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Cahier spécial Atonement

From The Go-Between (L. P. Hartley, Joseph Losey) to Atonement (Ian McEwan, Joe Wright): Intertextual and Interfilmic Aesthetics

De The Go-Between (L. P. Hartley, Joseph Losey) à Atonement (Ian McEwan, Joe Wright) : esthétiques intertextuelles et interfilmiques
Laurent Mellet


De nombreux travaux ont mis en lumière la richesse de l’intertextualité dans le roman de McEwan. Parmi les sources étudiées, The Go-Between de L. P. Hartley est généralement mentionné dans le cadre d’une double réflexion générique et thématique. On sait aussi que Wright a souvent évoqué l’influence de l’adaptation de Losey sur son propre travail. Cet article rend compte des analyses de Natasha Alden, d’Earl G. Ingersoll et d’autres sur cette intertextualité, et interroge leur pertinence lorsque l’on se penche sur l’interfilmicité dans le film de Wright. L’influence de Losey sur l’adaptation d’Atonement permet un retour aux deux romans pour y dégager un réseau de correspondances formelles. À la lumière de cette double source d’intertextualité et d’interfilmicité, de nouvelles interprétations dans Atonement et son adaptation d’éléments tels que les jeux de regards et les ruses de la focalisation, le motif du tableau vivant, l’imagination comme support de la narration, les interrogations métanarratives du langage, ou encore la déformation de l’événement sont proposées.

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1Essays and books on Atonement regularly address intertextuality and its structural and metafictional roles in Ian McEwan’s novel. Among the sources often mentioned, L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between features as both a thematic and generic influence. Commentators will take their lead from several interviews in which McEwan has referred to the 1953 novel, for instance in The Guardian in 2002:

A novel that was very important in this, and I wanted to fit in, was The Go-Between, so Connolly says, ‘I trust you’ve read The Go-Between.’ I was very disappointed when the copy editor informed me that it was written in 1952 and I had to take it out. But what does remain from The Go-Between is the long hot summer. (Sutherland)

2Surely, Hartley’s novel instantly springs to mind when Robbie uses Briony as a messenger, and when Connolly has this sentence (not the one McEwan had first intended to write) in his letter to Briony: ‘Might the young couple come to use her as a messenger?’ (McEwan, 313). In his allusions to Hartley’s novel, McEwan often insists on his fascination (Roberts 90, Ingersoll 255).

3Joe Wright has also alluded to Joseph Losey’s adaptation of the novel when commenting on his own work in Atonement. According to Harry Haun:

The words that Wright lives by—and films by—were first uttered at the outset of The Go-Between, a movie made a year before he was born by director Joseph Losey and adapter Harold Pinter from L. P. Hartley’s novel: ‘The past is a foreign country—they do things differently there.’ The speaker was Michael Redgrave, an old and impotent man who flashbacks over a formative summer 50 years earlier in which tragedy is triggered by his interference and carelessness as a 12-year-old love-letter carrier between a highborn lady of the estate (Julie Christie) and a roughhewn tenant farmer nearby (Alan Bates). (Haun)

4Haun then quotes Wright commenting on The Go-Between, both the novel and the film, as a common influence on McEwan and himself: ‘“I think The Go-Between was a reference for McEwan as well,” injects Wright. “McEwan talks about The Go-Between when he talks about Atonement. There are definite parallels”’ (Haun).

5In this article, I want to look at these ‘definite parallels’ between McEwan and Hartley, between Wright and Losey, but also between Wright adapting Losey adapting Hartley, with a view to better understanding his own adaptation of McEwan adapting Hartley in the first place. I examine the conclusions on this intertextuality put forward by Natasha Alden in her book Reading Behind the Lines. Postmemory in Contemporary British War Fiction and Earl G. Ingersoll in his article ‘Intertextuality in L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between and Ian McEwan’s Atonement’, and question whether they may be of any significance when considering interfilmicity in Wright’s adaptation. Losey’s influence is more immediately formal and aesthetic, revealing a complex web of equally aesthetic correspondences between the two novels. Building on this double influence, I analyse prominent motifs in McEwan’s book such as secrecy and memory, imagination as the vector of narration, prolepses and the metanarrative questioning of language. I then turn to interfilmicity as deriving from intertextuality and look at the roles of staircases, vision and focalisation, the tableau vivant, and new distortions through editing and camerawork. Eventually, I suggest that this intertextuality taps into the logics of adaptation and that Wright also adapts the ways Losey adapted Hartley. His formal and narrative strategies when adapting McEwan’s novel can therefore be construed differently. Eventually, this double study of intertextuality and interfilmicity throws light on adaptation as a critical outlook and the promise of a regeneration of medium-based self-reflexivity.

