Book vs. Film: Cloud Atlas
Stories cross mediums like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a story.
Back in July when the glorious six-minute trailer for Cloud Atlas came out, I wrote about how I had written about the unfilmable nature of the source material back in February. In said article-- which I had initially planned for LitReactor's October 2011 launch, but postponed so I could wait for a producer's quote which never materialized-- I promised to revisit the matter once the film had been released. It was set to hit theaters this past October, which it did, but luckily I got to see the film early, at a Fantastic Fest secret screening this past September. At the time of this reading (but not of this writing), some of you have no doubt seen the film, and the column idea I hatched over a year ago has finally come to fruition. It will now spread across the consciousness of the internet, and be transformed in the minds of those who read it, before being passed on in some form or another, verbal or electronic, while hopefully retaining its true essence.
And if you haven't seen the film or read the book, I'd like to think I've just given you some inkling of what to expect from this thing called Cloud Atlas-- whether its sextet of stories are presented in the nested structure of the book or the constant cross-cutting of the cinematic experience. For those of you who are not familiar with either, this blurb from the back of the Sceptre paperback edition of the novel is appropriate to both:
Six interlocking lives-- one amazing adventure. In a narrative that circles the globe and reaches from the 19th century to a post-apocalyptic future, [Cloud Atlas] erases the boundaries of time, genre and language to offer an enthralling vision of humanity's will to power, and where it will lead us.
If it sounds broad it's because Cloud Atlas isn't an easy book to summarize. It's no wonder nobody, including myself, thought a film version was a good idea. Enter Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski, three talented optimists who thought otherwise. Thus began the long, arduous task of shepherding such unlikely material to the silver screen.
Fast forward to the here and now, and the question on everyone's mind is: Is the film incarnation of Cloud Atlas a success or a suckfest? I guess it depends on who you ask. For me, the trio of directors got the hard part right: adapting the narrative. They do a superb job of taking the film-unfriendly structure of the book and shaping it into something much more cinematic. That's not to say it's a conventional film, as each segment still varies greatly in genre, style, and tone; but they have been fused together in a way that strengthens the core themes of the story, making the characters' interconnectivity even more pronounced than in the novel. Sure, they take great liberties with much of the plot, which I'm not going to get into here, but such an approach to the source material was necessary for the adaptation to succeed. And David Mitchell, the author of the novel, agrees. He wrote in the New York Times:
...[the directors'] plan to foreground the novel’s “transmigrating souls” motif by having actors perform multiple roles (each role being a sort of way station on that soul’s karmic journey) struck me as ingenious. ...Wherever the Cloud Atlas screenplay differed from Cloud Atlas the novel, it did so for sound reasons that left me more impressed than piqued.
Other characters are distracting not so much due to egregious performances as bad makeup jobs. Making a black woman white or an Asian woman Mexican is not as easy as it sounds. Color is one thing, but facial structure is another. Perfect examples are Hallie Berry as Jocasta Ayrs; Doona Bae as a Mexican woman and Adam Ewing's freckle-faced, red-headed wife (is there such a thing as an Asian ginger?); and Hugo Weaving as matronly battle-axe Nurse Noakes, as well as a weirdly Spock-like Asian man.
In addition to taking you out of the film, this has led to accusations of racial insensitivity. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans has lambasted the filmmakers for using Caucasian actors to portray people of Asian descent, saying the choice is tantamount to yellowface. Which is a shame, because this obviously wasn't the intention. Andy Wachowski told the Huffington Post:
That's good that people are casting a critical eye. We need to cast critical eyes toward these things. What are the motivations behind directors and casting? I totally support it. But our intention is the antithesis of that idea. The intention is to talk about things that are beyond race. The character of this film is humanity, so if you look at our past work and consider what our intention might be, we ask that those people give us a chance and at least see the movie before they start casting judgment.
Even if you find their creative choice insensitive, there's no doubt the Wachowskis' hearts are in the right place. It's all there up on the screen, in the overly earnest Hollywood moments and the grandiose classical score that accompanies them. Aided by earnest everyman Tom Hanks, the Wachowskis (and Tykwer) get all Earnest Goes To Camp on that ass. In fact, it seems the Wachowskis are so concerned with people 'getting' the film, they rarely forgo an opportunity to hammer its point home. They could have reigned it in a little, eschewed some of the schmaltz, and the film would have been better for it. This was one of my main concerns going in, and it got validated like parking. The Wachowskis are not the subtlest of filmmakers, although I'm not sure a more restrained director would have made a better film.
David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is a bravura piece of storytelling. It showcases his chameleonic mastery of style and genre, but is so much more than an exercise in literary acrobatics. It is an emotionally resonant piece of work with humanity at its heart. By default the Tykwer/Wachowski adaptation has greatness at its core, and I think the fact that it even exists is a huge cinematic achievement. They did the best possible job of transforming the complexities of the source material for the medium of film. Even though they edited, changed, shuffled and condensed, they were true to Mitchell's vision. Like I said, they got the hard part right. Unfortunately, it is prevented from achieving greatness by superficial missteps. And for a film that is about the things that are below the surface, that is a bit of a disappointment. Still, despite its flaws, and despite my fervent love for the novel, I count Cloud Atlas as a success. Even if you think the film is a hot mess, you have to agree-- Hollywood needs ambitious failures more than it does rote perfection. And at the very least, adaptations of difficult works of literature are putting money in great writers' pockets, and they keep the internet chattering.
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