Cloud Atlas: The Movie or The Book?

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Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell seems to have become one of those novels that come with a disclaimer, in that when somebody recommends it to you, you’re usually told that any impression you have of it from the big screen adaptation should be purged from memory. And it’s not without good reason. The film version of Cloud Atlas falls far short of perfect and if you’re a fan of the book, anything less than superb isn’t worth a mention. That said, I do find myself disagreeing with the opinion that film should be forgotten, in spite of any faults it might have, though I’ll admit that this isn’t exactly an unusual position for me to take.

In general, whenever I hear somebody say that the book is always better the movie, I find I have a bit of kneejerk reaction. Overall I’d agree that the rule proves to be true, but because there are a few notable exceptions, and because I’m probably kind of a contrarian by nature anyway, I tend to fall into a cyclical argument on the subject, even if it’s only with myself. For starters, I count some of my favourite films among the exceptions where I feel that the motion picture transcended the source material, with the likes of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but I have no doubt there are readers who’d champion the importance of the books over those movies. Of course, there have been a few clear cut cases where the critics unanimously agreed that the films were better, such as with The Godfather, as directed by Francis Ford Coppola, but I haven’t read Mario Puzo’s original novel so I can’t actually confirm that claim with any real credibility. Besides, I think what it really comes down to is that I love film just as much as I love literature and when I see one being praised over the other I’m inclined to try to balance the matter. The fact of it is, each of the mediums have their weaknesses and strengths. It’s only natural that a film would be able to bolster some aspects that didn’t exactly work on the page, and vice versa, that a book would be able to capture some intangible quality that the film team weren’t able to transfer to screen. Which brings me back to Cloud Atlas, one of the rare instances where I think both forms of media compensate for where the other fails.

The novel Cloud Atlas is essentially a collection of short stories that link together both thematically and through the plot. One reason that the book is so easy to recommend is because even if you’re bored with one of the stories, I’m near certain that you’ll fall in love with one of the others. Moreover, the way that David Mitchell presents the episodes means that the structure of the thing is as interesting as the stories themselves. Forgive me if I sound a little vague about what exactly this structure actually is, but I’m dancing around the subject because even though it sometimes comes off as a kind of a gimmick, a lot of the joy of the book comes from discovering how it all fits together. Nevertheless, I still think it’s true that the best structures for novels tend to become invisible as the reader gets involved with the tale and on this front I’d say that Cloud Atlas is mostly a success. The book contains six main story-arcs, each of which involve a different cast of characters that will probably leave a lasting impression on you in one way or another. The stories span across multiple centuries and are set everywhere from a nineteenth-century sailing ship to a twentieth-century nursing home, while the characters themselves come from any number of different countries and economic backgrounds. Star crossed lovers, violent revolutionaries, and elderly pensioners all have their moment in the spotlight and at no point does it ever feel like Mitchell is experimenting outside his comfort zone; he’s as adept at exploring the struggle of a Maori slave as he is at portraying the cloak and dagger conspiracy against an investigative journalist. You’re probably familiar with a common piece of advice that if you want to write a good story then you should write what you know. If we’re to take that literally then you might wonder how Mitchell gathered so much experience. It would seem he has a prodigious ability to absorb and share all of the world’s pain. But while he’s evidently an emotionally intelligent person, it’s worth pointing out that part of what David Mitchell knows is basically just other books and movies. Indeed, each of the stories in Cloud Atlas build on and pay homage to the stories that came before them. The nineteenth-century sailing episode, for instance, wouldn’t be out of place in a Joseph Conrad collection. The nursing home story gives appropriate shout-outs to Soylent Green and One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. And my favourite of the bunch, a dystopian piece by the name of An Orison of Sonmi~451, wears its influences on its sleeve while also establishing enough of an identity for itself to the extent that it can be listed alongside such classics as Brave New World and the book from which Mitchell borrowed the digits of its name. For the most part, when a lot of writers borrow ideas like this, they can often come off as a little unimaginative or hackneyed, but I think in the case of Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell brings enough originality and heart to the table that his work can be included among the ranks of that other great magpie storyteller, Quentin Tarantino, which is all to say, with his playful adventures through some of the most popular genres of our time, you can see why Hollywood came knocking at his door.

