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Adaptations and Post-apocalyptic At-one-ment


As a concept, film adaptation often refers to a film based on a novel or other literary work, or to the process of adapting a novel for the screen. However, the complete adaptation text encompasses a mental construction of all possible versions of a story, their relations, and the processes that have formed them. Because all the different versions of a story world exist both side by side and as a unity, they invite audiences to a complex cognitive play of meanings. As Kamilla Elliott argues, “adaptation never completely lets go of the past or entirely embraces the new: it refuses to forget, even as it moves on. It never allows anything to die completely or to be completely be reborn” (Theorizing 306). Hence, audiences may be “conceptually flicking back and forth” (Hutcheon 39) between existing texts and not yet realized but imaginable expansions in search for mental constructions of continually new wholes. This provocation is partly powered by the quite natural desire for fixed meanings, completion, order, and normalcy: states of the world that the experience of alternative narratives incessantly disrupts.

With the understanding that each version of a story world only represents certain aspects of it, adaptations thus invite audiences to consider what is missing, what has been altered, and to regard the yet unfulfilled possibilities. Together, with their inconsistencies and their regularities, the versions may thus constitute a larger whole, which nevertheless remains an incomplete vision. Furthermore, because of the provisional character of the adaptation text, there is room for alternative, complementary wholes, while each version remains isolated, to be viewed as a singular work at the same time. As Ian McEwan muses in an interview, “there were 10 million ways you could make a … movie out of Atonement, the novel would have still remained itself” (2008).

To fully appreciate the unsettling experience of the adaptation text, we must turn to models that on the one hand partly dissolve our linear ways of thinking in terms of time-space causalities and on the other unite all times and spaces. In this context, I propose that the post-apocalyptic narrative offers a particularly effective framework for theorizing the adaptation text. Just as post-apocalyptic imagination foregrounds the experience of contradictions and connection, of incompleteness and what is lost, it also draws attention to hitherto unknown and unrealized possibilities and purports to bring a resolution by offering an alternative sense of harmony. In a post-apocalyptic and an adaptation context all the story world versions and meanings form a dynamic unity.

The common expectations on adaptations to offer revitalization, as well as the fear of “cannibalisation” (Stam 25) and loss of meaning, also links adaptations to a general definition of post-apocalyptic fiction as a “vision of after: after the world has come to disaster, after any tangible social order has been destroyed by fire or hunger or despair” (Kunsa 57). However, a truly post-apocalyptic, or adaptational, mind-set does not rest in this dystopic phase. Instead, it takes a step further to what comes after the state of destruction and makes allowances for a consistent oscillation between alternative versions, processes, and meanings. Thus, the experiences of past, the actual apocalypse, and the current situation facilitates an oscillation between these perspectives, which may give rise to a mental, entropic balance on the foundation of the promises and opportunities that uncertainty involves. In the case of literature-film adaptations, the sensation is may be particularly intense if the metaphorical quality of the cognitive fluctuation between the story versions and adaptation processes sets in motion a contemplation of the role of adaption in the social world. Adaptations and post-apocalyptic fiction alike may thus inspire readers and viewers who turn to fiction, as a ground for reflection of the themes of life, to consider the fluidity of alternative, potential developments and self-identities as a prototype for normalcy and happy endings.

To have an adaptational or post-apocalyptic approach, I would argue, also entails an interest in thematic investigations. In the following, I make the case for a post-apocalyptic view on adaptations, especially from the perspective that adaptations may be used as a tool by readers and spectators who wonder what life may offer in terms of normal, adult happiness. After a further discussion of the characteristics of post-apocalyptic imagination and its connection to adaptations, Atonement (McEwan 2001; Hampton and Wright 2007) serves as an illustrating example, which might also broaden the conventional definition of the post-apocalyptic genre.

Adaptations and Post-apocalyptic At-one-ment, Joakim Hermansson,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1. Robbie (James McAvoy) on his way back home in Atonement.