‘Might the young couple come to use her as a messenger?’ (McEwan 313)

  • 1 Sinyard’s article looks at the film as an adaptation by Harold Pinter. Though this is not my perspe (...)
  • 2 Ingersoll interestingly remarks: ‘Leo never wrote the great modern English novel he hoped to when h (...)

6Natasha Alden establishes many connections between McEwan’s novel and The Go-Between, such as the unexpected couples, the heat, and Briony’s and Leo’s unbridled imagination and thirst for control (Alden 132-134). Leo and Briony are both almost thirteen (Hartley 89, McEwan 209), used as messengers by adults in love, and desperate to know and read the contents of the letters they are asked to deliver. In The Go-Between, we read just before Leo opens one of Marian’s letters to Ted: ‘a boy was punished for doing something “wrong” […]. The rules about reading other people’s letters were fairly well defined’ (Hartley 108). In Atonement: ‘It was wrong to open people’s letters, but it was right, it was essential, for her to know everything’ (McEwan 113). Earl G. Ingersoll insists on the heat and its paralysing but also liberating function in both novels (Ingersoll 249), and the children’s ambiguous desire to see and know: ‘Like Leo [Briony] is on the brink of puberty, still a child in her lack of understanding of adult experience and alternately attracted to and repelled by knowledge of sexual behaviour’ (250). In his essay ‘Pinter’s Go-Between’,1 Neil Sinyard has interesting comments on the coitus interruptus at the heart of the plot and its tragedy, which of course is another major connection with those of Atonement (Sinyard 22).2 Natasha Alden also mentions the first pages of each novel and their ‘box[es] full of treasures’ (Alden 125), in themselves not enough for Leo to remember the past, or for Briony to imagine the future. ‘[W]ar looms over both [novels]’ (Alden 133), in which societies and the world at large are about to be shaken to their foundations. Another basic common motif should be added, since it is to lead to specific aesthetics: the wish to be seen and observed. Regularly Atonement insists on Briony’s wish to have an audience, to the point of thinking it is sometimes not worth doing or saying something if no one is watching. Thinking about her mother’s death, or rather funeral, she pictures herself ‘watched not only by all the people she knew, but all those she would ever know, the whole cast of her life […]. It had to be witnessed. It was the pity of these well-wishers that pricked her eyes’ (McEwan 162). Not only is it not so much Emily’s death that she thinks about here, but the pain and emotion that she feels are triggered by imagining herself being watched and pitied, rather than by her loss. The same logic informs the end of part one, when she is sent to her room: ‘She turned her face into the pillow and let her tears drain into it, and felt that yet more was lost, when there was no witness to her sorrow’ (McEwan 184). In The Go-Between, though Leo ‘had let [him]self go on crying because it didn’t matter when nobody could see [him], and [he] thought [he] could stop whenever [he] liked’ (Hartley 170), then ‘[he] wanted all [his] movements to be public’ (Hartley 247).

From ‘spooning’ to ‘cunt’: from Intertextuality to the Adaptation of Secrecy, Imagination and Metanarrative

7These last examples testify to another set of correspondences around secrecy and imagination. Leo ‘had an instinct for secrecy and wanted nobody to see [his diary]’ (Hartley 11): ‘These were joys that depended upon secrecy; they would vanish if I told them or even betrayed their source’ (12). In Atonement, Briony fetishises about the mere structure of secrecy, having a ‘passion for secrets’ (McEwan 5) and similarly associating writing with the joys of secrecy and the risks of ‘self-exposure’ (6): ‘once she had begun a story, no one could be told’ (6). Secrecy defines her and her quest for knowledge: ‘It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge’ (35). The passage recalls this assertion in The Go-Between: ‘My secret—the explanation of me—lay there’ (Hartley 19). We know how this obsession with secrecy connects with the dangerous powers of imagination in Atonement. In Hartley’s novel, Leo also makes up for his deficient ‘knowingness’ of the world through imagination and fantasy: ‘My mind could not grasp it but my imagination could make play with it, for unlike the mind, which could dismiss what it did not understand, my imagination loved to contemplate the incomprehensible and try to express my sense of it by an analogy’ (50). Conversely, Marcus ‘wanted to know about people, not to imagine about them’ (246). As will be the case in Atonement, the narrative of The Go-Between already branches off into complex proleptic patterns: ‘I seemed to be living a posthumous life at Brandham, but I still took a retrospective interest in the situation, in what might have happened if I would have let it’ (Hartley 204). Atonement yields many examples of prolepses to channel imagination and allow the characters to think about their future. Many characters desire much for themselves in the future, and then start imagining what this future could be. Here Cecilia ponders on the traces of time in space:

