I have to admit that I was highly skeptical when I first heard that they were making a movie adaptation of Atonement, one of my favorite books of all time. I initially refused to see it, thinking they could only mutilate the deliciously suspenseful work of art that was the book.

As these things usually go, I eventually broke down and paid my $9.50 to see it with a good friend last night. And I have to say, I was impressed. The director and the writers obviously paid very close attention to the book, and made a huge effort to stay as close to the original story as possible without making it into a four-hour movie. Throughout the first act of the movie, they managed to maintain McEwan’s delicate balance between the ennui of a hot summer day in a rich, spoiled household and an inexplicable, almost palpable sense of suspense and doom. True, it’s easier to portray these conflicting feelings on the screen than in words, but it could so quickly be overdone — and it wasn’t.

As I was watching the rest of the film, I realized that the first act of the book was so powerful that I had all but forgotten what happened in the rest of it. So as the plot twisted itself into a frenzy, I was just as surprised by its emotional rollercoaster ride as I was the first time I read the book. (And apparently I was one of the few in the theater who had actually done so, as I heard many gasps and exclamations throughout the movie.)

Outside of the keen suspense of the first act, the best part of the movie in my mind were the scenes at Dunkirk. Historically speaking, they were simply gorgeous, and formed a seamless portrait of that terrible retreat — or rather, brave strategic withdrawal. At one point, the main characters stride by a group of men who are shooting their horses on the beach, presumably so that the advancing Germans won’t have the benefit of the British livestock after they’re gone. For whatever reason, out of the entire Dunkirk sequence, this was the scene that provoked the most gasps and sighs.

At first, I wondered if that much gritty reality was too much for people to handle. But then I thought to myself, “We have absolutely no idea.” No matter how hard it is for peace-loving Santa Cruzians to witness cruelty to animals, no animals were harmed in the making of this movie, nor men. This is still a Hollywood version of war. Truly, no amount of film or writing can portray what it was like to fight in those two great wars, nor the terrible things that our fathers or grandfathers saw. But they can come close, and they can serve to teach us their heavy lessons. This one did both, as it gave a no-holds-barred portrait of the ugliness and raw emotion of World War II.

In the end, I discovered that the movie Atonement was a masterful adaptation of a much-loved book. It was also a fine historical movie, and told a good story while opening a brief window onto the second World War.

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