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#105 “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell (#13 on The List)

Cloud Atlas

by Michael Niewodowski

#105 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (#13 on The List).

“Based on the novel by David Mitchell”

A great film is like a novel delivered in its entirety in about two to three hours.

I saw the film version of Cloud Atlas a few months ago, and I was blown away.  It was a breathtaking, sprawling, and thought provoking film.  After seeing the film, I checked out the novel to see how they compare.

Cloud Atlas consists of six separate stories, spanning centuries and all the stories are interconnected.  The novel begins with the first half of each story- a journal by a merchant at sea on the Pacific Ocean in the 1800’s, a set of letters from Belgium to a lover in the 1930’s, a conspiracy murder mystery story from the 1970’s, an Englishman’s memoirs from the 2000’s, a final prisoner interview from Korea in the 2100’s, and an oral yarn from a post-apocalyptic Hawaii set far in the future.  Then the novel works its way backwards in time telling the second half of each story.  Imagine nesting Russian dolls.  One of the amazing things about the novel is the author’s range- each story is completely different from the others.  The interconnectedness is even more amazing- each story references the one before it: in the letters, the lover reads the Pacific journal and comments on it, the heroine in the murder mystery reads and studies the lover’s letters (as well as searching out and listening to his musical composition “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”), the Englishman reads and later publishes the murder mystery, the Korean prisoner watches the film version of the Englishman’s memoirs, and the people of the post-apocalyptic Hawaii worship the heroine of the Korean prisoner interview as a god.  Furthermore, the main character in each story has a matching birthmark in the shape of a comet.  Are we meant to believe that the main character of each story is a reincarnated version of the earlier?  The heroine of the murder mystery believes so; the Englishman flat out denies it.  The novel leaves that and many other decisions to the imagination of the reader- especially, ‘how may one’s actions affect others, even centuries later?’.

The film version follows each of the six stories faithfully.  However, instead of telling half of each story chronologically, then working its way backwards in time with the second half, the movie continuously shifts from story to story.  Amazingly, this is very effective in telling each separate story as well as connecting them.  I imagine that a great deal of deliberation went into this decision; the producers must have considered telling each story consecutively, and also considered following the novel directly.  For a visual experience, the continual shifting was probably the best decision- it keeps the viewer on his toes to keep up with each story as well as the connections.  Another excellent decision the filmmakers made was to have the same actors play different roles in each story- Tom Hanks plays the main character in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, Halle Berry plays the heroine in the murder mystery, etc; each actor also appears in a supporting role (often unrecognizably made-up) in each of the other stories.

I am and always have been a huge movie fan.  I am ambivalent about book to movie films, however. The old adage is true- the book is ALWAYS better than the movie, but a good adaptation can be wonderful.  In general, I enjoy watching the movie adaptation before reading the book; I have never found an adapted film version that I did not later greatly enjoy reading the book.  However, if I read a book first, and then see the film, I am often disappointed by the changes and disparities.  Many people disagree with me on this point. When learning or teaching a Shakespeare play, I find it very helpful to see as many film adaptations of the play as possible; literary critic Stephen Greenblatt praised Shakespeare for his “extraordinary malleability”.  I have seen dozens of film and stage versions of Macbeth, and I learn something new from each adaptation.

On the flip side, a poor adaptation of a great book can make me furious!  Films like “I Am Legend”, “The Scarlet Letter”, and “Sleepy Hollow” are travesties.  Any viewer would be far better off spending the money and time reading the actual book instead of watching the film adaptation.

Book to film adaptations can be tricky: I thoroughly enjoyed “Life of Pi”, even though I saw it after reading the book.  “Les Miserables” is a book to stage musical to film version- it worked for me; for many others is was a ‘miserable’ experience.  I am far more enamored with The Hobbit novel than the recent movie.  “Cloud Atlas” stands out as a film to rival Cloud Atlas the novel.  That’s a rare feat.

Cloud Atlas 2

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#57 Revisited “The Once and Future King” by T. H. White

 

by Michael Niewodowski

#57 Revisited The Once and Future King by T. H. White (#477 on The List)

Hic jacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rex que futurus (Here lies Arthur, king once, and king to be) – inscribed on King Arthur’s tomb.

 

‘Magical’ is not nearly a strong enough term for T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. This re-telling of the classic King Arthur legend is set in antiquity, but told in a modern style.  From the magician Merlyn’s training of young Arthur (the Wart) to the Knights of the Round Table to the Quest for the Holy Grail to Lancelot and Queen Guinevere’s affair to the tragic ending, one episode is more enchanting than the other.

The Arthurian legends have been told and retold throughout the centuries, setting the scene for Britain’s rich history of fantasy literature, including Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Lewis’ Narnia series, and Rowling’s Harry Potter series.  The Once and Future King has become a part of our culture; it inspired the Disney film “The Sword in the Stone” and the musical “Camelot”, and J.K. Rowling cited it as a major inspiration for her novels.  It seems strange, therefore, that White’s novel is not better known; it certainly deserves as much recognition as the aforementioned works.  When I chose the book from my list earlier this year, I had never heard of it and had no idea what it was about.

There is a great deal of knowledge and wisdom to be gained from reading The Once and Future King; in fact some of the wisest and most inspirational quotes I know comes from the novel.*  For me, however, reading this book is all about experiencing childlike wonder and joy.  Turning the pages of this novel is like unwrapping presents on Christmas morning.  Consider the following passage in which Merlyn becomes frustrated with the Wart’s training:

Merlyn took off his spectacles, dashed them on the floor and jumped on them with both feet.

‘Castor and Pollux blow me to Bermuda!’ he exclaimed, and immediately vanished with a frightful roar.

The Wart was still staring at his tutor’s chair in some perplexity, a few moments later, when Merlyn reappeared.  He had lost his hat and his hair and beard were tangled up, as if by a hurricane.  He sat down again, straightening his gown with trembling fingers.

‘Why did you do that?’ asked the Wart.

‘I did not do it on purpose.’

‘Do you mean to say that Castor and Pollux did blow you to Bermuda?’

‘Let this be a lesson to you,’ replied Merlyn, ‘not to swear…’

(…a lesson I might have done well to learn earlier in life.)

When I was in a graduate English class studying Shakespeare and Marlowe, our professor talked about how much she enjoyed reading Macbeth for the witches.  In the midst of hundreds of hours and thousands of pages of intensive literary criticism, our brilliant PhD professor spoke about the childlike joy she got out of reading about mystical characters.  How refreshing!

We read for a myriad of reasons: to learn, to escape, to change, and to grow.  One of the best reasons to read is for the sheer joy of it.  Personally, I’ve found no novel that has given me more joy than The Once and Future King.  I can hardly wait until my son is a little bit older so that I can read it to him.  What a glorious book!

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* “The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something.  That’s the only thing that never fails.  You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds.  There is only one thing for it then – to learn.  Learn why the world wags and what wags it.  That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.  Learning is the only thing for you.  Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

Note:  No reading of The Once and Future King is complete without the posthumously published conclusion, The Book of Merlyn, as White intended.  The Book of Merlyn itself has an interesting story as a “casualty of war.”

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