[the scene before her] looked carved, fixed, and again, she felt it: it had happened a long time ago, and all outcomes, on all scales—from the tiniest to the most colossal—were already in place. Whatever happened in the future, however superficially strange or shocking, would also have an unsurprising, familiar quality, inviting her to say, but only to herself, Oh yes, of course. That. I should have known. (McEwan 53)

8The prolepsis does not only express and give free rein to imagination: Cecilia imagines herself thinking back and knowing that she ‘should have known’ that the present always and already contains the future. The text also opens onto the future and its tragic recollection of events regarding Robbie: ‘In the years to come he would often think back to this time, when he walked along the footpath that made a shortcut through a corner of the oak woods and joined the main drive where it curved towards the lake and the house’ (90)—a memory to which both novel and film give pride of place. For time to go on and fate to unfold, one would only have to know how to look at things or people and let their visible potential be actualised in time. This testifies to the momentousness of the visible in Atonement, which questions the nature of events and the logic of their occurrence. Thus, with Cecilia wondering about her own future in Paul’s empty bedroom (46) or when he and her brother face her:

The men had removed their hats and stood waiting for her, smiling. Cecilia wondered, as she sometimes did when she met a man for the first time, if this was the one she was going to marry, and whether it was this particular moment she would remember for the rest of her life—with gratitude, or profound and particular regret. (47)

9Time stops, the image freezes and Cecilia waits for events to spring from space and fill time. Here the prolepsis emphasises the form more than the content of the moment, Cecilia wondering much more whether and how she will remember it than if it will change her life. The meaning of the present is almost erased in favour of its potential remembering in the future.

10Another motif appears at length in both novels, the repetition of words (and sometimes scenes) which in fact defies their meaning. In The Go-Between we have here an interesting example of actualisation thanks to the film adaptation, which turns these repetitions into something even more comic and tragic in the way they isolate the young protagonist and his misconstruction of the whole situation (Losey 0’10”, 0’27” and 1’22”). While Briony is ‘familiar enough with the form of words’ (McEwan 323), Leo is first baffled by ‘the shape, the lettering’, and the ‘foreign look’ (Hartley 7) of his childhood diary. ‘[A] master of language’ (Hartley 17), Leo shares with Briony another passion, that for ‘the magic of naming’ (McEwan 165), for instance when his own name proves to be ‘the combination of letters’ (Hartley 21) which will open the lock of both the diary and the journey to the past. In both novels words unfurl in some textual swirl: ‘There might even be something about me in the letter—something kind, something sweet, that would make me glow… gloat…’ (Hartley 109); ‘That his protégé should turn out to be a maniac! Lola’s word stirred the dust of other words around it—man, mad, axe, attack, accuse—and confirmed the diagnosis’ (McEwan 158). Or else one word only freezes both time and the narrative: ‘What that meant I had no idea but I knew what it might lead to: murder. The dread word shook me to my foundations’ (Hartley 165); ‘The word: she tried to prevent it sounding in her thoughts’ (McEwan 114).

11There is to Briony another magic of naming. When driven by her own beliefs to persuade Lola that her attacker was Robbie, she can feel this urge to hear and say his name: ‘Suddenly, Briony wanted her to say his name. To seal the crime, frame it with the victim’s curse, close his fate with the magic of naming’ (165). She says it herself twice then: ‘“It was Robbie, wasn’t it?” […] Briony said it again. Simply. “Robbie”’ (166). More obviously and tragically than ever, saying ‘it’ is enough for it to become real, as writing a new fate for the lovers will be enough for it to become real. In The Go-Between Marcus says and repeats how beautiful his sister Marian is, before Leo does the same and eventually agrees, to the point of defining further what the word ‘beautiful’ means, building on this experience of beauty itself:

‘My sister is very beautiful’, Marcus said to me one day. He announced it quite impersonally, as who should say ‘Two and two make four’, and I received it in the same spirit. It was a fact, like other facts, something to be learned. I had not thought of Miss Marian (I think I called her this to myself) as beautiful, but when I saw her next I studied her in the light of Marcus’s announcement. […] So that is what it is to be beautiful, I thought, and for a time my idea of her as a person was confused and even eclipsed by the abstract idea of beauty that she represented. (Hartley 36-37)

12The word here creates the experience and becomes ‘a fact’ which brings knowledge, while vision is guided or perhaps distorted by words and ideas, as in Atonement. Leo keeps playing with words, their pronunciation and obscure meaning, for instance with the first name Hugh which he cannot pronounce right (45 and 73), or when the warning notice ‘To Cyclists. Ride with Caution’ becomes the joke ‘Two cyclists ride with caution’ (93).