Post-Apocalyptic Fiction and Post-Apocalyptic Adaptation

In general terms, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction can be defined as speculative fiction about survival and lost community, with events set in a devastated landscape and a possible future. Films and novels in the genre echo sinister prophecies through representations of conquest, war, starvation, death, and darkness, and as a corpora of fiction they repeat the biblical experiences of the fall in a seemingly everlasting loop. Undeniably, the mere word apocalypse resonates such events of destruction, doom, and the loss of both values and meaning. The persistence, attraction, and growth of the genre is therefore sometimes explained by the human “desire to bear witness to one’s own or one’s community’s end” (Mazurek 28), although the actual apocalypse might neither seem eminent, nor relevant to all in everyday life. For those who believe that nothing follows the end, the emphasis in apocalyptic fiction on wastelands and a deserted sense of humanity seems to offer even less if the thematic content is not considered.

Conversely, in the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, and the everyday culture of fear, with the global news feeds’ continuous depictions of the terrors on earth, corporeal tokens of the mythical end are never hard to find. And so, it might be just as reassuring, as well as acutely frightening, to develop a notion, through fictional mental simulations, that the end has already occurred since post-apocalyptic imaginations concern a re-vision of hope rather than a fall to come. Accordingly, post-apocalyptic fiction strongly adheres to the narrative convention of protagonists with mythical qualities who depart from the drab conditions of their normal worlds. They undergo a transformation through a series of trials and ordeals in the realm of the unknown, before they resurrect as masters of all worlds, so that they may potentially solve their own personal problems and heal humankind.

Thus, in line with the biblical notion of the apocalypse, films and novels in the genre do not just end with a destruction that satisfies our collective fears, Claire P. Curtis argues. Instead, the post-apocalyptic genre responds to a human need to be prepared for what is to come, and it offers an ethical grounds for linking the past, present, and future. As James Berger states, “the apocalypse as eschaton is just as importantly the vehicle for clearing away the world as it is and making possible the post-apocalyptic paradise” (6). Accordingly, the need to simulate the end can be linked to the human desire for purpose and almost any post-apocalyptic fiction “reworks imaginatively how we might live together [and what] really matters about human living” (Curtis, Civic Love 5). As the stories commonly promote the idea of an elevated normalcy founded on a reverential relationship and adaptation to nature, an empowered individuality, and a renewed sense of community, the genre can be said to “reveal our society’s larger utopian desires” and to pave the way for strategies for long-term survival (Murphy 234).

The function of post-apocalyptic visions is thereby rarely just to facilitate speculations about the end of life as we know it or about eternal afterlife in a religious sense, but to provoke a desire for something better. With a dialectic force, the genre’s narratives of devastation “ask us to think through our human commitments and invite us to imagine just worlds deserving of civic love” (Curtis, Civic Love 5). This is commonly affirmed in the final scenes of the narratives, as a metaphorical seventh angelic trumpet, like Savannah’s words at the end of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985): “There'll come a night when they see the distant light and they'll be coming home.” In this context, a post-apocalyptic vision denotes the ethical and thematic orders that are revealed after the apocalypse, or the end of a story: the unending reconstitution of relational meanings in a world conditioned by adaptation. In pragmatic terms for audiences, this relates to the themes of personal growth and social maturation that most works of fiction reflect.

With both the dystopic and visionary approaches to post-apocalyptic imagination of life in mind, Briohny Doyle argues that post-apocalyptical thinking “both critiques and mourns” what has come before, while it also investigates possible prospects (111), which correlates well with Elliott’s abovementioned characterization of adaptations. Hence, post-apocalyptic imagination does not erase the past through new beginnings, nor does it turn the endings into distinct moral lessons, based on linear, causal reasoning, in spite of any overt declarations at the end of the stories. Instead, it promotes a non-linear way of thinking, so that all elements that may once have appeared to be inseparable or paradoxical are dissolved and united to mark not the end of time but “the end of one time” (Rosen XXIV). This results in a new, unavoidably incomplete and therefore fluid, conception of the world. This effectively reinforces the link between post-apocalyptic imaginations and adaptations, since both embrace the possibility to merge the past and the opportunities of the future into one narrative experience, and to consider all our tentative narratives about the world and ourselves at once. In effect, adaptation discourse and post-apocalyptic imagination both entail interactive, interpretive, and creative processes based on the “persistent, self-reflexive acknowledgment that the […] world exists in a gap between the end of the world and its rebirth, a liminal space disconnected from yet bearing artifacts of the audience’s world” (Stifflemire 188).

