Books are books, and movies are movies. I usually don’t want or expect any adaptation to copy its source — in fact, it’s usually in everyone’s best interests for a derivative work to strive to be its own thing, and not… well, derivative. But Tom Tykwer and Lana & Larry Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas turned out to be an astonishingly faithful adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel. For a book so sprawling and commonly deemed unadaptable, I fully expected more characters and incident to have been necessarily jettisoned. But almost everything is there, with most of the screenwriters’ additions coming in the form of structural changes rather than material.
Being so faithful to this particular book comes with a potential downside. One of the greatest pleasures to be had in the novel is its wide range of genres and tones. Sequences include a pulpy 70s thriller, a light-hearted old folks farce, a sci-fi dystopia, and a postapocalyptic wasteland. Each is familiar to a degree, but only insofar as Mitchell employs known genre tropes to his own ends. Each is written in a different voice, ranging from archaic historical vernacular to imaginary fractured and devolved languages of the far future.
These devices may work better on the page than on the screen, for a reader is able to savor the lushly stylized language of each period. But subtract the novel’s devices of epistolary exchanges, internal monologues, fireside storytelling, and formal interviews, you’re only left with dialogue and visual depictions of action. What’s illustrated on screen comes across as a gumbo of The China Syndrome, The Matrix, The Road, and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. For instance, when David Mitchell took on the tone of a conspiracy thriller, I found it impressive. But when it’s realized on screen, it feels like a Friedkin or Frankenheimer knockoff with extra corny dialog.
The aforementioned faithfulness extends to plot, tone, character, theme, incident… almost everything except structure. The elegantly spiraling structure of David Mitchell’s novel is one of its most justly celebrated features, and it could have theoretically been adopted to cinema. Instead, the film scrambles the various story lines into one long montage that comes at you in a nearly three-hour-long avalanche. The obvious benefit is the highlighting of how recurring themes are interlinked and interwoven, how patterns of behavior repeat throughout history, and for the more metaphysically inclined, how souls are reincarnated, and how good and bad deeds echo forwards and backwards through time.
The three directors told the A.V. Club that they all worked simultaneously in close collaboration, but were required to be credited for specific sequences. For better or for worse, it seems pretty clear to me that the action sequences set in futuristic Korea have the Wachowski brand all over them. In this dystopia, corporations have replaced both government and religion, not that dissimilar to the world of the Wachowski-produced V for Vendetta). While intense and lengthy, these glorified chase sequences are not as extreme as their eyeball-spraining 2008 film Speed Racer. But Tykwer is a highly kinetic and visually oriented director as well, as he proved right away with Run Lola Run, so maybe I’m off base here.
One of the primary selling points of the movie is its stunt casting of a relatively small troupe of actors into a multitude of roles. The sad truth is that many of the makeup effects for actors playing across gender or race boundaries just don’t work. Hugo Weaving suffers in particular, with no amount of latex able to disguise his permanent menace and leer (how much do you want to bet he’s a sweet family man in real life?). But there are a few triumphs. For instance, I didn’t recognize Hugh Grant in at least two of his roles. Tom Hanks runs up and down the hamminess scale, but I thought he was genuinely excellent in the role of Zachry, a humble but atypically thoughtful goat herder whose deepest religious beliefs are challenged.
Like many, I fell in love with the beautifully written, structured, and ingenious novel. But most interestingly of all, it’s the first thing I can remember reading in a long time that had anything approaching a message, or, for lack of a better term, a “moral of the story”. In short, resisting oppression of all sorts is always worth it, even if one person can’t fix the world. Mitchell shows us a world seemingly inevitably doomed to drastic decline via slavery, global warming, societal collapse, and world war, but its heroes nevertheless act against political, corporate, or religious oppression. Many (but not all) of them suffer for it, but their acts resonate in ways both large and small.
It is in this context that I must pinpoint one serious crime the movie commits against the book. I noticed only one significant deviation from the novel that, for me, almost negates everything I found most powerful in the book. I don’t object that something was added (in fact, I usually argue that most adaptations of books need to be more liberal in their interpretations), but rather that what was added betrayed a desire for sentiment — in essence, a happy ending. Anyone that has experienced the novel and the film will know exactly what I’m talking about. The movie ends on a positive note for humanity at its chronologically latest point, while the book ends with a moving internal monologue set near the beginning, as a character decides to dedicate his life to the abolitionist movement.
Despite serious reservations like this, I was totally swept up in the movie and have to rate it highly overall. As a movie, it’s a towering, almost unbelievable achievement. It was essentially an independent production, with a large portion of the financing coming directly from the filmmakers themselves. Cloud Atlas was not made as a corporate exercise; it exists because three filmmakers felt they had to do it. The message of resisting oppression of all sorts, including corporate, must not have been a good selling point when it came time for them to shop their movie around to potential distributors, giant corporations all. So go see Cloud Atlas, if for no reason other than its verve and audacity.