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Taking 'Atonement' from the Page to the Screen

Director Joe Wright and I made the same movie, almost down to the last detail.

We both read Ian McEwan's novel Atonement. And we both came up with amazingly similar images of its locales: the 1930s English country house; the British evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940; London during the Blitz.

It's astonishing to say, but we even imagined the characters the same way — especially the imaginative Briony Tallis, who loves to write plays and stories.

There's only one difference between my movie and that of Joe Wright. And it's a distinction that's at the core of Atonement — both the novel and the movie: My movie exists only in my head; his is opening this weekend.

Wright, 35, has only directed one other feature film, Pride and Prejudice.

And while he never had to screen that movie for the book's author, Jane Austen, there did come a time when McEwan got a look at what Wright had made of his novel.

Wright says he was "terrified" the day McEwan came to watch a screening of the film.

"He was sat two rows in front of me, and I stared, desperately, at the back of his head, trying to read something from his hair follicles. But they gave nothing away.

"And so, it was only when the lights came up and he turned around that I saw he was actually very enthusiastic about the film, as was his wife and his agent, who was sat there, weeping his eyes out," Wright recalls.

The director considers himself very lucky to have the job he does.

"I get to meet these extraordinary intellects and get to learn something from them. I always used to be terribly worried when I was a kid because you'd have these '60s kind of guys talking and [saying], 'Well, you gotta have something to say, man,' and I'd worry that I didn't have anything to say — you know, 'What have I got to say?'

"And then it was later that I realized that it was fine not to have anything to say as long as you realized you had everything to learn. And working with McEwan's spectacular novel, I was able to learn an enormous amount from him and from his writing."

Wright explains he is aided in his approach to literary adaptation by the fact that he is dyslexic.

Reading is easier for him now, Wright says, but he is still a very slow reader.

"But, in a way, that allows me time to think around what I'm reading. ... I read each word and I consider each word carefully.

"Because I think visually, not being able to read meant that other parts of my brain were pushed further, and so when I read a book, I have to see it. It's taken me quite a long time to realize that that's what's going on. I thought that everyone was like that."

Wright says that once when McEwan watched some early footage from the film, a producer asked him whether it was the way he envisaged it.

"And McEwan said, 'Well, I didn't envisage it.' He didn't think about it in pictures, he thought about it in words. He lives in a literary reality rather than a pictorial reality. And I think I live in a pictorial reality," Wright says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.