This creative engagement transports the audiences mentally between collapsed, recreated, and expanded worlds, turn readers and viewers into God narrators of the post-apocalyptic, adaptation texts. I would argue that is the indeed the conflicting perspectives that force the adaptation audiences to take on that role, so that they can assess and pass judgement - with no irrefutable response in sight - to form a resulting, fluid, mental adaptation text, a vision of an imagined and forever incomplete ur-text, to use Sarah Cardwell’s notion (26). Through such acts of imagination, the revelation after an adaptation experience allows a work to stay intact, while it is forever merged and interconnected with something else, in accordance with the post-apocalyptic notion of harmony between individuality and community.

Atonement as a Post-apocalyptic Narrative

The notion of collapsing structures of meaning and the revelation of alternative imaginations are thoroughly thematized in Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement (2001), as well as in the screenplay and film adaptation (2007). Immediately after its publication, the novel was linked to apocalyptic scenarios, but mainly because of the release date; the first major review appeared the day after the 9/11 events in 2001 (Sexton 49). A few days later, Peter Kemp wrote that Atonement was “engrossed not merely by damage but its aftermath,” signaling the link between the content of the novel and an apocalyptic state of the world. Commenting on the terrorists’ cruelty, McEwan submits that “imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity,” and thus he summarizes one of the central ideas in Atonement (Only Love).

On the surface Atonement may perhaps not seem to conform to the generic, popular definition of post-apocalyptic fiction, and most readers and viewers probably rather regard Atonement as a three-act melodrama, with an epilogue. For others still, the wartime love story of Cecilia, the 23-year-old daughter of the Tallis house, and Robbie, temporary gardener and the housekeeper’s son, is a contemplation on the possibility of making amends and reaching forgiveness, two undoubtedly post-apocalyptic themes. Moreover, the typical features of the post-apocalyptic genre are present in the narrative, with the Second World War as a backdrop instead of an unidentified catastrophic event in the future. The narrative is riddled with cataclysmic imagery, and some of the novel’s scenes - with torn bodies and limbs hanging in trees - were too horrifying to be visualized on the screen. The apocalyptic vision that lingers from the film adaptation is instead a depiction from Bray-Dunes in France, when the injured Robbie reaches the end of his road back from the wastelands of war and encounters a hellish revelation of humankind’s darkest potential. In a five-minute-long take, he is tracked through a landscape where “the Dunkirk soldiers seem to be offered up for death or salvation” (Childs, Adaptation 152). Bereft of hope, the men in the scene suffer a similar sense of departure from community and context, like Adam and Eve immediately after the Fall (see figure 2). The best realistic prospect for any survivor at that point seems to be to find a sheltered corner in which to die from his wounds in peace. Robbie, who has previously suffered expulsion from the normal world of the Tallis estate, passes away in a basement, only to be restored to life in a meager war time London flat, together with his love Cecilia, and he will, later still, be transfigured into an even higher realm, to make post-apocalyptic resurrection complete.

Adaptations and Post-apocalyptic At-one-ment, Joakim Hermansson,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2. Despair, after the apocalypse, at Bray dunes.