To a large extent, the movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas, directed by the Wachowskis of Matrix fame, was a lot less warmly received than the book, which is fair enough, given the minor controversy the production drummed up by having the cast members play characters from other races. But, even if we lived in a time where that wasn’t an issue, you can’t avoid the fact that some of the stories included in the original text just weren’t as compelling when they were brought over to the big screen. The episode set on the nineteenth-century sailing ship, for example, mostly sees the main character limited to bed for much of his scenes, something which in the book is incredibly tense, but in the movie is painfully static no matter how much the Wachowski’s wobble the lantern shadows around the room. Similarly, you’d think that Somni-451 would be a perfect fit for the people who brought you The Matrix, given that it’s essentially another hero’s journey set in a far-flung dystopian future, but it loses much of the earnest conviction that the book managed to get across in their attempt to create some admittedly entertaining action scenes. If this is all there was to the issue, I probably would have thrown in my hat in with the other naysayers who said to just forget the film, but if such were the case I might not actually be recommending the book to you today. Because really, I don’t believe the book to be perfect either, and in fact, think that the movie manages to pull off a few things that for me just didn’t leap off the page. To begin with, the struggle of the star crossed lovers is much more bittersweet in the film thanks to the beautiful music score. The comic elements of the nursing home entry are emphasised to the Nth degree on screen, thanks in part to the absolutely daft performances of Jim Broadbent and Hugo Weaving. Most of all though, if I was to credit the Wachowski’s with one element which illuminated the story in a way that only cinema can do, it would be in their rearrangement of the novel’s structure, whereby they wrote the movie so that each story was intercut throughout the film so that the highs and lows of every episode were experienced all at the one time, essentially taking what was originally an immensely satisfying intellectual aspect of David Mitchell’s work and turning it into a uniquely rewarding emotional one. 

Now, if you’ve seen the film and haven’t read the book, you might think that I’m overstating just how successful the Wachowski adaptation was in this regard and to that I would say I think it’s time for me to arrive at my ultimate point. Which is basically is that while I agree the film is no better than the book, it benefits tremendously from the audience members having read the book beforehand because wherever it falls short, the informed viewer is able to fill in the gaps in an almost unconscious way. Moreover, on the flip side, the book benefits almost as much as the movie does by having some of its less inspired moments more interestingly portrayed on screen. Not that I think this was all by design. To be honest, it feels like an incredibly odd bit of luck that the weak parts of the book are more often played better on-screen and that the more boring parts of the movie are utterly compelling on the page. The whole thing just fits together like a jigsaw puzzle for me in a way that I’m sure wasn’t planned. In all, I doubt the Wachowski’s aimed to create any weak sections in the movie and I’m sure David Mitchell would rather you take a little more time to engage with his material rather than rely on the film to hold your hand. That said though, it is worth highlighting that the Wachowski’s said they’d only make the movie if Mitchell approved of their script so it’s reasonable to assume he might have at least pointed to some aspects of the work he felt could have been spruced up now that he had the benefit of hindsight. Regardless, when I think of Cloud Atlas these days, it’s not just as a book or even as a movie, but rather, it’s a multimedia endeavour wherein the two versions of the title benefit from being enjoyed as a pair.

Of course, I imagine there are more than a few people who’ll say this all sounds like a lot of hassle, as if I’m handing out a homework assignment to help you learn how to properly enjoy the work, so let me just point out how rare of an experience the whole thing can be.
Hollywood has obviously attempted multimedia crossovers of this type countless times before. And I don’t just mean the usual novel to screen adaptations or those weird screen to novel variations that still pop up now and again. I mean works of art that are enhanced by considering them alongside one another. The Wachowski’s themselves released video games and short films to help explain the world of The Matrix, but as good as some of these were, they don’t carry nearly as much weight to stand alongside the original picture. I remember when the director of Donnie Darko made a movie called Southland Tales that actually required you to have read a comic book he made in conjunction with the production to even understand what the heck was going, but he realised he’d probably made a mistake when he tried handing out the comics to audience members at a film festival and they politely waved him off. I suppose you could also count Arthur C. Clarke’s novel for 2001: A Space Odyssey as an example of a planned media crossover that actually worked, in that it explains much of the mysteries that the Kubrick’s film chose to obscure, but given that there’s at least a 50-year span between then and now, I think it’s still fair to say that Cloud Atlas is a rare multimedia experience that you shouldn’t miss out on, even if it was the product of serendipity more than the result of a well-laid plan. One more thing I will say though; if you do decide to engage with the material in this way and you haven’t watched the movie already, then make sure to read the book first. That’s the order I happened to approach them in and it’s what my recommendation is based on. Maybe it works the other way around too, but unless I’m stricken by a unique case of amnesia in which I’m able to enjoy all of my favourite books and films as if for the first time, I couldn’t possibly pass judgement as to whether that’s true. Perhaps somebody will be able to say what that route is like in the comments below. Other than that, I supposed you’d want to know if Cloud Atlas works as a novel on its own? No doubt. It’s a great piece of fiction, as clever as it is moving, especially if you’re into the innumerable genre stories David Mitchell brings to mind. Personally speaking,  on my reading it, I got a lot of respect for the man as a writer who cares about the construction of every single line and I look forward to checking out some of his other work someday.

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Simon Fay

Simon Fay

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