To kick off my challenge to read a book a week and rediscover my love of reading, I started reading Atonement by Ian McEwan. This was mostly a choice of convenience since my friend had a copy she offered to loan me.
I have a confession – I watched (and loved) the film version of Atonement before reading the book. As a firm member of the “books are always better than film adaptations” camp, this is pretty unlike me. I have been known to argue with a six year old that the Harry Potter books are far superior to the films.
With Atonement I made an exception. I saw the film with friends, then before I knew it I’d acquired the DVD and never quite got round to reading the original – more because of my recent reading drought than because I didn’t want to. My suspicion was that, having already fallen in love with the story, I was on course to enjoy the book, even though by cheating and watching the film first I would lose a lot of the benefits that most other first-time readers enjoyed. For the most part I was right: the story was as dramatic and emotional as I expected and I became completely engrossed despite already knowing the ending. But I am very sorry to have lost the shock value and ‘gasp’ moments that really make this story.
My “books are always better than film adaptations” belief was reaffirmed by the fantastic pacing, details and fleshed-out characters. While this may seem illogical, I always find characters far more real on the page than the screen. For me, Kiera Knightly will never be 100% Cecilia. One of the great joys of reading is that characters are brought to life by your own imagination, existing with no external influences or limitations. It’s down to the author to make his characters real and I am always disappointed by books with poor characterisation.
I am also continually disappointed by books that don’t make me feel anything. At the very least I like to be able to empathise with a character and in an ideal world I’ll finish with something to think about too. My god, did this book make me feel. I followed the emotions of every character, then got angry at them, or felt sorry for them, or proud. I couldn’t help but visualise every setting – at one point I put the book down and was surprised to find myself sitting in a freezing cold room in January instead of a summer heatwave. And every time I stopped reading I had another big issue to mull over: family relationships, war, love and of course guilt and atonement. It ticked all my boxes on what I like to get out of a book.
The only issue I had with Atonement can be blamed entirely on my English Literature AS level. At school (and even now at uni) I was well trained to read in preparation for writing x-thousand words of a literary analysis essay. Ian McEwan’s writing, as ever, is crammed full of literary techniques and themes etc etc and I couldn’t help but spot them as I read. Not that this was in any way a surprise to me – my AS level English Literature group went on to study this book the next year for A level, so I did know what I was letting myself in for. I just found it a shame that I was occasionally dragged out of the vivid environment I was engrossed in when a particularly obvious writing technique made me want to grab my English file and make notes. This, however, is completely down to the British educational system and cements this book’s position as a modern classic that merits further study.
I reckon the only reason I’m not completely obsessed with this book is because I broke my own rule and watched the film first, spoiling the book for myself. In other words, any problems I have are entirely my own fault. I do fall in love with some film adaptations in their own right (The Time Traveller’s Wife, for example, was almost as excellent as the book), but I always find that books have more to give and like to experience them unspoilt. The race is now on to get through The Great Gatsby before the latest film comes out at the end of this year – as a huge Baz Luhrmann fan I know I’ll be unable to resist watching.