13Yet of course it is when Leo desperately wants to know what ‘spooning with people’ means, repeatedly asking Ted to explain it to him (176), that Briony’s experience of another word, ‘cunt’, comes to mind. The word ‘spooning’ is scattered throughout the novel, marking Leo’s slow awareness of the relationship between Marian and Ted and of his own condition. Words have meanings as well as values in The Go-Between: ‘In a few weeks the vogue would pass and the words regain their normal value. “Vous venez sur” (you’re coming on) and “Eh bien, je jamais” (well, I never) were two of the latest’ (186). Yet Leo knows that there is more to ‘spooning’ than its literal meaning, or even translation. There are so many words and so many phrases that Leo cannot understand. So, for instance, when Lord Trimingham tells him that Ted Burgess is ‘a bit of a lady-killer, but there’s no great harm in that’ (204). Leo as an adult narrator then ponders on his own responsibility in not getting the proper value of the word, elaborating instead on its literal meaning. As in Atonement, children get things and words wrong, too literally, thereby creating tragedy much more efficiently than through their rambling imagination. In his article on the picturesque in The Go-Between, Mark Broughton writes that ‘Leo has a tendency to look superstitiously beyond appearances and contingency to try to find meaning and determinism’ (Broughton 89). This surely also applies to Briony as a child and as an adult novelist, and in both novels is channelled through an interrogation of language and its slipping, or slippery, meaning. It is also similarly buoyed up by the narrative function of matter and material things. What McEwan also revisits from The Go-Between is the way objects challenge the memory but also unbridle the imagination: ‘I must have treasured it, why then could I not give it a context? I did not want to touch it and told myself that this was because it challenged my memory’ (Hartley 7). This leads to a form of material pride (12), for instance to the pride there is in imagining one’s books published: ‘It was then that I began to cherish a dream of becoming a writer […]. I had no idea what I wanted to write about: but I composed sentences that I thought would look well and sound well in print: that my writing should achieve the status of print was my ambition’ (17). We will remember here the numerous passages in Atonement when Briony looks at or imagines her own beautiful letters, words, sentences and then printed novels (McEwan 40, 41, 115 and 280). Both Leo and Briony move from ‘diseased imagination’ (Forster 2000, 17) to, here, ‘the world of facts. I accumulated facts’ (Hartley 265), and there, ‘a crammer of simple facts’ (McEwan 277).

14This of course links up with metafiction and the novels’ questioning of the links between words and reality. Young Leo became famous at school after putting a curse on other boys, who then, as if by black magic indeed, fell from a roof and were badly injured. As noticed by Ingersoll: ‘Leo becomes a hero, he begins to construct himself as a “magician” whose words have the performative power to do harm to those who have harmed him, and others’ (Ingersoll 243). The very same may be said of Briony in Atonement. As when speaking up his name to unlock the diary, Leo uses, writes and says words so that they may become real, or rather so that they may alter reality and actualise his most private wishes—and so does Briony of course.

15This is when the narrative structures of the novels clearly look alike, with epilogues revealing that the books have been written by Leo and Briony, though in Leo’s case, in James Palmer’s and Michael Riley’s words: ‘Only in the journey that is the narration itself does Leo Colston’s experience as both child and adult acquire meaning. Narration, then, is an act of discovery for Hartley’s Leo’ (Palmer and Riley 92). Briony’s narrative was perhaps not so much geared towards such ‘an act of discovery’. Yet once more, all the contradictions pertaining to atonement and responsibility in McEwan’s novel are also to be found in The Go-Between, beyond errors and mistakes (Leo also triggers the tragedy by misdelivering a message and the time set for the lovers’ final rendezvous). Let us just compare: ‘Either you had done something, or you hadn’t’ (Hartley 109) and ‘Either she saw, or she did not see. There lay nothing in between’ (McEwan 170); ‘I saw myself entering Ted’s life, an unknown small boy, a visitant from afar’ (Hartley 264) and ‘To enter a mind and show it at work, or being worked on, and to do this within a symmetrical design—this would be an artistic triumph’ (McEwan 282).