Atonement’scommunicative structure also signals a link to the post-apocalyptic genre, with very distinct and sudden shifts in time and place. The novel, screenplay, and film all retell several segments from different characters’ perspectives and crystallize time further through flashbacks, recollections, and indications that the future is already written. This is complemented with an internal God narrator, who controls the developments. Nevertheless, there is little preparation, when the story collapses with a sudden jump in time to 1999, a year well chosen for the end of time and the disclosure that the story thus far has been composed of re-constructed memories and alternative accounts of a world long since gone. The God narrator, Cecilia’s sister Briony, has reconstructed her world as an atonement through storytelling for a lie that once separated the lovers and condemned them to die without resolution. Being the God narrator, she is however in a position to present the lovers with an afterlife and a complete return to community in a second ending, without any apocalyptic vulnerabilities.

Hence, Atonement illustrates the apocalyptic genre conventions well, as defined by Berger: “Temporal sequences become confused. Apocalyptic writing takes us after the end, shows the signs prefiguring the end, the moment of obliteration, and the aftermath. The writer and reader must be both places at once, imagining the post-apocalyptic world, then paradoxically “remembering” the world as it was, as it is” (6). Similarly, every new element to some extent “restructures the narration of the past, makes it readable in another, new way, so that things which don’t make any sense suddenly mean something, but in an entirely other domain” (Zizek 189). As the story temporarily disintegrates, the narrative complexity thus unfolds to an apparent apocalyptic structure, and so Atonement pushes the audiences to read post-apocalyptically. With the presence of the God narrator, whose controlling role is to pass judgement through the narration, the narrative structure of Atonement becomes a post-apocalyptic metaphor. Presented with a “reversal of the diachronic accrual of meaning” (Wells 101), readers and spectators are forced to reassess every detail and the validity of the narration at every point in the story and become God Narrators themselves.  And so, the final ending begs the audience to make judgements and to assess if there really is a single story to have faith in in order to unearth the thematic essence.

Atonement, Adulthood, and Post-apocalyptic Adaptation

As indicated above, the repeated call for a post-apocalyptic renewal is provoked by an overwhelming contemporary sensation of what Marcin Mazurek calls “a collective non-community” (74). The ultimate goal for the characters in the post-apocalyptic genre can be thereby linked to the human drive to develop into mature adults who can cope with compromising realities. This theme relates well to other fiction narratives too, and in the fluid and uncertain times we live, a developed balance between individuality and conformity, or being part of a social greater whole, is indeed hard to achieve. Accordingly, in many novels and films emerging adults often represent a post-lapsarian departure from community, before they find a first path towards a reasonable state of adult happiness. However, in modern industrial societies and in post-apocalyptic fiction, there is no clearly demarcated threshold to adulthood. In that perspective, personal development “becomes a modus vivendi” (Blatterer 70), and the road to adulthood, like adaptation and post-apocalyptic imagination, could be perceived as “an extended and nonlinear process with no clear indication of completion” (Konstam 7).

Readers of Ian McEwan’s fiction are familiar with this view on adulthood. His reputation was initially built on often shocking short stories and novels about collapsing worlds and identities, with children on the verge of adulthood and “the ideas and fears that the young have about ‘being grown up’” in the spotlight (Childs, Contemporary 168). This fear often concerns the potential loss of freedom and individuality as a result of social integration in McEwan’s novels. In Atonement, the young Briony’s self-annihilating realization also represents the concern of many contemporary adults: “the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone’s thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone’s claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was. One could drown in irrelevance” (McEwan, Atonement 36). The desire for conditions that allow her to control her self-identity can be related to the cult of the original text in a universe of intertextual connections. Like the post-apocalyptic mourning of the past, Briony and adaptations inevitably return to the idea of something that has preceded them, at risk of being seen as “inherently conservative” (Sanders 9) and redundant. Briony’s claim thus summarizes the threat of apocalyptic nature that surrounds adaptations. As Elliot submits, they are repeatedly regarded as “disciplinary bastards, simultaneously no discipline’s children and every discipline’s children, belonging to none, yet claimed by all. Their position as everybody’s child allows for their universal theoretical use and abuse; their position as nobody’s child allows for their universal neglect and marginalisation” (683). The narrator’s observation in McEwan’s novel about a “self-contained world…defaced with the scribble of other minds, other needs” (36) could thus, too, be just as much a comment on adaptations, as on the human fear of an apocalyptic, existential eradication.

