The film adaptation of English writer Ian McEwan’s prize-winning novel Atonement opened last month to widespread critical acclaim. Winners of the Golden Globes will be announced this weekend, and Atonement sits on top of the field, with the most nominations of any film. Isaac Chotiner spoke with McEwan about letting go, growing up, and why atheists need to speak out.
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.
One of the great things about the book is the way you get inside the head of Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old girl. Were you worried that film is a medium in which it is harder to get inside a character’s head?
Well, it is impossible for a movie to give you what a novel can give you, which is the flavor of rolling thoughts and consciousness. But you have to do the best with what you’ve got, which with movies is a high dependence on actors to somehow let us feel the illusion that we can follow a thought process. And I think the casting of Briony with Saoirse Ronan was really astute. She is a very watchful girl, a completely intuitive young actress.
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
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
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,
and Mr. Sammler, and there was nothing like that happening in
Do you read any online reviews?
I don’t read the blogs much. I don’t like the tone-the rather in-your-face road-rage quality of a lot of exchange on the Internet. I don’t like the threads that come out of any given piece of journalism. It seems that when people know they can’t be held accountable, when they don’t have eye contact, it seems to bring out a rather nasty, truculent, aggressive edge that I think slightly doesn’t belong in the world of book reviewing.
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
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.