The Films’ Shared Aesthetics

16Before comparing Joseph Losey’s and Joe Wright’s respective misleading aesthetics and what they reveal about their adaptation strategies, it is worth pointing at some of the many elements their films have in common. In Atonement, the intricate stairs and the child character taking us down to the kitchen clearly recall the beginning of Losey’s The Go-Between (Losey 0’06”). All through the film, and mostly so in its first scenes, Leo goes up and down these impressive stairs (0’02”, 0’03”, 0’06”, 0’07” and 0’46”). In his monograph on Losey, Colin Gardiner compares the scenes to the double staircase in The Servant, another film by Losey, and sees this one as ‘the mercurial Leo’s fluid link’ (Gardiner 163) between the rooms and the many secrets of Brandham Hall. More lighted and less ominous than the staircase in Atonement, the set adds a radical form of verticality to the very flat, horizontal and rural landscape and filmscape of the movie, which reads as a way for the young hero to look at and discover this new world: ‘the stairs are used to spatialize a double movement, encompassing both Leo’s lofty, Icarus-like detachment, but also his earthbound physical inadequacy’ (164). They also give Leo the opportunity to try and interpret this world from some vantage point (Jones 156). Leo and Marcus are never more raucous and alive than here, in stark contrast to the other members of the family. In L’Image-mouvement, Gilles Deleuze claims Losey’s films yield some of the best examples of what he calls l’image-pulsion:

Ce qui apparaît d’abord chez Losey, c’est une violence très particulière qui imprègne ou emplit les personnages, et qui précède toute action […]. C’est une violence en acte, avant d’entrer en action. […] les escaliers prennent une importance essentielle en tant qu’ils dessinent une ligne de plus grande pente. La pulsion fouille le milieu, et ne connaît d’assouvissement qu’en s’emparant de ce qui semble lui être fermé, et appartenir en droit à un autre milieu, à un niveau supérieur. (Deleuze 191)

17Yet in these two films, it is by looking and going down, Leo here or Briony when going down to the library, that plots speed up to their tragic climaxes, or that characters transform and distort what they are looking at. In Atonement, the scene when Danny looks at his young and rich masters underlines the theatricality, pretence and ceremony of the moment (Wright 0’15”). At the end of part one, when everybody is waiting in the house and then on the terrace for Robbie’s return, again time is frozen and space becomes ‘carved, fixed’. In his commentary, Wright grants that ‘there is quite a lot of formal tableaus in this film’ (0’43”). These shots should be construed as persuasive adaptations of McEwan’s tableaux vivants, offering an illustration of the influence of Losey’s film, in which Leo regularly stares out of windows at even more striking social tableaux vivants, with the members of his host family standing, sitting, lying or even playing outside but totally motionless (Losey 0’03”, 0’03”, 0’06”, 0’08”, 0’11” and 0’17”), as ‘tableaux, formal portraits from an album of memories’ (Riley and Palmer 224). As is of course the case in Atonement in the fountain and the library scenes, these shots hinge around two main thematic and formal questions—chronology and subjectivity. Three chronological patterns can be observed: either we see the tableau with the young boys, or the focalised image is delayed (0’02”: this is what they have just been looking at), or else it is edited before being actually perceived by the boys (0’03”). According to Gardiner:

When Leo first arrives at the house, for example, Marcus stops to show him the view from an upper landing window. Instead of cutting to a point-of-view shot so that we can share their view, Losey gives us a partially obscured angle down on the croquet lawn from another window, hinting that Leo’s subjective view and the camera’s omniscient perspective are not necessarily the same. (Gardiner 163)

18This is resonant with the editing of the fountain and library scenes in Atonement and Wright’s distortion of focalisation, the better to mislead us. Losey also plays with focalisation (Losey 1’08”) and the inclusion of the onlooker(s) (0’04”), with a zoom-in (0’04”) and, as in Atonement once again, with the dangers lurking in these focalised tableaux, for instance when Leo enters the shot with Marian but soon moves off-camera (0’04”), just as then the boys have to wriggle their way out to avoid touching the Atropa Belladonna, another threatening beautiful lady (0’05”). The subjectivity of many shots from The Go-Between is ‘problematic’ (Tashiro 21) and has led to contradictory analyses (21, Jones 157, Broughton 95)—another striking similarity with Briony’s focalised shots in Wright’s Atonement.

  • 3 Hartley’s book also reads as a sexual novel of education not devoid of homosexual undertones (Hartl (...)

