In 2012, the writing and directing team comprised of Tom Tykwer and Andy & Lana Wachowski attempted something previously considered to be impossible: the adaptation of author David Mitchell’s classic novel Cloud Atlas into film. This beloved novel is known for its massive scope, spanning not only lives or generations but entire centuries and worlds. Multi-storied and interchanged plots can work effectively on the screen; think of Crash (2004) or Babel (2006), which take several storylines and weave them together. The stories within Cloud Atlas, however, are linked through common themes and emotions as opposed to time, setting, or character. To accomplish their feat of adaptation, the three writer/directors utilized several different strategies that I believe to have resulted in a highly effective work of film both in its own right and in response to the great novel that inspired it.
Cloud Atlas was written in 2004 and is the fourth novel produced by British author David Mitchell. The form of Mitchell’s work is extremely unique, as it takes six highly independent and very different stories and tells first one half of each in chronological order, and then the second half of each in reverse order. Beginning in the nineteenth century and extending all the way into a distant post-apocalyptic future, the novel shows how everything is connected in ways we may not immediately expect. An 1849 diary of an ocean voyage, letters from a composer to his lover, a thriller about a murder at a nuclear power plant, a farce about an elderly publisher attempting to escape from a nursing home, a futuristic imagining of a rebellious clone in Korea, and the tale of a tribe living in post-apocalyptic Hawaii; these stories may not appear to have much in common, and are certainly not connected through plot. Instead, all are linked through common and powerful themes that demonstrate the strength of the human spirit and the interconnectivity of all living things.
Instead of adhering to the unique form of Mitchell’s novel, which many consider to be one of its strongest elements, the directors of Cloud Atlas opted to create a new one altogether instead. The stories in the film intermingle freely as opposed to following each other in strict chronological and reverse chronological order, increasing the attention required of an audience to follow along. This strategy, however, allows the filmmakers the ability to further emphasize the interconnectivity of all of the stories, and not just the ones appearing right after one another. The directors claimed that when planning the film, they wrote down every major moment that was to appear onto coloured index cards and then sorted them either by theme or emotion, as these are the two ways in which many of the stories are linked. In addition, film brings to this idea of interrelation a visual element that simply cannot be achieved in literature. Brilliant moments exist wherein a door in one story opens into the room of another, literally linking the two scenes. Visual motifs, such as a distinctive birthmark, appear frequently in both forms as well.
Another strategy the filmmakers used to great effect was the way in which they cast the vast multitude of roles within the film. Single actors portray many characters; for example, upon very close inspection, one realizes that it is the talented Tom Hanks playing the roles of Dr. Henry Goose, Isaac Sachs, Zachry, Dermot Hoggins, and more. Indeed, every actor takes on several characters, linking the stories in more ways than one. Simply having the same individual present in each tale certainly connects them, but there is a more subtle technique here as well. Actors whose characters fail in one story succeed in the next. An actor playing a racist in one tale overcomes this prejudice in another, an actress who is forced into subjugation here is able to break free there, and couples destined to be together yet torn apart finally have their opportunity. Actors come to represent an overarching theme within their characters, such as oppression or rebellion, and one of the directors explained that each actor plays not a collection of characters, but manifestations of a single soul. Not all stories end well, but there is peace for each character through their expression in another, as represented by the doubled actors. The technique may be difficult to explain, but the effect, when witnessed, is nothing short of magical.
As expected, especially in regard to such a grand work, certain plot elements have been altered or removed through the translation of book into film. Eva, a character who complicates the love story of Robert and Rufus, disappears, and this removal makes sense for several reasons. The deletion of this subplot speeds the story along, but it also untangles one of the romantic plots, allowing the relationship with which she interfered to be more clear-cut. Similarly, the characters of Somni and Hai-Joo are portrayed as straightforward lovers, whereas in the original novel their relationship is far more complex. The film version of Cloud Atlas speaks more highly to the theme of love than does the ideological novel, so simplifying several of its strongest romantic plots removes the ambiguity within which the novel reveled. Some may not appreciate such a typical Hollywood interpretation, yet when paired with a sweeping score and breathtaking cinematography, a slightly simplified theme does not appear to be too much of a sacrifice in order to view this story on the big screen.
As an adaptation, the film version of Cloud Atlas presents a simpler story through a more complicated structure. Directors Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski have taken David Mitchell’s novel of massive scope and turned it into a highly ambitious, visually stunning, and emotionally powerful piece of film that deserves recognition in its own right. Here, one form is not better than the other; they are simply different, and each offers unique strengths and strategies. There are thematic feats that Mitchell’s novel achieved that the film could not, and, at the same time, visual techniques that the filmmakers used that would be impossible to implement in a piece of literature. Both are beautiful works in their own way, and both ultimately demonstrate the interconnectedness of all of humanity, which is a highly worthy accomplishment.