How Does ‘Cloud Atlas’ Stack Up to the Book?

Unlike nearly everyone I know, I didn’t like the trailer for Cloud Atlas. When I first saw it, I winced at its length, its bombast — it seemed too bloated, too slapdash, and too much like a mashed-up clone every other epic movie I’d seen. There was no possible way, I thought, that this movie would do justice to David Mitchell’s enchanting novel. But then again, for your humble literary editor and resident book nerd (and not, I’ll point out right away, a laureled film critic), that seems pretty predicable. Still, when I sat down to watch the film at its US premiere at the New Yorker Festival this month, I was on my guard. Seeing a book I love translated well to the big screen is a great joy of mine, but the opposite is as big a disappointment — I don’t think I’ll ever get over what Frank Oz did to The Indian in the Cupboard. But I was surprised. The film, incredibly ambitious in its own right, serves as a kind of lovely sound poem ode to the novel, as interpretive as it is adaptive.

Cloud Atlas is often described as a “Russian-doll” of a novel, because each of its six storylines contains at least some kind of record of the one before it — Robert Frobisher reads Adam Ewing’s journal, Timothy Cavendish reads the fictionalized exploits of Luisa Rey, etc, etc — but to me, the less fancy and more appropriate image is that of a circle, or even a pyramid, spanning ages and continents: the book begins at sea in the 18th century, skips to the 1930s, then the 1970s, then the London of the present day, before giving us a glimpse of Neo-Seoul in 2144 and finally dipping us into the far future, designated as “106 winters after the Fall.” Once we’re as far as we can get, Mitchell leads us back down the mountain, so the novel begins and ends with the same story, in 1850. His ability to change his writing style to suit the mood of each time and place is prodigious, and each story could have been complete — if not as marvelous — on its own.

But of course, such a format would not suit a film, and herein lies the genius of directors Lana and Andy Wachowskis (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). As much as I hate to admit it, the structure of the film is almost better than that of the book, at least at getting across the main nugget of wisdom at the bottom of the pool. Now don’t get me wrong — I think the cyclical format is incredibly innovative, and I don’t see the book being written any other way, but because the sections are so long and because (much to Mitchell’s credit), you get so immersed in each tale, it’s harder to pick up on the many fine connections snaking through them, at least on first read. I also had to urge more than one friend to just read past the first section, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” though I can’t agree with their boredom. Then again, the Robert Frobisher sections, the first of which comes directly after the first Adam Ewing installment, may be my favorites in both book and film, so I have been known to rush Ewing myself on re-read. The film, on the other hand, mixes the stories wildly, as if they were all part of one storyline — which of course, they sort of are. As they explained at their discussion after the New Yorker Festival screening, after writing the script, the directors transcribed every moment of the film onto colored index cards and spread them on the floor, matching them thematically or emotionally, the idea being that with the right scenes spliced together, the interlocking stories pull off a neat trick and manage to explain each other.

This trick works, but only if you relax and let it. Any grasping somewhat ruins the effect — there’s a lot to take in, especially if you haven’t read the book, and it’s partially complicated by Mitchell’s near-incomprehensible far-future dialect. And I was not really convinced, as a fan of the book, by the film’s supposed central arc of Tom Hanks’s “soul,” which moved in time from the evil, greedy Dr. Goose to the confused, slightly tormented, but basically good Zach’ry. But this comes only from post-film reflection. While watching, you must lean back and relent to the basic premise — that you’re drinking in a tapestry sewn from universality of human feeling — and you’ll enjoy countless cliff-hangers and moments of sheer joy all stacked up on top of one another. It’s almost like sitting down to watch an entire new season of your favorite TV show all at once, with all the favorite characters and competing storylines that implies. Then again, perhaps this wouldn’t work at all if you hadn’t read the book, and I would be willing to entertain the idea that this film is only for those who have (as some critics have suggested), though I don’t really believe it.

For me, where the film falters is in the built-in device of having each actor, whom Tykwer has described as “playing souls, not characters,” fill multiple roles (we’re talking five or six, and sometimes rather charmingly only as extras) across the storylines. There’s nothing exactly wrong with this idea, but the book does it so delicately: the characters are linked by a distinctive birthmark that begins to thrill the reader as it pops up in new places, and the stories refer to each other like old forgotten friends, the reader nodding at his recognition of a shared in-joke. In the film, you’re slapped with the idea straight away, in the form of insane makeup that changes nearly everyone’s race and sex several notches over the course of the film. Some of the transformations are convincing (I nearly always bought Hugo Weaving as the bad guy, and Tom Hanks as a murderous author was a delight) but any time an actor in serious makeup interacted with one without it — Hugh Grant made up to look 60 in conversation with actual sexagenarian Jim Broadbent, the pair meant to be brothers, for instance — the device fell very, very flat. Ultimately, though the concept was sound, the execution took me out of the action, left me guessing who it was under all that plastic and paint instead of paying attention to what was going on in the film, and the small thrill of “Oh lord that’s Halle Berry” didn’t quite make up for it. Then again, perhaps asking a film of any kind to be as subtle as a novel is silly of me.

Ultimately, plastic faces or no, I was still moved by this beautiful, epic ode to one of my favorite novels. Somewhat ham-handed as the film’s closing statements are — sweeping declarations about the connectivity of mankind, as if we hadn’t figured it out for ourselves — the bottom line for me is this: watching it feels like watching from the inside as a great artist experiences the novel for the first time. Which is sort of what it is, after all. And that’s a pretty spectacular feeling. In the end, the film did justice to the novel, approached it on its own terms, took its earnest, wide-reaching themes and spangled them across the screen in a beautiful, magical way. As novelist Aleksandar Hemon suggested at the New Yorker screening, the main character in Cloud Atlas is humanity, and the film spills over with all the sloppy, soaring, funny, terrible, and yes, connected, experiences that entails. And that hit home, at least for this reader.