19At two highly dramatic moments in Atonement, the camera pushes out on Briony, having her figure shrink and pointing at her emotional vulnerability. When she reads Robbie’s letter, the camera pushes out from an extreme close-up on her face to a much wider, distant shot, in which she really appears belittled and at a loss (Wright 0’27”). Similarly, after the episode with Luc Cornet, there is a push-out on her when she walks through the beds (1’32”). We can note here another influence of Losey, who often zooms out on Leo (Losey 0’31”, 0’45” and 1’11”). In both cases, a more distant and general perspective is therefore immediately needed—and provided—to make up for the informative and visual deficiencies of the first image, which is an obvious formal and cinematic inscription of one of the most major issues at stake in the plots. Strikingly distant and extreme long shots are sometimes edited in both films, for instance on Leo running through the countryside, or Briony in the garden. Another similar aesthetic can be observed in the black magic scene (0’32”) and the one when Briony is writing in her garden. And of course the library scene focalised by Briony owes much to the last scene at Brandham in The Go-Between. Wright has said: ‘Sex, to me, from a wide shot, always looks quite awkward and grotesque. […] Like two animals […] the fucking insects’ shot’ (Wright 0’32”)—the same animal dimension is present when Leo sees Marian and Ted making love (Losey 1’48”).3

20The camerawork, the mise-en-scène and the editing often follow the same aesthetic options in these two films. In Wright’s adaptation, the camera’s first cut is onto a slow, cautious panning shot on Briony’s nape and profile (Wright 0’01”), as if the spectators too should be in fear of the God-like author manipulating her miniature animals but also the real people around her. Then, as if retreating already, it tracks back when she almost marches out of her room. Similarly, in the first sequence Losey’s camera stands back and afar, as if hiding from the boys (Losey 0’02”). As Charles Shiro Tashiro notices: ‘Doorways punctuate The Go-Between to the point of excess’ (Tashiro 33), and in both films characters are frequently framed within the frame (Losey 1’17”). Other parallels may be noticed, such as when both Marian and Cecilia literally block and freeze when mistaking a reference to a message or a letter (Losey 0’40”; Wright 0’39”), or when Leo and Briony say ‘I know’ or ‘I know who it was’ and the other characters turn around and freeze as well when looking back (Losey 1’22”; Wright 0’42”). Riley and Palmer have written audacious pages on Losey’s ‘taut editing’ (Riley and Palmer 222), while Jones has argued that the editing strives to adapt the metaphors and symbolism of the novel (Jones 155). Other critical assessments of Losey may equally apply to Wright’s work in Atonement: ‘For some he is an allegorist detached from his characters, for others principally a stylist with a penchant for the gothic’ (Palmer and Riley 1); ‘Losey’s meticulous attention to visual detail was typically in the service not of verisimilitude but of stylization’ (12); ‘A baroque stylist, a formalist filmmaker more involved in exploring elaborate settings or experimenting with cinematic time than in caring about his characters’ (145). Gardiner tags Losey’s style as ‘modernist’ and ‘baroque’ (Gardiner 3), and has insightful comments on the music which are most helpful to characterise the score and, most probably, the typing sounds in Wright’s adaptation:

Michel Legrand’s uncommonly loud score creates a provocative sound-image counterpoint. With its breathless, staccato rhythm, suggesting haste and urgency […], the music draws attention to a disjunctive, often suffocating sense of foreboding that prevents the viewer from being lulled into a false sense of security by the film’s lush, pastoral images. (164)

21Neil Sinyard provides another invaluable comment for Atonement in his essay on Losey:

Why is the music so dramatically drawing attention to an atmosphere of ominousness that is not apparent in the images? The reason is that the score is conceived retrospectively, in the full knowledge of disaster. It has the foreknowledge of the camera […]. The music’s traumatic, passionate chords underneath the film alert an audience to the suppressed passion underneath the surface of this society which is ultimately to erupt into hysteria and tragedy. (Sinyard 27)

22Old Leo’s memory and narrative status in the film, which Sinyard deciphers in the retrospective and commenting quality of the music, might therefore easily be compared to Briony’s narrative presence in the film and its soundtrack, which is anything but neutral. This also reflects upon the autonomy of the camera, with in Losey a zoom-in (Losey 0’17”) onto Marian and Ted in town which, as has often been studied, is part of Leo’s retrospection, and in Wright these two moments when the camera slowly shifts away to signify more than it shows (Wright 0’27” and 0’45”). Another interesting common distortion is that of time: as when Atonement runs backwards for a few minutes when Robbie is dying, Riley and Palmer argue that in The Go-Between the fact that some scenes from the present are reversed testifies to the perturbed chronology of the plot and disrupted aesthetic of the adaptation (Riley and Palmer 225).

