Saturday, January 19, 2008

Books on Film

In the last week I have seen two film versions of favourite novels of mine, The Golden Compass and Atonement. Although both were generally well done, it's a strange experience seeing a novel you love as imagined by others.

The film of The Golden Compass was probably always going to be a bit disappointing for me as I love Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy so intensely. The Hollywood version is true to the book and visually stunning but, as is common with films of books, the story is simplified and some of the harder edges are removed. The ending is considerably changed to make it much happier than the cliffhanger that concludes the book, which is understandable given that the film is aimed at children, but also a little patronising to the audience. The quite strong anti-organised religion message in the book has also been toned down by the film-makers making this a rather anaemic version of Pullman's very interesting and challenging ideas.

It also didn't help my enjoyment of the film that I have a probably quite unreasonable dislike of Nicole Kidman, who I think has a kind of anti-charisma on screen. I'm aware that not everyone shares my opinion on that though. Friends who have seen the film without reading the book loved it, so perhaps I had unrealistic expectations of this one.

On the other hand, I thought the film adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement was just stunning. The film-makers managed to capture the subtleties of the novel quite cleverly and the film is visually stunning. Keira Knightly is surprisingly good and looks just gorgeous in the 1930's fashions her character wears, and James McAvoy, well, let's just say I have a serious crush on the guy and could spend hours watching him on screen no matter how bad the film. In this case though, his acting is great and the film is really quite good. If you tend to cry in films though, be warned, I cried for a least half of the film. I'm pretty sure I was joined by a majority of the audience at the film's devastating end.

There are some very interesting ideas about personal responsibility and truth in McEwan's novel and these translate well to the screen. In fact, seeing the film reminded me how visual the novel is, particularly the early events that revolve around glimpsed scenes and moments that are mis-interpreted by the young child Briony. While the more post-modern aspects were a little distracting for me in the novel, they worked well on film.

I'd love to hear what anyone else thinks of either film.


Stephen said...

I loved Atonement and thought it was the best film of last year (although James McAvoy doesn't really do anything for me!)
I wasn't sure about The Golden Compass - it was okay, but I think when you take the trouble to start adapting His Dark Materials then just okay isn't good enough. It could have been so much better.

Stephanie said...

I haven't been able to see either film, although really want to see Atonement since I just read and really enjoyed the book. After your thoughts now I really can't wait!

jess said...

Stephen, I whole-heartedly agree with your comments. A film version of His Dark Materials should really be something special, shouldn't it?

Stephanie, hope you enjoy Atonement as much as I did!

Evie said...

I watched Atonement oh-so-legally at a friend's house recently and I liked it but not without reservations. I usually recoil from films starring Keira Knightley, excepting Pirates of the Carribean :D, probably because I have seen her play the female love interest of some historically significant male or in literary adaptations a few too many times. It isn't so much Keira that I dislike, it's more that she always seems to be given the same roles. One of the biggest achievements of this film, from my perspective, was that the role Keira had been given didn't irritate me.

As far as how successful an adaptation the film is, I really can't say having only ever read On Chesil Beach. I believed On Chesil Beach but I found this film's plotting (which is probably down to McEwan?) a little harder to believe because I doubted that the highly circumstantial "evidence", based on the word of a child at a time when children were to be seen and not heard, would result in the conviction of a white English male. However, I think that's only a device being used to create the tragedy of the story, and I enjoyed the lead up to those events and the part of the film which dealt with their ramifications.

The entire cast is beautifully dressed throughout the film. Knightley and McAvoy's performances are great and so are those of all the actors playing the minor parts. I was especially impressed by the four child actors. I also have to say that the sex scene in the library was actually sexy, I watch a lot of foreign films and Hollywood isn't often good at filming sex scenes.

Jeane said...

It sounds like the film of Golden Compass was a disappointment- I've been unhappy to hear that they took out most of the religious content; isn't that what made the crux of the story? I haven't seen it yet and now doubt to.

jess said...

Evie, thanks for your interesting comments. I agree with what you say about Keira always being cast as 'love interest of significant historical man' although she had a different role in Bend it Like Beckham and I thought she was still a bit wooden.

I see what you're saying about the plot of Atonement. I think it's believable only because Robbie is working class and the family (and wider society) close ranks on him the minute there's any suspicion.

Jeane, I agree that religion is the crux of His Dark Materials. Hope I haven't been too harsh on the film though, it still has some good qualities.

LK said...

I haven't seen either film nor read either book. What a loser. I cracked up at your assessment of Nicole Kidman, though. Touche.

evie said...

Having watched Atonement again since my last comment, I've reconsidered my position on what happened to Robbie. As you say, the English class system victimises Robbie. I also think that in that time period people might have found the crime harder to deal with well, not having the awareness of the issue that Westerners have today. When you consider the number of wrong convictions which have been overturned by DNA proving the accused had not done a crime, it's actually easy to see that such an injustice could occur. I think that watching Robbie confront Briony again is what ultimately changed my mind.

Fay Sheco said...

"The entire cast is beautifully dressed throughout the film."

Evie, taken out of context, this is a keeper as a one-liner. Hope you don't mind if I save it and use it the next time a stinker with great costumes comes along.

I saw The Golden Compass with my teen-aged son, and we were both impressed with the performance of the child female lead. Dakota Blue Richards is a young actress who promises to have quite a career before her.