“Epic…and yet too small”
It is a cliché, and I always feel trite and silly when I say this—the book was better. The phrase rolls off the tongue too easily, so I would like to explain precisely why. To get the ball rolling, I’m going to describe my own relationship to the novel/film phenomenon.
Since as far back as I can remember I have been both an avid reader and a film enthusiast. I appreciate both mediums equally, but not interchangeably. The two function differently, which is why I am often so forgiving of film adaptations. I know that the film format requires significant alterations to be made to a story in order to utilize cinema’s strengths and avoid its weaknesses.
My appreciation of a film adaptation is greater if I have seen it before I’ve read a book because I can appreciate it on its own terms. If, on the other hand, I’ve read the book first, I run the risk of being disappointed by the film. Not because of what changes have been made, but because of what those changes imply; they draw attention to the mechanics of film, of how quickly and simply information must be imparted. It makes film seem…well…cheap and shallow.
Cloud Atlas is a film that I greatly enjoyed. I did sense, however, that the film was trying to give me too much information too quickly. I felt, in my gut, that I was missing something important—that some crucial aspect had been lost during the process of adaptation. I wanted to spend more time in each of the five distinct worlds of the story. So, I sought out the source.
By juxtaposing five storylines that span several centuries, and showing how the actions of the participants echo throughout, both novel and film illustrate the inter-connectivity of our lives. We see patterns of behaviour transcend the limits of time and space. The core of the story is this—We affect others, and ultimately the future, in ways we cannot fully comprehend. From the moment we are born, we have a great burden on our shoulders—we carry the weight of the past and pass it on to the future.
The film does not alter the plot significantly, but there is an important structural change—the framing device. The film highlights the notion of reincarnation, and so relies heavily upon mysticism to suggest the inter-connectivity of our lives; whereas the novel allows the reader to discover the subtle and naturalistic echoes that occur between storylines. Reincarnation is mentioned, but not as a major framing device. The novel has a decidedly self-aware quality. It references its own devices, and draws attention to itself as a story. The novel is very much about the telling of stories, it illustrates their importance to us as individuals and in our shared history. Narrative is hardwired into us, and Cloud Atlas shows us the many forms it takes—belief systems, culture, evolution… our human experience is a narrative.
The philosophical underpinning of the novel is diluted in favour of exciting Matrix-esque action sequences. These sequences are exceptionally well executed and the film as a whole is beautiful and breathtaking, but the visceral thrill is short-lived. It’s fun to ride a roller-coaster, but once the adrenaline has stopped coursing through my veins, there isn’t much to take home with me except a memory that will fade. But spark my imagination with an insight into the world and my place in it, and suddenly I’m reshaping my own reality.
Cloud Atlas is exciting, poignant and thoughtful, but it could have been so much more if it had allowed itself to be as examining and meditative as the novel that inspired it. Despite its epic sweep and stunning production values, the film just seems… too small.
Cloud Atlas (2012)
Directed by: Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski
Written by: Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski (screenplay)
David Mitchell (novel)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent