“I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. How could we not, except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbours, companions? And then there is the question on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it, and how this affects our dealings with others. Some admit the damage, and try to mitigate it; some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless, and the ones to be careful of.”
Based on the 2011 novel by British author Julian Barnes and directed by Ritesh Batra, The Sense Of An Ending follows Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent), now a middle-aged man as he contends with a past he has never much thought about – until one his closest childhood friends commits suicide and leaves his diary in Tony’s possession. Tony thought he’d left all of this behind as he built a life for himself, but now his marriage and family and career have fallen into an amicable divorce and retirement. Presented with a mysterious legacy that obliges him to reconsider a variety of things he thought he’d understood all along, Tony is now made to revise his estimation of his own nature and place in the world.
The following post is a review of the film adaptation in comparison to the book. You can read my review of the book on its own here.
The Sense of an Ending is a lovely adaptation of an award-winning book, albeit one that is difficult to get into. But what this adaptation does is that it allows you to engage with its characters better by elevating a story that really is made for the written page.
British author Julian Barnes’ book is difficult to engage with because the lead character, Tony, is very pretentious and arrogant, and he leaves his story with a very ambiguous ending. But the book is also full of meaningful narrative, something which is often difficult to get across when transitioning a story from page to screen.
The book is very much a story of two halves, as we listen to Tony tell the story of his life but we then see him deconstruct his own memory of it. And that’s why it’s such a complicated story to adapt because it’s so heavy on narrative, that it’s more about filling in the gaps for yourself, taking away whatever feels more personal to you at that time of reading it.
For one example, when Tony goes to visit his girlfriend’s family, Veronica’s brother Jack says, “He’ll do.” But how did he mean that? The film makes it seem like Jack liked Tony, but I never got that impression from the book. For that reason, the film doesn’t get the same message across about how we remember our pasts differently, often coming to doubt our own memories with age, and how one person’s understanding of a situation isn’t always the whole picture.
The film has to add a lot more story to help get this across, with the narration at the end of the film seeing Tony reflect back on life after gaining a new way of looking at life. But whilst they have to take on the story in their own way to highlight its power, the writers and director Ritesh Batra do a wonderful job of taking a rather flat premise (on the surface, at least) and bringing it to life with context and reasoning.
They really do the story justice by giving it a more positive tone and optimistic outcome, with the sense of an ending being that it can all come together with its final revelations. This shows a better character arch in Tony, making him more likeable as we physically see how he has changed throughout the story, as he finally starts to think about his effect on others.
The adaptation is also filled with brilliant performances from some very talented actors. You can tell that Jim Broadbent studied the book before receiving the script and that he related a lot to his character, as he captures the essence of Tony perfectly.
Billy Howle and Freya Mavor, who play a young Tony and Veronica, do a brilliant job, too, making the characters more likeable and helping you to invest in them, something which I struggled to do when reading the book.
Differences From The Book:
Firstly, the story is told in a different order. In the book, Tony tells us about his time at school, about his time with Veronica, and then comes into the present. In the film, Tony is in the present and tells us snippets of his time with Veronica and at school. I’ll try to avoid talking about these changes more in the section below, but here are some of the other changes in the film compared to the book:
- The film begins with Tony talking to a postman. He isn’t in the book, but his character is used in the film to show how Tony’s attitude changes towards others.
- In the film, Tony works in a camera shop. In the book, we don’t see him in a working environment.
- In the film, Tony goes to a prenatal class with his daughter. In the book, she already has kids.
- In the film, Susie warns her dad that there will be lesbians at her meeting and to keep his mouth shut. Tony talks to them, which impresses Susie. This isn’t in the book, but it again highlights Tony’s mindset.
- In the film, Susie gives her dad an old phone. In the book, he doesn’t use new technology.
- In the film, Margaret has her foot in a cast, presumably to show why Tony has to look after his daughter. She doesn’t have her foot in a cast in the book, and there is no interaction with Susie.
- In the film, Tony receives the letter early on but doesn’t open in for a while. The first part of the book is all about the past, and it is the second part of the book that begins with Tony opening the letter.
- In the film, Tony goes to see the lawyer a number of times. In the book, these conversations are done over the phone or through emails.
