I recently plucked up courage and watched the recent film of Cloud Atlas. Cloud Atlas, the book, is one of my favourite books ever, and I have read it twice so far, enjoying it enormously and getting more out of it the second time around. As ever with a beloved book, I was nervous that the film would somehow pollute my enjoyment of the book forever. However, I saw a trailer and was genuinely curious about how they would tackle the story and its unusual structure and changes in tone. Mr. Bsag was initially not interested in watching it, but came in a little way into the film and got completely sucked in to it1. I was curious about how easy it would be to follow for someone who hadn’t read the book, but he really enjoyed it on its own merits.
The book famously has a kind of mirrored, waterfall structure. There are 6 separate stories, each taking place in a different time period, and the book moves forward in time through each one in sequence, ending abruptly at a cliff-hanger and moving on to the next story. When we reach the story set farthest into the future, we cascade back down into each story in reverse order, finishing each off. It’s quite a brave thing for an author to do, but it’s a blast for the reader, because you get so many points of suspense that leave you hanging, then a lot of little rushes of satisfaction as they are resolved.
This is why many people had considered Cloud Atlas unfilmable. The directors obviously decided that this structure wouldn’t work in film where viewers are used to moving between scenes more rapidly, but retained each of the six stories. Instead, they interwove all of the stories freely, moving through the narrative of each, but jumping quite quickly between them without respecting the chronology of the time period in which each is set. I knew this before I watched the film, and was sceptical about how well it would work, but I think they did a wonderful job of it. The book has lots of little motifs, themes and coincidences that repeat throughout the film, like a musical motif in a symphony, and they use these to provide some continuity between the stories, as well as bringing out the themes of the book. In the book, David Mitchell creates completely different and convincing narrative voices and tones for each of the sections, and the film does a similar thing very cleverly with a different visual tone and style of photography.
One of the most celebrated things about the film is the fact that there is an ensemble cast, and most of the main actors play multiple characters in the film, often completely transformed by makeup. To be honest, I found this distracting and a little irritating. For some reason, I’m good at spotting heavily disguised actors2, and that pulled me out of the story. I also thought that it gave the impression that characters were reincarnating and getting their just deserts or deserved rewards in some kind of big karmic happy ending. Unless I’ve completely misunderstood the book, I don’t think this was ever implied in the book, and it somewhat undermines the idea that you should do the right thing (whatever the consequences for you personally) because everything you do matters. Your actions ripple into the future and can have profound influences on others who you should care about because they are fellow humans, not your reincarnated self or soul.
Other than that, I really enjoyed the film as a separate — but parallel — experience to the book. I might well watch the film again, and it has certainly made me want to re-read the book for a third time. Your mileage may vary though: I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a film on IMDB that has elicited such a polarised reaction. People seem to either love or hate it, and I can’t guarantee which camp you might be in.
- After we finished the film the following day (it has a running time of almost 3 hours), he watched the beginning bit that he had missed, which is somehow appropriate for such a non-linear film. ↩
- Though I’m appalling at recognising the faces of real, undisguised people I actually know. It defies all logic. ↩