McEwean's Atonement was short-listed for the 2001 Booker Prize and is considered by many critics to be McEwan's best work. Time magazine listed it as the best fiction of the year, and London's Observer ranked it one of the all-time 100 greatest novels. In the United States, Atonement received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (2002) and National Book Critics Circle Award (2002). As Edward T. Wheeler, writing for Commonweal put it: "Atonement is a most impressive book, one that may indeed be McEwan's finest achievement."
Critic Merritt Moseley, writing for World & I, pretty much summed up the novel's impact on the literary world. "With Atonement," Moseley wrote, "McEwan has placed himself at the head of the class. There is nobody else writing with his combination of confidence, imaginative power, humane sympathy, literary sophistication, and intelligence."
It was McEwan's depth of understanding the psychology of his characters that many characters pointed out as McEwan's best strength. John B. Breslin, writing for America, stated: "Combining a shrewd narrative sense with acute psychology, he [McEwan] often manages to pick subjects that push him and his reader into the borderlands of ordinary life where the bizarre and the everyday regularly collide or intersect." Or as the Christian Science Monitor's critic, Ron Charles wrote: "What seemed like a triumph of literary acumen then was, in fact, just a prelude to a far broader, more ambitious novel that captures the brutality of love and war and guilt. The extraordinary range of 'Atonement' suggests that there's nothing McEwan can't do."
Richard Wallace, after reading Atonement for the Seattle Times, found that "McEwan delivers a devastating one-two punch: he writes as scary as Stephen King and thinks like [Joseph] Conrad." Daphne Merkin, for the Los Angeles Times, praised McEwan's novel for reminding her why she fell in love with literature: "Atonement puts me in mind of what made me an avid reader in the first place, before I lost that original sense of exhilaration. In the seriousness of its intentions and the dazzle of its language, it made me starry-eyed all over again on behalf of literature's humanizing possibilities."
Atonement was adapted to film and released in 2007. The movie was nominated as best film of the year.