A book and a film are fundamentally different; one the whispering of a single voice inside the reader’s head, progressed at leisure, sketching shapes and images and moods, inviting us to picture the situations and feelings and how they apply to our lives, the other a specific interpretation, a collaboration of talents that control how each moment is coloured, lit, performed, heard and experienced, from the fabrics chosen for the actors to the locations, wholly real or entirely imaginary, where the drama is depicted. Even if the meaning is ambiguous, the actual physical representation is specific, unfolding over a set timescale.
When David Mitchell published Cloud Atlas in 2004, it was deemed unfilmable; six nested stories with different characters in different locations and wildly different genres, yet each with links back and forward to the others. Although each story could stand alone, without the others providing connection, the echoes forward of the actions of the previous characters, they would lose the framework that raised this from an interesting collection of diverse short stories to a novel recognised by the British Book Awards, the Booker Prize, and more surprisingly for a work that was not marketed as containing elements of science fiction, the Nebula and Arthur C Clarke awards.
Yet some filmmakers revel in challenge: enter Andy and Lana Wachowski, best known for The Matrix, which opens in one setting before revealing all information the audience and characters have believed about the world were an illusion masking a deeper and darker reality, and their collaborator on this project Tom Tykwer, whose Run, Lola, Run told three stories which sprang from the same initial conditions, each spinning in increasingly diverse tangents through the different encounters in each variation.
The artistic challenges of the project were matched by the practical, with no major studio willing to fund an ambitious project which could be deemed the antithesis of a commercial crowdpleaser, and finance had to be secured independently, the Wachowskis contributing themselves and the A list cast agreeing to proceed despite the inability of the producers to provide assurances of remuneration.
The closest comparison would be to Darren Aronofsky’s misunderstood masterpiece The Fountain, originally planned to star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, with sets built and extras hired when Pitt’s withdrawal caused the production to collapse and Aronofsky to entirely reimagine it on a smaller scale. The difference is that on Cloud Atlas, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, James D’Arcy, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae and Keith David were all committed fully to the project.
The Fountain is also an appropriate touchstone in that it was told in multiple timeframes with the same actors playing different roles, though here the complexity is doubled. Unlike the novel, where the first half of five of the six tales lead chronologically to the next until the summit is reached in the far future of Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After, a symbolic climbing of a mountain matched in that narrative, before returning step by step to the past, each story closing in turn, in the film these tales unfold simultaneously, dashing across continents and centuries, from the south seas for The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, where Sturgess plays the titular lawyer who finds himself guardian of an escaped slave while ministered to by Hanks’ predatory physician, through a trip to Edinburgh in 1936, San Francisco in 1973, a second visit to Edinburgh in 2012, to An Orison of Sonmi~451 in Neo Seoul in 2144, where Bae is a cloned servant struggling with the awareness of her individuality in a society where she is expendable, to 2321 (“104 winters after the fall”) where a primitive tribe fights marauding bandits in a post-apocalyptic world, periodically visited by travellers, the Prescients, who have retained more advanced technology yet now need the aid of the islanders if they are to survive.
Despite the vast narrative and emotional canvas and the same faces appearing in different guises, the strands are clear and easily followed, the repeating themes of exploitation and liberation and personal choice echoing through the centuries, misdeeds or acts of honour affecting how future representations will fare in their fate. “From womb to tomb we are bound to others, with every crime and kindness we birth the future.”
The dramatic overhaul of the structure is not the only change from the novel; the future world of Sonmi~451 is expanded greatly, and an additional coda concludes the tale of Zachry decades after he has guided the Prescient Meronym to the mountaintop facility, and while in the novel that facility was intimated to be the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii, here the ruins they pass resemble the fallen cityscape of New Seoul. Similarly, while Robert Frobisher’s Letters from Zedelghem were originally sent from Belgium, here his employer lives in Edinburgh, a move that allows the same location, eighty years later, to become the nursing home where publisher Timothy Cavendish is incarcerated against his will.
The tone of each story is different, from the outright farce of that Ghastly Ordeal, Broadbent’s timid Cavendish running from gangsters into the clutches of Weaving’s drag turn as the vicious Nurse Noakes to the earlier period drama which unfolded within the same walls, Whishaw’s Frobisher blackmailed to stay and assist in the creation of aging composer Broadbent’s visionary Cloud Atlas Sextet, contrasted with the consumerist neon hell of Neo Seoul and the hip streets of San Francisco as experienced by Berry’s journalist Luisa Rey, investigating the death of Frobisher’s former lover, a nuclear physicist who contacted her and asked to meet just before his apparent suicide.
The multiple performances are honest and determined rather than showy, the various prosthetics enhancing rather than concealing the actors, with the forgivable exception of Grant’s Denholme Cavendish given the nature of the segment, and the constant movement between threads means the near hour three film never flags, never seems to want for action or involvement, the parallel editing enhancing the momentum as it plays strands against each other to reach innumerable climaxes.
The film is not without flaws but they are minor; a suitcase bomb has an effect more dramatically explosive than the source warrants, a sunset is too obviously added in post production, and too many conversation
s are artificially arrive at the topic of past lives, hammering home an entirely obvious theme, but other moments are more subtle, Timothy’s cry of “Soylent Green is people!” a warning cry not only to his fellow residents but to the future inspired by not only that but also Blade Runner, Forbidden Planet and Logan’s Run.
Cloud Atlas manages the feat of being an adaptation that is entirely faithful to the source and satisfying to its many admirers and yet is an entirely original interpretation of the many stories contained within and greatly deserving the recognition and success of its precursor.