David Mitchell’s magnum opus was the subject of discussion in our most recent book club, so I thought I’d watch the 2012 film adaptation by Lana and Lilly Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. As far as unfilmable novels go, Cloud Atlas is a doozy: six separate stories set in six different timelines, each written in a different prose style and covering a different genre, from 19th-century pastiche to science fiction. Moreover, how do you visually translate a book whose chief attraction is Mitchell’s virtuoso use of language? This would have been enough to make most filmmakers run away screaming, so kudos to Wachowskis and Tykwer for even attempting something this ambitious and daunting. While I didn’t think that the movie succeeded overall, it’s a kind of high-aiming failure you can’t help but admire.
The epic storyline of Cloud Atlas takes place between the years 1849 and 2346. In the 19th century, a young attorney befriends a runaway slave on a sea voyage. In pre-WWII England, a young poor composer is struggling to write his masterwork. In 1975, a journalist investigates a shady nuclear plant. In the present day, an old publisher finds himself imprisoned in a nursing home. In 2144, a fabricated clone in the dystopian Korea gains self-awareness. In even more distant future, one of the few tribes remaining after the collapse of human civilization are visited by a woman from a more advanced society. Phewww… Is it any wonder this film runs for almost three hours?
One of the biggest changes made during the film adaptation is structure: Mitchell’s novel is something like a nesting Russian doll, where all but one central story are split in half, and once you read the middle story you’d go on to finish the rest in the reverse order. The movie dispenses with this symmetry, and instead chooses to constantly crosscut between the narratives, often pairing up the story beats, emotional moments and situations from different time periods. It also drives the central themes of freedom and oppression rather more forcefully than the book, where the thematic connections between disparate stories would dawn gradually. The crosscutting approach yields mixed results; even though I was already familiar with them, the rushed and shallow introduction of settings and characters was frustrating. Throughout the film, I kept wishing it would just stop and let each story breathe for a while, instead of taking short sharp gasps before whoosh, it’s on to another storyline.
Another questionable artistic choice is the decision to cast the same actors across the stories, blurring the boundaries of age, race and gender. In theory, this emphasises the theme of interconnectedness, but in practice it’s often distracting and some actors fare better than others. Tom Hanks is a great talent but his range is not limitless, and among the unconvincing characters he’s saddled with a hard-boiled Irish gangster/author is the chief offender. Poor Hugh Grant is disguised by the dreadfully fake aging make-up in one story, and I’m sorry, but Hugh Grant made up to look like a savage cannibal warrior can only be hilarious. In the future segment, the movie tries to pass a few non-Asian actors as Koreans, but their heavy make-up and prosthetics only make them look like Star Trek aliens. Likewise, turning a young Asian actress into a middle-aged Hispanic lady and then into a freckled white European girl took me out of the movie.
Yet when the actors simply portray the film’s main characters sans heavy make-up, the casting is bang on, particularly Ben Whishaw as witty, bohemian, bisexual composer Robert Frobisher. He really could have stepped off the pages of the book. Halle Berry (a sporadic performer to say the least) is effective in her two main roles. Doona Bae is touching as the doomed clone Sonmi, though she’s a tad unbelievable as a speechifying revolutionary whose incredibly monotone broadcast is supposed to have transformed the society (in the book, Sonmi’s call to rebellion is done in writing). But then, this is from the filmmakers who gave us the equally robotic Architect speech from The Matrix Reloaded.
Some changes from the source material I didn’t mind, such as more romance and action, and the revised ending to the far-future story. The book found a way to end on an optimistic note, so it’s fine if the filmmakers choose to do likewise. While ultimately I don’t think that the movie quite works, it’s daring and imaginative and there are moments of genuine emotion and magic to be found. I’ve no idea how I would have reacted had I not read the book, but I’m glad that someone attempted to put Mitchell’s incredible vision on screen.