In the light of the post-apocalyptic narrative, this fear can be neutralized, by the realization that “meaning […] has its price. And this price is freedom,” as Franco Moretti characterizes the message of the Bildungsroman (63). Once the transfer to the post-apocalyptic state of mind and universal community is made, the loss of individual freedom and worth can however be seen in a new light, echoing C.S. Lewis’ suggestion in The Great Divorce (1946) that the greatest freedom is not that of individual thoughts and actions but the freedom to adapt and appreciate potentially fluid meanings and contexts. If the first path of freedom is followed, the immediate aftermath of the apocalypse may lead to despair and disorientation. If the latter is chosen, the possibilities for a reasonably happy post-apocalyptic normalcy may be uncovered.

In this context, it is worth recalling that the biblical prophecies foreshadow the possibility of a return to a generous, paradisiacal normalcy. Without that vision in mind, it may be provocative to use variations of the term normal, especially when it comes to matters of identity and life-stages. Under other circumstances, normalcy can be perceived as a narrowly limited and constricting existential space that leaves little room for any sense of the developed individuality that both happiness, adulthood, and adaptations are often associated with. The post-apocalyptic and adaptational normalcy should instead be understood as an ideal, tolerant sphere, which enables individual “social integration as a simple part of a whole” (Moretti 16). In a sense, like the post-apocalyptic experience, achieving a state of normalcy means that the intact, individual limitations are complemented by the rebirth to an existence as part of a greater, dynamic and incomplete whole.

That “the primary focus is surviving the event, not surviving the aftermath” (Curtis, Social Contract 6), in many post-apocalyptic stories, suggests that the apocalypse may not be followed by an actual transcendence to a higher existence. Instead, these narratives present the idea that happiness lies in a reconstruction of the normal world, with somewhat altered life patterns. Hence, “fictional post-apocalyptic accounts present the useful falsehood that there is a ground—a state of nature—from which we can come together and renegotiate our lives,” Curtis maintains (6). In such scenarios, the post-apocalypse suggests a Groundhog Day opportunity to correct and mature.

The alternative perspectives on normalcy are overtly demonstrated by Robbie’s and Cecilia’s multiple returns at the end of Atonement: first to normal life in the shabby, limiting London flat and a life full of compromises, and then to an alternative normalcy in an eternal, ethical realm (see figure 3). Moreover, the multiple endings, the many causal options to connect them, the narrator’s inconsistent reliability, the internal intertextual references, and the many narrative levels unlock innumerable ways to construe the endings, the story and its characters. The concept of thematic truth is thus dissolved and corrected, a theme that concerns all adaptations and post-apocalyptic imaginations. Although Atonement implies “the impossibility of finding coherent and enduring explanatory systems” it still makes a case for the urgent human need for them, suggesting that “without them, there is nothing against which the self can be measured or defined” (Head 16). So, the twist which thwarts the narrative is in turn thwarted by audiences’ possible desire for identity and closure.

Adaptations and Post-apocalyptic At-one-ment, Joakim Hermansson,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3. Cecilia after the apocalypse and the return to a new normalcy.

Consequently, the narrative construction provokes the reader/viewer to engage in subjective idealizations and mythmaking in the attempt to re-construct both world and meaning (Albers and Caeners 2009) and to assume the role of a God replacement, as mentioned above. The result is a humanization of the deity in the form of imperfect characters like us (Rosen xxiii). Thus, Atonement’s twist implies that the supernatural powers to pass eternal judgement and to bring restoration may be regarded as a responsibility and within reach of human capacity. However, from adaptational and post-apocalyptic perspectives, this demands an approach that allows for a conclusion that is constitutionally organic, tolerant, and “never-ending,” to speak with Elliott (Theorizing 308), and for a continual, adaptive play of meaning, since all conditioned and static meaning inherently excludes and fragments.

