Aaah, the old books to films conundrum – in this day and age are any novels truly unfilmable? In the last ten years or so the industry has brought a myriad of literary tales – all widely considered unfilmable – to the big screen: Lord of the Rings, Life of Pi and Watchmen all spring to mind as critical and commercial successes.
Which brings us to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – possibly one of the hardest books to adapt. Officially described as ‘An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.’ Mitchell constructed the novel as a series of six stories set across different periods, with multiple characters connected in small but significant ways. Here’s a quick run-down:
- The first is set on the high seas of the South Pacific in 1849, with American lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) being poisoned by the ship’s corrupt Doctor Goose (Tom Hanks)
- Set in Cambridge in 1936 we then have the tale of budding composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) being mentored by cantankerous composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent)
- Then a 1973 conspiracy thriller in San Francisco, with reporter Luisa Rey (Hallie Berry) being hunted down by CEO Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant) and enforcer Bill Smoke (Hugo Weaving)
- Next, in 2012, is a comedy tale of bungling publisher Timothy Cavendish’s (Jim Broadbent) nursing home break-out, after a trick by his brother Denholme (Hugh Grant)
- Leaping forward to Korea (called Neo Seoul) 2144 we then find out about fabricant Somni-451 (Doona Bae), a clone who breaks out of her slave-like existence with the help of activist Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess)
- Finally, on The Big Island in 2321 – after the fall of civilisation – lives tribesman Zachry (Tom Hanks). He meets Meronym (Hallie Berry) and agrees to help her reach Cloud Atlas – a communication system – to signal off-world colonies to rescue what remains of their people
So there they all are. Enough for at least three movies you might think, or at least a mini TV series. Despite the sheer number of stories and characters we’re being asked to get our heads around, the film does work on many levels.
In the book these stories are told in a sort of linear/cyclical fashion. Going from the 1800s to the post-apocalyptic future then back again revisiting each story, returning to the conclusion of the first tale at the very end. This wouldn’t have worked cinematically, so all six tales have been masterfully edited together to flow back and forth, constantly linking themes and characters to keep the audience hooked throughout.
This works, to a degree. The problem lies in the fact that cross-cutting between all these different stories for three hours can wear the audience down somewhat. Within the space of a typical ten minutes we’re being asked to feel so many emotions it becomes rather numbing. Perhaps I’m just emotionally stunted. That said, I can’t see any other way to put all these tales together into one sitting without it being an undertaking on some level.
In terms of whether you’ve read the book or not, I don’t think that’s a big issue. If anything it may be a blessing, as you go in fresh and unburdened. You can allow yourself to absorb all the film has to offer, without the constant mental comparison of book versus film, something with which us avid fiction readers often have to contend.
Granted, this sort of film will divide people, heavy going for some and a joy for others. Either way, it’s an admirable effort by the Wachowski siblings – one that definitely deserves credit, for both their ambition and execution. In the way that Life of Pi was a story about stories and the nature of belief, this too, is a tale that deals with big themes: how our actions last longer than our lives, with their effects rippling across time and space to inspire future generations.
On that note, Cloud Atlas is very much worth your time and, if you put in the effort, you’ll come away exhilarated and refreshed with your head full of big, positive thoughts. Plus you’re pretty much getting six films for the price of one – a bargain by any standards!