- In the book, Tony emails brother Jack after receiving the lawyer’s letter and Jack gives him Veronica’s email address. In the film, Veronica rings Tony up and says that Jack said he wanted to get in contact with her, but we don’t hear from Jack personally.
- In the film, we are given a flashback to Tony meeting Veronica. We don’t see how they meet in the book.
- In the film, Veronica takes photographs and gives Tony his first camera. It is later commented that this is why he has opened a camera shop. In the book, there isn’t any mention of photography or interests in camera.
- In the book, Veronica, instead, is reading through an A-Z of authors. In the film, Tony does comment about her reading Zweig, but no context is given to this.
- In the book, we see Veronica meet Tony’s friends. In the film, Tony thinks that she met Adrian through brother Jack.
- In the film, Tony says that he didn’t have sex with Veronica, although we later see them together after breaking up. In the book, Tony goes into more detail about Veronica only wanted to have sex with him after they break up. She says it’s practically rape. This comment isn’t made in the film.
- In the film, Tony’s reply to Adrain only says that he’s fine, although we later see the real letter. In the book, he also tells Adrian to be prudent because Veronica is damaged.
- In the book, Tony had gone travelling before he comes home to the letter saying that Adrian has killed himself. He doesn’t go travelling in the film.
- In the book, Adrian leaves a note on the bathroom door, meaning that the suicide was planned. No comment of this is made in the film.
- In the book, Tony and his friends have a reunion a year after Adrian’s death. In the film, Tony meets his friends in the present and they show him how to contact Jack through social media. We don’t meet his friends in the present in the book.
- In the book, Veronica sends Tony a fragment of the diary that ends with, “So, for instance, if Tony…”. This isn’t in the film. She just gives him the letter.
- In the book, Veronica and Tony stay on the bridge for their first meeting. They then go to dinner on their second meeting. In the film, these meetings seem to be combined.
- In the film, Tony shouts at some children making a noise in the restaurant. This doesn’t happen in the book.
- In the book, Tony and Veronica mostly talk about Tony’s life. Veronica gets up and leaves. In the film, their conversation gets straight to the point. Veronica only leaves after giving him the letter. They then talk about their lives at another dinner meeting.
- In the film, Tony follows Veronica after their first meeting and writes down her number plate. He doesn’t do this in the book. Instead, Veronica asks him to get on a train and meets him at the other side in her car. No stalking is involved.
- In the film, Tony has to take his daughter to the hospital to have her baby but it’s a false alarm. Again, in the book, Susie already has children and we don’t meet her personally.
- In the film, Tony follows Veronica again and finds her with a group of mentally handicapped men. In the book, she drives Tony to meet them and says “You don’t get it.”
- In the book, Tony asks Jack about the group of men but he doesn’t reply. In the film, Tony doesn’t correspond with Jack.
- In the book, Tony goes to the pub but no one is there. He then starts going every week and becomes a regular, managing to try the whole menu. In the film, the group are there on his first visit.
- In the book, Adrian calls Veronica Mary. This doesn’t happen in the film.
- In the film, Tony talks about his daughter in an attempt to get Veronica to talk about her potential son. Again, in the book, nothing is happening with Susie.
- In the book, Tony sends Veronic an apology email. She says that he still doesn’t get it. In the film, they go for dinner again, instead.
- In the film, Susie has her baby. Tony sits with her during the c-section. This doesn’t happen in the book.
- In the film, Tony’s watch stops and Margaret gets him a new one. This doesn’t happen in the book, but it opens up a nice conversation about nostalgia.
- In the film, Tony starts being nice to the postman. Again, the postman isn’t in the book, but it shows how Tony has changed.
- The film ends with Tony’s narration about reflecting back on his life in a new way. The book doesn’t need this as it gets its message across throughout the story, instead. The book, instead, ends rather ambiguously, whereas the film makes things easier to follow.
The film certainly has its positives and is a great adaptation overall, but I don’t think it’s a film for anybody who hasn’t read the book. Although the film takes on its own meaning, it doesn’t link the past and the present together as well as the book does.
However, if you have read the book before, and even if you struggled to get into it like I did, the film will definitely make you want to revisit it and help you to understand it under a new light, which is all you can ask for in an adaptation.