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.