Cloud Atlas has the rare distinction of being both one of my favourite films and one of my favourite books. While the book is lauded as being a seminal work by its author, David Mitchell, the film was wildly misunderstood by movie critics.
However, I think it’s one of the best book-to-film adaptations going. Here’s why.
For a start, it is my long-standing belief that telling a story through a novel needs a very different approach for telling a story through film. Cloud Atlas is a fine example of changes in the adaptation from book to film relating to what works best with each medium.
The plot is complex and therefore difficult to sum up in a few neat paragraphs. Both book and film contain six separate storylines that intertwine and contain similar themes, while each story visibly influences the others.
In the book, the stories appear in chronological order, but are interrupted halfway through. Briefly, Story One follows a nineteenth century lawyer voyaging across the pacific ocean carrying a contract from a plantation owner to a businessman in San Francisco. This appears as a diary that is found by Robert Frobisher, who in Story Two, is an aspiring composer in the 1930s who becomes an amanuensis for well-established but infirm composer Vyvyan Ayrs.
Their story is composed of letters from Frobisher to his lover, which are found by journalist Luisa Rey in Story Three who is investigating a possible conspiracy with a new Nuclear Power Station in the 70s. Her story is presented as a screenplay to publisher Timothy Cavendish in Story Four, set in the present, where Timothy goes on the run from his debtors and ends up incarcerated in a nursing home.
His story is transformed into memoirs, which are made into a film which is watched by Sonmi 451, a human clone designed to work service jobs in the near future. She escapes from servitude and is also on the run. She records a sermon, essentially her memoirs, onto a video recording device, which is found by Zachry, a tribesman in a dystopian far future, whose village is under threat from a carnivorous tribe.
Each story influences the next as the subjects ponder the story that they’ve found. However, it gets weird when the stories start influencing the actions of the characters in chronically previous stories as we get the second halves of each story.
How to portray this as a film then? It would have been inefficient to film it in the same order as the book; audiences would have become bored and a lot of the subtleties would have been lost with so much film time between each.
I marvel at the planning required by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer to execute it. Each of the stories runs concurrently, we switch between them at thematically similar points in each story. This is one of the pieces of film magic that wouldn’t have worked with novel – it would have jumbled it up too much; but with the careful use of colour and tone, it’s easy to distinguish which story we’re in within a couple of frames.
One of the main talking points of the film was the use of the same cast for each story. Most of the main cast play six parts; one will be a main part, the rest, supporting roles or cameos – but it illustrates well the cyclic nature of the story, and how each influences the rest.
Tom Hanks’s characters all have the chance to resist greed or cowardice, but only Zachry manages it with success. Each of Jim Sturgess’s characters stand up to an oppressor, but none more emphatically than Adam Ewing, the 19th century lawyer, who stands up to his father in law, refusing to take part in the slave trade and becoming an abolitionist; uttering the movie’s best quote – ‘What is the ocean, but a multitude of drops?’
Alternatively, Hugo Weaving’s characters are all evil in some way, and it’s fitting that the imagined ‘Old Georgie’ in the final story takes on his appearance in Zachry’s mind.
This is obviously something that couldn’t be done with the book; just as the book’s characters’ inner musings on freedom and slavery, can’t be directly translated to film, without slowing its pacing.
Both book and film have a spotter’s guide feel to them as well, in the same way that Peter Greenaway’s Drowning By Numbers throws apparently arbitrary, but also well interpreted symbolic numbers into the frames. The aforementioned themes of freedom and slavery are easily spotted in both. (Autua being an actual slave/Frobisher’s slavery under Ayrs/The bought silence of the power plant workers/Cavendish’s imprisonment/Sonmi’s slavery/Zachry living in fear of the Kona tribe).
There is also a connection between rising to higher ground and attaining freedom. Autua climbs the rigging in the film to earn his safe passage. Frobisher climbs the church tower before deciding to kill himself. Luisa Ray and Isaac Saachs have their enlightening conversation on the power plant’s rooftop. Cavendish and crew escape to the Scottish Highlands. Sonmi and the other clones are ‘freed’ from their labour through ‘ascension.’ Zachry and Meronym climb Mauna Kea to reach a transmission tower.
There are plenty of other smaller connecting themes/symbols throughout both book and film, such as the birthmarks – the film uses similar visuals and music to illustrate this; the book uses similar description of situation and setting to the same effect.
Refreshingly for the Wachowskis who overused the Jesus imagery in The Matrix, the tones of Buddhism and reincarnation/Nirvana are used sparingly and with subtlety here.
I’ve barely scratched the surface on what it all means and how it works, even on a basic level, but hopefully I’ve been able to convince you to read the book and watch the film, with a new mind if you have already, or with great anticipation if you have not.
Friends and critics have scoffed at my love for this film, refuse to entertain it. In fact they can make one feel like a drop in a limitless ocean. But what is an ocean but…