The journey from page to screen is an often arduous one. The ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ nature of the adaptation means that the makers walk a creative tightrope in trying to appease fans of the novel whilst catering for cinema viewers, many of whom are outsiders to that established world.
Even when a near perfect symbiosis is realised, there will invariably be some criticism levelled at the scriptwriters, be it subplots which are discarded, or character detail jettisoned to fit the narrative into a manageable running time. With that in mind, the makers of Cloud Atlas (siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski, plus Run Lola Run’s Tom Tykwer) chose a particularity challenging text to weave into a flesh and blood interpretation. Before any film version was mooted, the novel (a Richard & Judy Book of the Year award winner amongst its many illustrious accolades) was regarded as one of those works of celebrated, cult fiction which was simply too challenging to turn into a coherent cinema experience, and for good reason.
The biggest hurdle in David Mitchell’s 2004 best-seller is that different six tales make up the one book. All are told in a first person narrative, with the timelines of each varying widely (starting from the early nineteenth century to a distant, post-apocalyptic future). All possess a very different prose style, with the two stories set in the future reimagining how we might converse several centuries from now. Both have a beauty and lyricism in their linguistics, but require a certain level of concentration and orientation outside of the plot itself.
Structurally, the book throws up another series of challenges. The stories are all broken up at a key moments and played out again in latter stages of the book. The tales themselves are connected in intimate and ingenious ways, some less obvious then others, but all are integral to the development of each, projecting an overarching theme of human resilience and our desire for connection with each other. The makers of the film version offer a couple of audacious touches within the storytelling to keep the various arcs and incidents sparking thematically, and to maintain a narrative flow.
Firstly, all the stories are continuously spliced together throughout. Arguably, this is the only way in which the book could have worked in a cinematic context, and that approach really pays off for the most part (rather bafflingly, the film is absent from the Best Film Editing nominations at this year’s Oscars). The Wachowskis and Tykwer treat their audience with respect and intelligence, and like fans of the book, they presume those who are interested in seeing the film are well-versed in narrative conventions, and are able to follow the converging story strands. This device isn’t without issues, however. In a drive to keep pace and momentum, crescendos are reached for each tale at the same time, even though some require gentler, measured moments to achieved the necessary impact.
The second means of building a connective tissue between each tale is enforced by utilising the principal actors in a rather unique way, and having them inhabit each story as different characters, many crossing the ethnic, social and gender boundaries. An intriguing and ambitious idea in theory, it occasionally struggles to hold together. Those performers traditionally regarded as character actors seem more at ease with the shifting between, while A-listers like Tom Hanks are more obvious, and perhaps more distracting because of that.
Inherent in Cloud Atlas is an unavoidable issue which affect all adaptations – the abridged treatment of the original material. At a hefty running time of 172 minutes, there’s much ground to cover in the book, yet the nuance and detail are missing from some of the stories. The worst example is evident in An Orison of Sonmi~451. The story of a genetically engineered clone who gains autonomy in a dystopian, corporate-governed world, plays more like a Matrix-y action/adventure, with much of the subtlety found in the novel missing on the big screen (it’s glaringly obvious that the Wachowskis are the authors of this particular segment). The San Francisco-set 70’s conspiracy yarn Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery also loses something in translation, coming over like a standard potboiler, rather than a tense Alan J. Pakula-style paranoia thriller.
Cloud Atlas has polarised critics both here and in the US, and has subsequently been included on various Best & Worst Film lists from across the pond. But the ambition to bring a seemingly unadaptable book to life is to be applauded, even if the end result falls someway short of a transcendental viewing experience hinted it. The film provides a fascinating glimpse at the adaptation process, and highlights that the literary fitting of a square peg into a cinematic round hole is actually achievable if the original text isn’t slavishly adhered to. Both mediums can live as two separate entities, and there’s something exciting about seeing film-makers attempt the impossible, whether the endeavour proves to be a success or otherwise.