The Post-apocalyptic Lesson

Thus far, I have discussed the connections between post-apocalyptic imagination and adaptation, and how Atonement thematizes what could be called post-apocalyptic adaptation. I would suggest that the appreciation of adaptations and post-apocalyptic imagination is conditioned by the fact that the narratives reboot when they are finished, so that the beginning of one alternative thematic world resonates with the end of another. Likewise, the conclusion of every story version is contextualized by every other beginning, and the meaning of each element and event is affected by the details in all alternative imaginations. The effect is that the characters are the same and different compared with themselves, and what they do in one realization of the story affects them conceptually in another. Consequently, each narrative adapts to its parallels, and each adaptation appropriates the others, so that a play of thematic meaning evolves as a dynamic truth, with a non-linear logic that does not deliver any fixed solutions but instead offers a growing thematic, reflexive consciousness.

For audiences that thus allow themselves to be creative, post-apocalyptic, adaptational agents in both the narrative and the narration, the media-specific conventions that so often set novel and film versions of a story apart are integrated as one system. Accordingly, the screenwriter Christopher Hampton and the director Joe Wright ultimately maintained the novel’s complex form and nonlinear structure, with “self-contained chunks of narrative” in which “the focus would shift unapologetically from one character to another” (Hampton VII). However, due to the director’s need “to tell the story as economically as possible,” without “too much setup” (Wright 2008), the novel and the screen versions initially present worlds of contrasting complexity. Moreover, while the novel appears to let the reader share the all-knowing narrator’s observations and the characters’ inner thoughts, the screenplay and subsequent film heavily reduce the fictional beings’ reflections on past discussions. In addition, Wright asked Hampton in a Hollywood fashion, after the first screenplay draft: “who exactly are we supposed to be rooting for?” (Hampton VI), quite in contrast with McEwan’s ambition to stimulate an open-ended judgement. Answering his own question, “Robbie Turner is good. He’s the higher self. He’s the best we can be” (2008), Wright also indicates his interest in the overarching post-apocalyptic theme what it is to be a whole person, an adult human being in harmony with the world.

Naturally, the chosen strategic approaches transform the characters and the thematic communication that they represent on the screen. Thereby, they affect the conceptualization of post-apocalyptic whole, the adaptation text, that the alternative versions form together. Although all details are relevant for the meaning making process, beginnings and endings of stories still have “privileged positions” (Rabinowitz 300). The openings present the routines, instabilities, and incompleteness that forebode the apocalypse and thus stress the importance of an increased awareness, while the endings summarize the future prospects. As Wright reflects, “the purpose of happy endings” is after all to “give us something to aspire to (2008). They ennoble the human spirit.” However, as I have indicated, with a post-apocalyptic, adaptational approach, a happy ending cannot be complete unless there is a return to the beginning, so that origins are united with successions, beginnings with ends. Thus, the beginnings and endings can be construed as two nodes that vitalize the meaning of all other components in and the whole of a non-linear system.

To give a limited example of what a post-apocalyptic, thematic view on adaptations may entail, I finally focus briefly on the representation of the vision of adulthood in Atonement, through the characters Robbie and Cecilia. In the novel, screenplay, and film, the characters initially reveal a conflict between idealizations and actual social behavior. The adults’ thoughts and actions in the Tallis household foremost accentuate the value of having a meaningful occupation and of conformity to conventions. However, their problem to act responsibly, running a home and keeping a family together, produces severe instabilities and reveals a lack of intimacy, emotional balance, empathy, and thus an ability to adapt and cooperate. In sum, adult life is simplified to pre-apocalyptic and pre-adaptational patterns with little room to allow any complexities. In a sense, individuality, community, and the organic approach to life, and thus the solid ground for meaning and purpose, seem to be lost. With the ending in mind, the beginnings may however be seen in the light of the necessity for both compromises and ideals.