The films as Adaptations: Revealing, Altering, and Experimenting

23In his essay, Ingersoll offers this particularly original reading of Robbie’s origins in an endnote:

This narrative makes such a point of Robbie and Cecilia being siblings, psychologically, that one may wonder if ‘The Old Man’ isn’t Robbie’s father. Both the Turner and the Tallis marriages seem not to have been ‘made in heaven’, and there are strong implications that Tallis is being kept away in London by more than early preparations for the war that would break out four years after the novel begins. (Ingersoll 256)

24He also underlines Mr Tallis’s eagerness to keep Mrs Turner at his service after her husband’s disappearance. Jean-Michel Ganteau has examined the traumatic and ethical significance of such an incestuous bond (Ganteau 349). The film suggests nothing of the sort but shifts the implicit onto the characters of Cecilia and Leon (Mellet 40). As for The Go-Between, according to Sinyard, Losey’s film adds a major element to the novel, i.e. the fact that Marian’s mother may have been one of Ted Burgess’s former mistresses, and that the mother may be frightfully jealous of her daughter’s affair. Sinyard reads a climax of this possibility in the last scene, when Mrs Maudsley and Leo see Marian and Ted making love:

a scene whose tension is released by Mrs Maudsley’s anguished groan, and Leo’s cry as she seizes him, in her confusion instinctively protecting him from a sight she has actively brought him out to see. This gesture is echoed by Marian, who pulls Burgess towards her, and mother and daughter face each other in mutual sexual enmity. (Sinyard 32)

25He explains how this makes the end more logical but also more traumatic. In both films, therefore, and on sexual trauma, there is a shift of emphasis, perhaps the better to reveal the implicit in the novel or suggest other interpretations of the original plot. ‘One remembers things at different levels’ (Hartley 90), Leo writes—one adapts things at different levels too in these two film versions.

26In the first paragraphs of his essay, Broughton reminds us that ‘[a]daptation theory has moved away from the notion of a single “original” source’ (Broughton 86), to buttress his argument that Losey’s film should also be read as an adaptation of a country estate and a particular British landscape. Wright’s film similarly adapts Losey’s The Go-Between, as an adaptation but also its formal and aesthetic devices. In The Go-Between and in Atonement, neither Leo nor Briony are writing their stories, neither is turned into a filmmaker and yet, medium-based self-reflexivity is central. Sinyard writes: ‘the film continually compels a viewer to ponder what he is seeing, and the notion of the film as mystery (rather than as, say, tragic love story) seems a crucial clue to its whole style’ (Sinyard 21). In both films, to continue with Hartley’s famous first words in the book, ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’ (Hartley 7), the source-text becomes the past of the film which does things differently as well and alters the ending (Leo does not deliver Marian’s message to her grandson in the film, and in Atonement part four and its coda may very well be watched not as an adaptation of the book’s conclusion). Sinyard adds: ‘A film adaptation of a novel, inevitably in the process of selection and emphasis, becomes implicitly a form of criticism as well’ (Sinyard 22)—it is such a form of criticism that has been proposed here, be it of Hartley by Losey, of Losey by Wright, and of McEwan by Wright through Losey. Deleuze’s definition of naturalism in L’Image-mouvement may be a promising starting point for fresh perspectives on adaptation based on reflexivity, and on Atonement more generally: ‘Ainsi s’organisent chez Losey les quatre coordonnées propres au naturalisme. […] monde originaire, milieu dérivé, images et actes pulsionnels, actions perverses dans le milieu dérivé’ (Deleuze 195). In the four versions of The Go-Between and Atonement, creation and adaptation become naturalistic experiments with people, words, media, the past, and novels themselves, which undoubtedly take us back to Briony’s ‘attempt’. Together with the modalities of this attempt, McEwan’s playfulness with milieux and perversion, and Wright’s self-reflexive experiments undoubtedly pertain to such naturalistic aesthetics.

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Alden, Natasha, Reading Behind the Lines. Postmemory in Contemporary British War Fiction, Manchester: Manchester UP, 2014.

Broughton, Mark, ‘The Figure (and Disfigurement) in the Landscape: The Go-Between’s Picturesque’, ed. Paul Newland, British Rural Landscapes on Film, Manchester: Manchester UP, 2016, 86-102.

