Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas

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.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

cloud-atlas-cover-imageWhat a book. Its scope and ambition made me feel like I’ve read multiple books and been away on a very very long journey. At one point it even gets cheekily self-referential when one of its protagonists wonders out loud, “Revolutionary or gimmicky?” Neither, from my perspective, but it’s one hell of a remarkable book. It can frustrate and demand patience at times, but it’s immensely rewarding the more you stick with it.

Cloud Atlas is a collection of six stories, all set in a different place and time, and each told in its own unique voice and style. It took me a while to get into the first tale, a diary of Adam Ewing, a 19th-century American lawyer who is crossing the Pacific on his way back to California. It annoyed me straight away with its use of ampersands and the story didn’t seem particularly interesting… and then when it finally gains momentum, it abruptly stops and it’s on to the next story. Argh the frustration! I eventually got over the fact that every story would cut off just when I was getting into it, but it was a sore point for a while. The second story is a series of letters written by Robert Frobisher, a young, bisexual and cheerfully amoral 1930s British composer, who is disowned by his family and convinces a dying musical genius to take him on as a student/assistant. Frobisher sounds like a character who could have walked from the pages of an Evelyn Waugh novel, and is enormous fun to follow. The third story is something like a pulpy thriller set in 1970s California and featuring Luisa Rey, a journalist who uncovers a sinister corporate cover-up. To be honest I found it the least compelling of all stories; its cat-and-mouse, plucky-hero-against-the-evil-corporation plot is only mildly interesting and the characters were nothing special. The fourth story is the most comical one in tone and narrates the woes of Timothy Cavendish, a 1980s London publisher who finds himself in a serious pickle when the thuggish relatives of a successful (if dead) author come knocking on his door.

The fifth and sixth stories is where the book really crossed into the “can’t put it down” territory, for me. Unlike the previous stories which are grounded in the real world and its past, these two jump centuries ahead and into the realm of science fiction. The fifth story is told in an interview format and features the book’s most memorable, intelligent and haunting character, Sonmi-451, a clone who lives in what used to be Korea but since turned into a totalitarian, ultra-capitalist state where humans are referred to as “consumers” and the clones are basically slave labour (promised carefree life after some years of servitude, but you can guess straight away where that one goes). For reasons unknown, Sonmi gains intelligence and awareness that sets her apart from her sister clones, and takes her out into the world beyond the food chain eatery she slaves in. The theme of clones and artificial intelligence is nothing new, granted, but the world of the future state of Nea So Copros is wonderfully imagined and detailed, and Sonmi’s story is genuinely moving. The sixth story – the only one not split into halves – is simultaneously the best one in the book and the hardest work to get through. It jumps even further in time into a post-apocalyptic future, where the human race has been reduced to a few surviving communities here and there maintaining the faint, fragile embers of civilisation. It’s written in an imagined future tribal dialect that has a certain poetic quality and flow, but dear god the apostrophes. Here’s a sample sentence:

I din’t sleep none that night, ‘cos o’ the mozzies an’ nightbirds an’ toads ringin’ an’ a myst’rous some’un what was hushly clatt’rin’ thru our dwellin’ pickin’ up stuff here an’ puttin’ it down there an’ the name o’this myst’rous some’un was Change.

So yeah it took some getting used to, but as in the previous story, this future post-technological dystopia is inventive and richly imagined, and this tale spells out one of the most important themes in the book, the hunger for more more more that both fuels the progress of the human race and dooms it to extinction. I figured that the stories would somehow be all linked, and they of course turn out to be, whether it’s a common theme (incarceration or enslavement being one of them) or more concrete details. Some of these connections are better executed than others; there’s one particular re-occurring physical detail which I felt was rather unnecessary. Even though chronologically the conclusion is a massive downer, Mitchell still manages to finish the novel on a hopeful note that puts faith into humanity’s better, more generous instincts.