It is in this environment that the protagonists Robbie and Cecilia appear, as a dialectic pair and thus establish the fundamental questions how we may find a balance between passions and pragmatism, emotions and rationality, conventions, and an awareness of complexity, community and individuality, structure and nature. At this point, it must be noted again that Robbie does not only relate to one Cecilia, but to two, while there are also two somewhat different versions of him. Robbie illustrates the perfect, conventional adult, especially in the versions for the screen, well adapted to the normalcy of the social environment, with emotions and intimacy pragmatically controlled. His confidence and his awareness of the world exclude the idea that there are problems that cannot be tackled through an idealistic and rational approach. In the novel, he is introduced through the romantic eyes of others, which enriches the play with the cinematic presentation.

Cecilia, with her sensitive emotionality and aesthetic mind, but low self-esteem, presents a counterbalance, although she too has a limited awareness of the complexities of life. Her sense of rationality is controlled by her celebration of the irrational and emotional, and she defies conventions. “It made no sense . . . arranging flowers before the water was in—but there it was; she couldn’t resist moving them around, and not everything people did could be in a correct, logical order,” she muses (McEwan Atonement, 23), thrusting the flowers into the vase to accomplish the “natural look she wanted” (29). Similarly, the screenplay’s visions of her, “with an armful of wild flowers, runs through the woods, enjoying the sheer exhilaration of movement” (9) signals her unrest, but even more so the potential for joyous balance. Under the surface both Robbie and Cecilia are impatiently waiting to break away, and when their youthful desire for each other awakes, it signals the fall and the future necessity for their two perspectives – the rational pragmatic and the aesthetic emotional – to merge for harmony to be restored. The film sound of Puccini’s La Bohème makes us sympathise with the role passion has to play for both the impending apocalypse and the salvation. The lovers then go through the trials and horrors of war and die in 1940, but, as previously mentioned, the God narrator resurrects them to the normal world, a London home, so that their transfiguration and ascencion to the realm of eternity are made possible. The upheaval of time and the double endings produce two complementing and concluding images in the novel, as well as in the screenplay and film, to illustrate how Robbie and Cecilia unite as what Joseph Campbell calls “master of the two worlds” (212), full of “grace, i.e., the power of their sustaining substance” (168).

Just before the first end it is established that Robbie and Cecilia lead an independent and structured life, guided by rationality, emotional control, self-acceptance, and a mutual awareness of the complexities of the world. Their life is no longer controlled by superficial conventions, but by compromises for the sake of living together. The novel, then, turns to Briony’s memories of Cecilia and Robbie, “standing side by side on a South London pavement” (McEwan Atonement, 370), a recollection of togetherness and simple care, “her sister with Robbie. Their love” (349). After the fifty-year leap in time to Briony’s seventy-seventh birthday, she conjures them again through imagination, “still alive, still in love, sitting side by side in the library, smiling” together at the family gathering (372). This afterlife and new beginning can be seen as an expansion of the first ending, as Robbie and Cecilia are restored to a social community, where conventions, loyalty and rationality coexist with, and are perhaps even subordinated to, emotional presence. Their mutual set of adulthood markers are complete and temporarily in balance, and so they are ready to return to the beginning, illustrating Campbell’s conclusion about the elixir to happiness:

The individual … gives up completely all attachment to his personal limitations, idiosyncrasies, hopes and fears, no longer resists the self-annihilation that is prerequisite to rebirth in the realization of truth, and so becomes ripe, at last, for the great at-one-ment. His personal ambitions being totally dissolved, he no longer tries to live but willingly relaxes to whatever may come to pass in him; he becomes, that is to say, an anonymity. (220)

The screenplay’s first ending delivers an equally concise imagery to complement the novel: “in the window, CECILIA and ROBBIE are locked in a tender embrace” to complete the embedded story (Hampton 87), with the entire focus on the insular and intimate community of the couple in their home, secure and happy. In the film their withdrawal from the social world is marked by apassionate kiss, to replace the screenplay’s more restricted emotions. The regeneration cannot, however, be perfected until the God narrator appears on the screen. Just as the post-apocalyptic fulfillment means that the individual returns to God, here it is the “adult coming back to the child,” Wright explains, and so a full circle of restoration takes place.

