday party and upon retiring for the evening, she writes the final section of the book and the truth is revealed. It’s a very interior scene and likely would have been difficult to film without the use of voice-over, which Hampton was dead set against. Instead, the scene is shot with the narrator being interviewed on a television talk show, permitting the final revelation to happen more naturally.
I am trying not to give away too much about the novel which, if you haven’t read it, would make an excellent summer read. The first half is set in an English country home in a hot, sultry season. Kiera Knightly should get an award for best scene in a bathing cap.
The final novels in this series are The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitzby Moredecai Richler, with guest director Ted Kotcheff (June 3. I’m hoping it will present a print of the restored master) and Midnight’s Childrenby Salman Rushdie, with guest director Deepa Mehta (June 24).