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War at its Worst: Atonement

(To read the entire "War at its Worst” series, please click here.)

There is an old saying: bad novels make great movies, and great novels make bad films. This truism is, well, true, to some extent, though I would rephrase it as, “Trashy novels make great films.” Novels like The Godfather, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and The Maltese Falcon aren’t bad, but they aren’t “high art”. Great novels--particularly the novels by the lost generation like The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby--have not made good films.

But Atonement--the book--is a great novel by a great writer (Ian McEwan), but Atonement--the film--is still a good film, with a “universal acclaim” rating on Metacritic. Particularly, the film’s dark, ugly picture of thousands of stranded British soldiers waiting for retreat on the shores of Dunkirk is as good, if not more evocative, than the novel. (It’s also shorter. When I tried to include the pages from the book for this installment of “war at its worst”, it was nearly 2,500 words long.)

Click here to watch the scene.

There is something about a chaotic, fearful, every-man-for-himself retreat that illustrates all that is bad about war. My earlier post on A Farewell to Arms showed this terror as well. A coming enemy, who you would have killed if given the chance, is now coming to exact that same terrible vengeance upon you. In other words, it is all about survival. Like when a Stucka attack plane strafes the retreat and all the retreaters scramble for cover, all you can feel is fear.

The other disgusting element is mob vengeance. Waiting on the shores of Dunkirk for a rescue, British soldiers in an empty, liquor-less saloon find an RAF pilot and menacingly ask, “Where was the RAF?” Not in the sky, not at Dunkirk. They try to enact an ugly, mob-style revenge on the innocent fellow, pushing him and preparing to beat him, possibly to death. In war, there is often no logic to the violence.

Makes you wonder, in response to Heinlein, what problem this ugly act of violence solves.

One comment

I’ve only read the novel and will probably never see the movie because the plot twist at the end of the book, which I won’t give away here, made me so angry. Rarely have I ever felt so emotionally manipulated. I suppose you could say thats a credit to the writing.