David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas seemed unfilmable for many reasons. That’s partially because of its unique structure, telling six different stories set in radically different settings and featuring characters who are only tangentially related by the book’s barely-explained themes. But Cloud Atlas is also a book about books. Mitchell writes each story in radically different styles — mystery-thriller, dystopian sci-fi, fantasy patois — and the focal characters have a curious habit of perusing the book’s other stories, creating a linked chain of readership which only really makes sense in book form.
So whatever you think about the film version of Cloud Atlas, it’s impressive that Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski adapted the book into a film which A) actually makes a certain amount of sense, and B) is not ten hours long.
The collaborators made two major decisions in their adaptation. (Spoilers about the film and book from here.) First, they tweaked the book’s structure. Mitchell begins Cloud Atlas with the earliest chronological story — The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing — and then moves forward from there, cutting off each story at the halfway point. That structure holds until the final story — Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After — which is told as one piece. After it concludes, the book advances backwards chronologically, telling the second half of each story until it finally ends with Adam Ewing again. Tykwer and the Wachowskis adopted a more complex (and somewhat fuzzier) structure, freely mixing together all six stories and bookending them with a sequence set in the far, far future.
This new structure works mainly because of the collaborators’ second major decision. All of the main actors play a role in each story — sometimes as a lead character, sometimes supporting, sometimes even just appearing in the background. This creates a running series of subplots which tie the different stories together in surprising ways. (Some actors play variations on a theme: Hugo Weaving is Oppression, Doona Bae is Rebellion. Other actors’ recurrence has a less clear thematic arc: Jim Broadbent is Typically Bearded.) These two creative choices create a helpful prism for understanding Cloud Atlas — and, more to the point, understanding what the filmmakers removed from the book, and why. What follows are the five biggest changes from the book, and a consideration of how they impact the overall piece.
1. Luisa Rey is “real.”
In the novel, renegade publisher Timothy Cavendish receives, in manuscript form, the novel Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery– which is, in fact, the third story in Cloud Atlas. Half-Lives is written by an author named Hilary V. Hush, and there’s nothing to indicate it’s based on a true story — which means that Luisa Rey’s story is fictional, or anyhow, “fictional” within the fictional world of Cloud Atlas. This implication may have been one metaphysical bridge too far for the movie, which shows Cavendish receiving the same manuscript from an author named “Javier Gomez.” Gomez is played in the Luisa Rey segments by Brody Lee, a young boy who — lest we miss the link — is prone to saying things like “Gee, this would make a great mystery novel!”
2. Cavendish doesn’t have a stroke.
A key twist in The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish comes when the old man suffers a stroke, and slowly puts his brain back together. This was eliminated from the film, possibly because — after staring at what can only assume was a 700-page first draft — the collaborators decided that five minutes of watching an old man stare blankly at the ceiling would bring the movie to a halt.
3. No more Eva.
In the film, omnisexual rapscallion composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) beds an older woman and makes a pass at an older man, but it’s clear that his heart belongs to Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), his student lover. The book tells a more complicated emotional story. Frobisher falls in love with the daughter of his mentor, a feisty and intelligent girl named Eva. The film removes Eva entirely, and makes Frobisher and Sixsmith’s implicit romance decidedly explicit: Frobisher’s story begins with the two of them waking up together, and ends with Sixsmith weeping over Frobisher’s dead body. This cut makes sense timewise — it’s a large subplot eliminated — but it also speaks to a larger shift in the movie’s perspective. In movie form, Cloud Atlas is fundamentally a series of love stories. This makes the whole tale of Cloud Atlas more emotionally entertaining…but also deprives it of the book’s ideological heft. That’s especially true with regards to another alteration…
4. The radical reinterpretation of Sonmi’s journey.
The tale of Sonmi-451 forms the backbone of Cloud Atlas. A clone bred to be subservient in a futuristic dystopia, she gradually learns the horrific truth of her civilization, and becomes a symbol of rebellion. It’s easy to see how the Wachowskis were attracted to the character: She has quite a bit in common with Neo in The Matrix. However, the filmmakers altered her story arc considerably. The character played by Jim Sturgess in the film — dashing rebel “Hae-Joo Chang” — is actually a combination of the characters “Hae-Joo Kim” and “Mr. Chang.” The film’s Hae-Joo, like the book’s, ultimately becomes Sonmi’s lover for a brief time. However, the film reimagines the pair as full-on lovers on the run — Hae-Joo dies protecting Sonmi, and in final speech, Sonmi speaks about her dream of being reunited with him in another life.
Sonmi’s relationship to Hae-Joo in the book is quite a bit different. They have sex, but it’s not exactly passionate. Sonmi describes it thus: “Our sex was joyless, graceless, and necessarily improvised, but it was an act of living.” And whereas Movie-Sonmi’s story ends with a tragic sacrifice out of an Ed Zwick film, Book-Sonmi’s ending is far more complicated. Hae-Joo turns out to be an agent for the totalitarian government; indeed, Sonmi’s entire adventure turns out to be an elaborately staged play, roughly akin to David Fincher’s The Game. It’s not entirely pessimistic: Sonmi believes that her story, despite the fakery that inspired it, will genuinely inspire people. It’s a complicated sort of optimism, a sharp contrast to the movie’s stirring chords and slow motion.
5. A different ending for Zachry.
Tom Hanks’ post-apocalyptic goatherd is quite a bit younger in the book, and there isn’t even an implication of a romance with Meronym, the visitor from an advanced society. The film, however, uses Zachry’s story to complete the time-spanning romance between Tom Hanks and Halle Berry. Zachry winds up as an old man, married to Meronym, telling a story to his grandchildren on what appears to be a faraway planet. Book-Zachry has a decidedly more humble end: He lives out his days on a nearby island, and his children speak with bemusement — and some awe — about his tales. Meronym’s quest to contact the outer-space human colonies — a central thread of the film’s storyline — hardly appears in the book.
None of these adaptation choices are “wrong” by any means. Cloud Atlas is a huge book, containing infinite potential movies. In general, the Wachowskis and Tykwer opted to bring forward big emotions — and add in a couple thrilling set-pieces. As a result, the film is generally much more openly optimistic — and, emotionally, much simpler — than the book. The filmmakers clearly viewed Cloud Atlas as a story about emotions; the book is more like a story about ideas. Both versions of Cloud Atlas make a difficult structure surprisingly easy to follow: A significant accomplishment, no matter the outcome.
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