As an accompaniment to the ending of the novel, the screenplay text situates Robbie and Cecilia resurrected on a beach as they “crunch across the pebbles and splash gleefully through the waves, below the towering white cliffs on their way back to their white clapboard cottage” (Hampton 92; see figures 4 and 5). Whereas the value of family was repeated in the two endings of the novel, the significance of home is reiterated in the screen idea of the two endings, all of which emphazise belonging. Again, the film nuances the notions of unity and substance through grace by adding passion and fluidity, with a reference to the first presentations of the two individuals, and a phenomenographic alternative to the serene and civilizing conclusion of the novel. Thus, the endings of Atonement stimulates a return to the beginnings of the story, for an understanding of the new whole that embraces all versions.

Adaptations and Post-apocalyptic At-one-ment, Joakim Hermansson,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Adaptations and Post-apocalyptic At-one-ment, Joakim Hermansson,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figures 4 and 5: Cecilia and Robbie splashing through the water and sand at Cuckmere Haven.

Final Words

By use of Atonement, I have discussed how the nature of post-apocalyptic imagination can relate to adaptations. In post-apocalyptic narratives and adaptations alike, any instablities do not need to be mended. Post-apocalyptic imaginations and adaptations instead serve to break apart the simplifying patterns that are often used to understand the world. They can thus be compared with Jürgen Habermas’ reflection on the relationship between modernism and post-modernism, that our current cultural project explores the possibility to fuse the rational with the aesthetic into a tolerating, albeit always incomplete, whole, instead of separating them. What makes a post-apocalyptic perspective on adaptations distinct, I have argued, is the basically existential, thematic approach, since the narrative about the apocalypse and its aftermath has a moral to communicate about what it means to mature as human beings. In the case of Atonement, I have loosely sketched how novel, screenplay, and film share an overall view of post-apocalyptic restoration, the complex requirements for happiness, while presenting somewhat complementing formulas for the elixir of a possible happy normalcy. Compared to single novels, screenplays, and films, adaptations make allowances for the multiple layers of complexities that the imperative themes of our lives and our world often entail.

Above all Atonement’s structure invites the audience to embrace the post-apocalyptic, non-linear and interconnected complexities of multivariable causalities that also the engagement in adaptations stimulates. It thus demonstrates how the order of distinct conventions, times, places, and minds dissolves and unites through the simplicity of an underlying narrative hyperstructure, which gives way to thematic revelations and the substance and energy of an adaptational sense of at-one-ment. However, a central lesson from post-apocalyptic narratives and adaptations is that simplicity should not be confused with simplifications. Nor should novels, screenplays, and films replace each other when a story has been adapted. In that respect, adaptations refuse simplifications and are post-apocalyptic by nature, as they make inevitable the flickering play of meanings and values that are necessary for balance and a fluid unity to appear. So, adaptations in themselves become meta-didactic excercises, unless we fail to see that post-apocalypse does not just entail division and destruction, but inherently leads the revelation of the unknown and incomplete as inevitable conditions for life. As Maria Manuel Lisboa tells us,“possibly the most dystopian of all scenarios, curiously, is absolute resolution (and therefore, in theory, fully-achieved utopia)” (49). It is therefore vital to remember that post-apocalyptic fictions do not demand fulfillment, but provoke interrogations. So in response to Robbie’s impatient half rhetorical question “how much growing up do you need to do?” (McEwan 342), Briony metaphorically concludes after a full life of growing up that “the attempt is all” (371), and as long as the post-apocalypse is near and adaptation remains an alternative, there is hope.

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