The film adaptation of English writer Ian McEwan’s prize-winning novel Atonement
opened last month to widespread critical acclaim on the big screen. Winners of the Golden Globes will soon be announced and many critics think the movie version of Atonement will win best picture for 2007. I saw the film version of Atonement after I read the book. I have to say that I did not view Atonement as one of the great films of this year.
It is not even in my top twenty films. It clearly has the most nominations of any film for awards this year but I confess I do not understand why. And I do not think the book was worthy of its almost universal acclaim either. It is widely praised by many critics but I have missed the reasons why. The New Republic online did a recent interview with McEwan. In it McEwan reveals a great deal of what is behind his writing. Several excerpts from this TNR interview are useful to Christian readers who follow culture with interest. (The questions are in italics and the answers in normal type.)
Was it hard to watch Atonement be adapted to film by other people? Did you feel possessive?
I’m fairly used to the process. I think this is the fifth or sixth of my stories or novels that have been made into films. I’m sure I’d be possessive if I allowed myself to get involved in the writing of the script. There’s a lot to be said for not doing that. I did it once with The Innocent and John Schlesinger, and it was a fairly difficult process because everyone–the director, the designers, actors, everyone–had their own ideas and came piling in. And you are suddenly knocked off your perch as the God in this machine. It is better to have someone take a free run at it. But I can’t quite walk away, so I like to stay involved. I like film sets, and I enjoy the collaborative process. I’m not sure if I had the worst of both worlds or the best.
Earlier in your career, you were known as "Ian Macabre." Though there is less of what you call the darkness and violence that was marked your stories 25 years ago, your newer work still has a level of intensity and discomfort. I’m thinking particularly of the sex scene in your latest novel, On Chesil Beach.
Some of the dark-hearted stuff from those short stories still lives on, whether it is the beginning of
Enduring Love or the scene toward the end of Saturday or even elements of Atonement.
But it is bound to change. One passes the usual milestones in life: You have children, you find that whether you like it or not, you have a huge investment in the human project somehow succeeding. You become maybe a little more tolerant as you get older. Pessimism begins to feel something like a badge that you perhaps do not wear so easily. There is something delicious and reckless about the pessimism of being 21. And when you get older you feel maybe a little more delicate and hope that things will flourish. You don’t want to take a stick to it.
I want to read you a quote from James Wood in The New Yorker about Philip Roth’s latest book: "How much of any self is pure invention? Isn’t such invention as real to us as reality? But then how much reality can we bear? Roth knows that this kind of inquiry, far from robbing his fiction of reality, provokes an intense desire in his readers to invest his invented characters with solid reality." A lot of Atonement is about the question of what is real in fiction, and I was curious for your thoughts about literary realism these days.
The kind of fiction I like and the kind of fiction I most often want to write does have its feet on the ground of realism, certainly psychological realism. I have no interest in magical realism and the supernatural–that is really an extension, I guess, of my atheism. I think that the world, as it is, is so difficult to capture that some kind of enactment of the plausibly shared reality that we inhabit is a very difficult task. But it is one that fascinates me. I have just re-read a couple of Saul Bellow novels, Mr. Sammler’s Planet
and The Dean’s December. I really get a thrill from his engagement with the momentous task of what it is like to be in the 20th century in Chicago or even Bucharest, what the condition is, what it’s like, how it is now. This is something that modernism shied away from–the pace of things, the solid achievement of weight in your hand. So I remain rather committed to that. But also to what is psychologically real–the small print of consciousness, the corners and vagaries of thinking that when you read them in another writer, and they are done well, you just know they are right. Not only because you had this thought to yourself, but because that way of thinking seems so ineradicably human.
You mentioned Bellow. Who are the writers you are particularly drawn to now, people you have stuck with?
Really, your amazing triptych, one now dead, of Bellow, Roth, and Updike. They have been voices all the way through my writing life, from the time I started writing. I read Portnoy’s Complaint, Rabbit Run, and Mr. Sammler, and there was nothing like that happening in Britain or for that matter in Europe, so far as I could tell. It has something to do with a largeness of ambition, a generosity of imagination, and a wicked sense of humor, particularly in Portnoy. It comes back to that kind of realism, with that wish to engage with conditions as they are now, to capture the city or the moment in time. We had nothing so sparkling. So, yes, I have kept faith with those guys.
I just read a quote of yours, "Atheists have as much conscience, possibly more, than people with deep religious convictions," and I have noticed that recently you have been talking a little more about atheism. You also contributed an essay to a new book called The Portable Atheist. What are your thoughts on the "New Atheist" movement, which has gotten so much publicity and sold so many books in the last year or so. Do you think it differs from strains of atheism in the past?
I am a little baffled as to why it is called the "New Atheism." There is a very long tradition of free thinking, and the arguments made against religion tend to be the same but made over and over again. But I think what has happened is that there have been a number of good, articulate books–Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Sam Harris, and so on. What they have discovered to their own great surprise is that in the United States, and right across the South too, there are an enormous number of people who also think this way. I don’t think they have suddenly been persuaded by this rash of books–the feelings were there anyway–but they didn’t have a voice, they didn’t have a focus. When Hitchens took his book across the Bible Belt and debated with Baptist ministers in churches, there were huge audiences, most of whom, it seems, from when they spoke to him afterwards, were somewhat irritated that the place in the United States that they lived in was called the Bible Belt. I think there was something there that people had not taken into account. Quite heartening really, given that America is meant to be a secular republic with a strong tradition of upholding all freedom of thought.
Do you see religion as ineradicable, or do you think there is a chance to change people’s minds on religion?
I think it is ineradicable, and I think it is a terrible idea to suppress it, too. We have tried that and it joins the list of political oppression. It seems to be fairly deeply stitched into human nature. It seems to be part of all cultures, so I don’t expect it to vanish. And yet at the same time, if it is built into human nature, why are there so many people who don’t believe in it? I think it is important that people with no religious beliefs speak up and speak for what they value. It is a bit of a problem, the title "Atheist"–no one really wants to be defined by what they do not believe in. We haven’t yet settled on a name, but you wouldn’t expect a Baptist minister to go around calling himself a Darwinist. But it is crucial that people who do not have a sky god and don’t have a set of supernatural beliefs assert their belief in moral values and in love and in the transcendence that they might experience in landscape or art or music or sculpture or whatever. Since they do not believe in an afterlife, it makes them give more valence to life itself. The little spark that we do have becomes all the more valuable when you can’t be trading off any moments for eternity.
Now I understand much better why I liked neither the book nor the movie, Atonement. I felt the author’s ambiguity was deeply flawed and quite obvious and his views about the role of God in faith and art now reveals to me why I felt that way. I knew nothing about the author’s personal views until I read this interview. Personally I do not think you will miss a great deal if you never read the book or see the movie. Modern literature and art can sometimes be brilliant, even when written by atheists, sometimes especially when written by atheists. But I just do not share the view that McEwan is a great and brilliant writer of fiction. He is dark, in a not so subtle way, and a writer I find neither enlightening nor insightful. His prose is meant to reveal character deeply but I found it unmoving. You be the judge. I would love to hear from others who do find McEwan a much more compelling a writer than I do. And I would love to hear why you did like the movie if you saw it. Maybe I missed something.