David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) and the Wachowski/Tykwer Cloud Atlas (2012)

49628Though I am a big David Mitchell fan, I avoided the 2012 Wachowski/Tykwer film adaptation of Cloud Atlas until this past October. Since I had put Mitchell’s novel on my syllabus, I thought I should probably watch it, if only to prepare myself in case class discussion moved to the issue of its adaptation. In short, I finally relented . . .

Though I found the film more interesting than I had thought I would and though I thought that several moments were visually breathtaking, the more I think about the film and its relation to the novel the more frustrated I feel. Here are just a few observations:

1. The narrative structure of the film is much more difficult to follow than the structure of the book (though Mitchell readers all probably get a little bit of pleasure out of identifying the novel’s characters in the film’s opening overture). I’ve always pictured the novel like a pyramid, each story moving forward and upward each time the reader makes it halfway through one of its six stories. Halfway through the first story, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,”  for instance, the novel shifts suddenly to its second story, “Letters from Zedelghem,” and so and and so on until we’ve moved from the mid-nineteenth century of Adam Ewing to the undatable post-apocalyptic future of Zach’ry. After the reader completes the uninterrupted summit of Cloud Atlas (“Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”), she begins her descent through the remaining five stories, moving chronologically backwards through their conclusions. (The penultimate chapter, in short, concludes “Letters from Zedelghem” while the final chapter concludes “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” with which the novel begins). The Wachowskis and Tykwer dynamite this pyramidal (or Russian doll) structure and piece together much smaller fragments of the six stories into several shorter series of narrative sequences. The effect can be quite dizzying. For instance, here’s the opening overture:

We jump here from Adam (first story) to Luisa Rey (third story) to Timothy Cavendish (fourth story) to Robert Frobisher (second story) to the interview with Somni-451 (fifth story) back to Luisa (third) to Timothy (fourth) to Adam (first) to Somni (fifth) to Robert (second). All of these shifts are also framed, though you don’t see him in this particular clip, by an aged Zach’ry (sixth story). There are, no doubt, quite a few clever things here: Timothy’s appeal to his “reader” for patience could be seen as a bit meta-filmic (appealing to the viewer for patience); several of the characters are seen recording their stories here, anticipating the possibility that each of the characters will, at some point, stumble across some version of these recordings (the exceptions are Adam and Robert here); and the dramatization of Somni’s interrogation helps introduce that surprising Mitchell-esque element of the speculative into otherwise quite realist scenes.

2. And yet, while the form of the film is initially more complicated than the novel’s form (more schizophrenically paced with faster cuts and more rapid plot jumps among the six narratives), the film is also less ambiguous insofar as it draws direct connections between scenes that are (in the novel) hundreds of pages apart. While I find the juxtapositions of scenes interesting and thought provoking, this presentation also ends up imposing a standard reading of Mitchell’s original themes, reducing them to two primary themes: [1] the opposition between power and love and [2] the doctrine of reincarnation. I find this thematic reduction and simplification a tad disconcerting. Indeed, the novel certainly thematizes the recurrence of power and domination and also flirts with reincarnation, but its treatment of these two issues seems far subtler and less hopeful than their treatment in the film adaptation.

The film emphasizes reincarnation by using the same actors to play characters in (nearly) every narrative. Tom Hanks, for instance, plays [1] Dr. Henry Goose (a thief who slowly poisons Adam Ewing); [2] the greedy innkeeper of the establishment where Robert Frobisher suicides; [3] Dr. Isaac Sachs (a physicist who falls for Luisa Rey right before getting murdered by his corrupt employers); [4] Timothy Cavendish’s client, Dermot Hoggins, who murders one of his reviewers by throwing him off the top floor of a building; [5] the actor who plays Timothy Cavendish in the film adaptation of “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” (which Somni watches on her orison); and [6] Zach’ry, the  Valleysman and protagonist and narrator of the “final” story. Given that the traveling birthmark in both versions of Cloud Atlas (which appears here as well, though on different characters) is really the only narrative device to suggest reincarnation in the novel, it is curious why the directors of the film felt it necessary to universalize this ambiguous symbol. Why impose the reading that Zach’ry has the same soul that once inhabited Dr. Henry Goose? Or the innkeeper? And why does the soul take a detour from Isaac Sachs to Dermot Hoggins? And what sense does it make to suggest that he was the actor who played Timothy Cavendish in the film adaptation? Would that even make sense? Wouldn’t Hoggins have still been alive when the film was made? And why would a transmigrating soul bring with it physiological characteristics? These characters certainly aren’t that related . . . In all of this mess, the significance of the birthmark itself becomes somewhat obscured. What is it supposed to signify? Something heroic? Admirable? A mark of karmic favor rather than a mark of identification?