Deleuze, Gilles, L’Image-mouvement, Paris: Minuit, 1983.

Forster, E. M., A Room with a View (1908), London: Penguin, 2000.

Forster, E. M., The Longest Journey (1907), London: Penguin, 2006.

Ganteau, Jean-Michel, ‘Of Wounds and Secrets: Ian McEwan’s Atonement’, Études Anglaises 70.3 (2017): 339-353.

Gardiner, Colin, Joseph Losey (2004), Manchester: Manchester UP, 2015.

Hartley, L. P., The Go-Between (1953), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958.

Haun, Harry, ‘Quite Wright. British Director Eyes Award Glory with Atonement’, last accessed at on December 11, 2017.

Ingersoll, Earl G., ‘Intertextuality in L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between and Ian McEwan’s Atonement’, Forum for Modern Language Studies 40.3 (July 2004): 241-258.

Jones, Edward T., ‘Summer of 1900: A la Recherche of The Go-Between’, Literature/Film Quarterly 1.2 (1973): 154-160.

Losey, Joseph, The Go-Between (1971), DVD Studio Canal, 34577638, 2007.

McEwan, Ian, Atonement (2001), London: Vintage, 2002.

Mellet, Laurent, Atonement (Ian McEwan, Joe Wright). ‘The Attempt Was All’, Paris: Belin/CNED, 2017.

Palmer, James and Michael Riley, The Films of Joseph Losey, Cambridge: CUP, 1993.

Riley, Michael and James Palmer, ‘Time and the Structure of Memory in The Go-Between’, College Literature 5.3 (Fall 1978): 219-227.

Roberts, Ryan, ed., Conversations with Ian McEwan, Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2010.

Sinyard, Neil, ‘Pinter’s Go-Between’, Critical Quarterly 22.3 (1980): 21-33.

Sutherland, John, ‘Life Was Clearly Too Interesting in the War’, The Guardian 3 January 2002, last accessed at on December 12, 2017.

Tashiro, Charles S., ‘“Reading” Design in The Go-Between’, Cinema Journal 33.1 (Autumn 1993): 17-34.

Wright, Joe, Atonement (2007), DVD Universal Studios, 82532511, 2007.

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1 Sinyard’s article looks at the film as an adaptation by Harold Pinter. Though this is not my perspective here, the article offers very convincing micro-readings of The Go-Between.

2 Ingersoll interestingly remarks: ‘Leo never wrote the great modern English novel he hoped to when he was twelve, the Hartley novel becoming a kind of completion of the fictio interruptus produced by Leo’s trauma from a literal primal scene’ (Ingersoll 253).

3 Hartley’s book also reads as a sexual novel of education not devoid of homosexual undertones (Hartley 53 and 172), in a way which recalls Forster’s A Room with a View. Leo is obviously fascinated by Ted’s body (56), as Briony will be by Robbie’s. Deleuze has evoked the sexual tension of the film in terms which are worth pondering when considering Atonement: ‘non seulement le fermier s’empare de la fille du château, mais les deux amants s’emparent de l’enfant, contraint et fasciné, le pétrifiant dans son rôle de go-between, exerçant sur lui un étrange viol qui redouble leur plaisir’ (Deleuze 191).

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Laurent Mellet, « From The Go-Between (L. P. Hartley, Joseph Losey) to Atonement (Ian McEwan, Joe Wright): Intertextual and Interfilmic Aesthetics »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 55 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 02 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Laurent Mellet

Laurent Mellet is Professor of British literature and film at the University Toulouse Jean Jaurès (CAS-EA 801). His research fields are modernist and contemporary British fiction, film studies and adaptation. His work focuses on the ethics of form and partakes of a political criticism of aesthetics. He is the co-author with Shannon Wells-Lassagne of Étudier l’adaptation filmique. Cinéma anglais - cinéma américain (PUR, 2010), the author of L’Œil et la voix dans les romans de E. M. Forster et leur adaptation cinématographique (PULM, 2012), of Jonathan Coe. Les politiques de l’intime (PUPS, 2015), and of Atonement (Ian McEwan, Joe Wright): ‘The attempt was all’ (Belin, 2017). He is the co-editor with Sophie Aymes of In and Out. Eccentricity in Britain (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012) and with Elsa Cavalié of Only Connect. E. M. Forster’s Legacies in British Fiction (Peter Lang, 2017). He is the head of the research group ARTLab and co-director of the research programme ‘Constructing the individual and the collective’ (CAS).

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