‘Atonement’: How Important is Costume Design Fidelity from the Novel to the Film? (Part Two)

Yesterday, I contributed an article/post to Guise Magazine all about Atonement (2007) and the transfer of costume design from page descriptions (the novel by Ian McEwan) to the screen. As I mentioned in the text, it was sort of taken from my university dissertation (so I’m plagiarising myself – that’s totally allowed) and I had to cut a lot down. So, if anyone would like to read about other examples of costume changes I’ve included some more examples below:

Atonement (costume design by Jacqueline Durran) shows a combination of highly accurate costumes from the book, fairly accurate and then completely different. Each design was carefully considered in terms of story, character and location. Not just in terms of fidelity to the source material. In a featurette for the film, director Joe Wright stated ‘I was really trying to give people a cinematic version of the experience I had when reading the book’ and this seems to encompass every aspect of the book.

Cecilia’s first costume is important to the beginnings of the story, but her costume for the library scene is momentous. In the novel it is described before she wears it ‘her latest and best piece…was the figure-hugging dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck’ (p.97); when she puts the dress on ‘as she pulled it on she approved of the firm caress of the bias-cut’ (p.98); but it is also remembered by Robbie when he is in France – highlighting the importance of the entire moment for him.

How could he forget that green dress, how it clung to the curve of her hips and hampered her running and showed the beauty of her shoulders. (p.264).

The costume worn by Keira Knightley is figure-hugging, dark green, bias-cut, backless and the only ways it differs from the description is that it does not have a halter neck or inhibit running due to the high centre split (put in to aid filming the library scene). Removing the halter neck allows for the thin straps (thin enough to look like a mere suggestion) to be easily cast aside; this act of ‘undressing’ could not have been carried out to the same cinematic suggestion with a halter neck. These changes were made for the sake of filming; every aspect needs to be suitable for a visual medium.

These shots don't show it, but the slit is right down the centre front of the skirt.

These shots don’t show it, but the slit is down from the ‘knot’ at the front of the skirt.

For such a crucial scene, one that shapes the rest of the story and, in turn, the film, the costume needed to be powerful. This replication does everything that a good costume should do – it aids the character, the story, the emotion and the director’s vision. The costume does not look out of place but rather perfectly in tone with the moment. Cecilia’s dress is overpowering because of the colour, the way the fabric flows and the length. She needs to own the moment in the library, the admission of love, the wait for Robbie and when the police take him away. The shade of green used obviously played an important part and Durran worked hard to create the perfect deep emerald green.

Within the film, Cecilia’s two early costumes are the most influential but I am going to take this moment to discuss Lola’s wedding dress. This moment was important in the acknowledgment of Paul Marshall’s guilt and of Lola’s unexpected compliance with it. ‘She was in white, the full traditional wear, and…was heavily veiled.’ (p.323). The description of a white wedding dress is not unusual but, within the context of the moment, the heavy veil and the traditional aspect of it are the important descriptions. Lola seems almost weighed down by the tradition but also empowered by the wealth that is associated with these two facts.

Lola's Wedding Dress

So far I’ve shown that when a costume is specifically described, the description is generally adhered to. However, many costumes are either generally referenced or left unmentioned. This leaves much more freedom for the director and the costume designer.

One costume that has a mild change from the novel’s description is that of Cecilia’s dressing gown outside her flat. ‘Feet wearing thick socks came into view, and a flash of bare skin, and a blue silk dressing gown’ (p.331). Cecilia appears barefoot wearing a blue striped cotton (to the naked eye) dressing gown. The bare feet are more keeping with Briony’s imagination of the situation; in that Cecilia has just got out of bed and thrown a dressing gown on to open the door. Changing the fabric from silk to cotton shows how far Cecilia has moved from her old life. The distance from her family means a distance from wealth, which is what silk would symbolise. Although the novel mentions that Briony recognizes the silk dressing gown, there is no way to show that within the film and so dressing Cecilia in a cheaper fabric, similar to that of the injured soldiers at the hospital, instantly shows the change in Cecilia.

Cecilia's Dressing Gown

In ‘Atonement’ (2001) Lola’s evening dress is described as a ‘blue satin sheath dress’ (p.116) but is a light pink loosely fitted dress. Wright stated in the commentary for Atonement ‘we knew we wanted it to be pink but it was a very difficult balance of it being childlike but also her attempting to be grown up’. This is clear to the audience as it seems as if Lola is trying too hard. Throughout the beginning of the film she tries to distance herself from the twins because she feels that she has to protect them from their parents divorce and living with their cousins. This colour is also very similar in tone to the first costume she wears, when again she is trying to be an adult. If Lola had worn the ‘blue satin sheath dress’ it would have looked too mature (especially on an actress older than the character she is playing), and would not have flowed cinematically when she was carried back into the house after her assault.

Lola's Evening Dress

When a book seems impossible to film it gains more attention and notoriety, whatever the outcome – just look at the reactions to Life of Pi (2012) and Cloud Atlas (2012). The costumes in Atonement are very accurate to the descriptions, with any changes made suitable for either the filmmaking process (the slit in Cecilia’s green dress), aiding the storytelling (Lola’s pink evening dress) or the overall look of the film (linking Paul Marshall and Lola’s costumes) [please see Guise Magazine for details about those costumes].

I am considering looking at a series of these kinds of posts (I’ve still got two films from my dissertation I can reference!) as film adaptations are not going anywhere. And as I’m re-reading ‘The Great Gatsby’ for our book club maybe that one would be especially interesting come the film’s release date.

S x

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3 thoughts on “‘Atonement’: How Important is Costume Design Fidelity from the Novel to the Film? (Part Two)

  1. Pingback: ‘The Wizard of Oz’: Interpreting a Classic Novel | Damn, That's Some Fine Tailoring

  2. Pingback: Why I’m Obsessed with the Green Dress from Atonement | itsaLisa

  3. very interesting read, i’d be keen to read more of your writing regarding costume in film and the adaptation it undergoes when moving from text to screen. lovely!

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