In short, what initially seems like a rather cute idea (to have actors play roles in each of the stories) winds up rather convoluted, messy, inconsistent, incoherent, and overly problematic (in a much less interesting way than in Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas).

3. I would be happy to forgive all of this, of course, if the film also didn’t seem to reduce the ambiguity of Mitchell’s fractal narrative to a uniform love story. Each narrative ends with a rather frustrating affirmation of romantic love between two people (Adam and his wife, Robert and Rufus, Luisa and Isaac, Timothy and Ursula, Somni and Hae-Joo Im, and Zach’ry and Meronym). I say frustrating because this affirmation—though blended with tragedy and loss in many of the stories—obfuscates the rather horrific material and historical conditions of narratives’ six settings. Because the love each protagonist experiences is so authentic and (potentially) fulfilling, and because the film layers these affirmations together in such a saturated way near its end, the tremendous reach of power, oppression, control, and enslavement that also plays such a key role in the film gets occluded in the celebration of individual promise and hope.

Consider one of the closing scenes of the film:

So much bothers me here. Somni, inspired in part by her love of Hae-Joo Im, faces her death with a sense of purpose and faith. It is an almost cheery act of resistance and martyrdom. In the novel, however, Hae-Joo Im is simply acting under orders from Unanimity in a plot to “make every last pureblood in Nea So Copros mistrustful of every last fabricant” and to “discredit Abolitionism” (348-49). They certainly have sex once, but Somni describes it as “joyless, graceless, and necessarily improvised” (345). In fact, the whole narrative of her escape, ascension, and resistance, we learn in the final pages of her story, was practically “scripted” by those in power (348). Somni goes along with the script because it will be the only way to get her “ideas [. . .] reproduced” and dispersed. The end of her story is cold, sad, passionless. Her only modicum of joy is not the evidence of her success in the face of the archivist but that she is allowed to finish watching “[a] certain disney [she] once began, one nite long ago in another age,” the Cavendish film (349). The triumphalism of the film, in short, which makes Somni’s death in the face of power cathartic, is absent in the novel. The novel brings us face-to-face with power and with the pointlessness and arbitrariness of cruelty and control with none of the calming or soothing effects of love, purpose, or evidence of success. Even the trace of Somni in “Sloosha’s Crossin'” is limited (though she has taken the form of a deity). Zach’ry (in the novel) cannot understand her words when he stumbles across a recording of the interview; he is completely cut off from that past…

The scene with Adam, his wife, and his father-in-law also aggravates me, for it actualizes an imagined scene at the end of Mitchell’s novel. Though it is clear that Adam does return (there is evidence that the journal has been edited by his son), the novel places much more emphasis on Autua’s rescue of Adam from the clutches of Dr. Henry Goose (who succeeds in escaping and remains at large in Mitchell’s version). In fact, the film completely erases Autua from its closing scenes, championing Adam’s decision to become an abolitionist and allowing us to forget the brutality of the struggle ahead (and that it ultimately fails to wipe out slavery as a present and future possibility). What makes Mitchell’s novel so successful, it seems to me, is how absolutely troubling it is. Despite the fact that he manages to create individual characters I care a great deal about, despite the glimmers of hope and reconciliation and success that a few of them achieve, it seems that his point is that individual efforts alone (individual love, joy, freedom, resistance, etc.) may have its moments of success against the recurrence of power and domination but that they are not enough, that something much more sustained, radical, broad, and collective is necessary to stay not only the brutality of the strong but to alter and rearrange the desire of the ocean’s “multitude of drops” (509). Perhaps the “main idea” of Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas has much less to do with reincarnation, less to do with individual (and narcissistic) blows against power, less to do with the maturation of a single soul over a thousand years, and more to do with a shift in vision from my own specific and parochial battles as someone more primary than the battles of others to a strangely cosmic sense of my battles among a whole “ocean” of struggle, failure, and success (509). If anything, Cloud Alas is a depersonalizing book, one that inspires humility rather than triumph, a recognition that though my reach through time and space may be much longer than I thought that I will not always be able to control what the effects of my reach is. Indeed, something other heroism, other than myths of “the One” may be needed in order to secure a resistance to cruelty, brutality, aggression, and enslavement.

One comment

  1. Is the sex between Somni and Hae Joo “necessarily improvised” because Somni’s genitals have been genomed away? That’s how I read it.

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