Some adaptations appear so doomed from the off that it’s almost a pleasure when the film gets somewhere, anywhere near the essence and spirit of the book. I briefly mentioned the almost inevitable failure of adapting much loved books when I wrote about Anna Karenina. David Mitchell’s [no, not him] Cloud Atlas is a magnificent book and I was a little concerned when I saw that it was being made into a film. I had enjoyed the book and mulling it over at my own pace that it was difficult to see how the complexity would be transferred to the screen.
The film was made and written by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. The Wachowskis of course made the Matrix trilogy and it is famed for its intricate narrative and multiple threads. Tom Tykwer’s made Run Lola Run, the German action movie which gives the same story but with three different threads. So it is a good sign that they were involved in this filming of this book since it has six different and interlinked stories, set in different ages from a US ship in 1850 involved in the slave trade, through English composers, investigative journalism, literary editors, clones living in a corpocracy to a world which has collapsed into a violent state of chaos. All very different stories and all plotted and structured according to the accepted style.
The book is structured so that we move from the earliest element through to the most futuristic, giving half of each story before returning back through time from the most futuristic to the earliest, tying each story up as you go. The directors have abandoned the book structure and have the film as multiple scenes, intertwined. I think that the book’s original structure wouldn’t work in the cinema since the denouements would be too staggered and you soon become used to the rapid switches.
The book also has quite clear narrative links between the stories but these are not so obvious in the film. Instead the link is more clearly highlighted by the actors playing multiple roles. Tom Hanks plays a nasty doctor, to a seedy desk clerk to a nuclear scientist and well, you get the idea.
OK, so the idea of having actors playing multiple parts is not new. You’ve seen it in Kind Hearts and Coronets and also Doctor Strangelove. This film employs it to a greater degree and there’s a certain pleasure in spotting the actors as they make their, sometimes fleeting, appearances. Is that a distraction? Not really, unless you choose to stare at Tom Hanks’ make up over watching the film.
The major themes are carried throughout. There is the will to power, the possibility of cruelty to others and how we are oppressed by the past but how our actions and attitudes today can and will influence the future. We have to choose how we do that. The book is of course deeper than the film because books allow greater time to reflect, but that’s always the case with an adaptation, except perhaps for the Cat in the Hat. If you expect a dramatic immediacy of awareness from any work of art then you’re fooling yourself. You’ve got to put something in yourself.
So does it work? Yes, pretty much although it’s not a classic. There are the standard caveats about film adaptations of books, especially much loved ones and so long as you don’t expect to see your mental interpretation of the book up there on the screen. It’s long but the film whizzes by, unlike the tedium-fest that was Lincoln and there should be enough to keep you entertained and talking after the film although the book will give you more intellectually and emotionally.