“Love conquers all!” Not again… A reaction to the film adaptation of *Cloud Atlas*

After putting it off for months, I have finally dedicated three hours to watching Cloud Atlas, the mega-budget adaptation of David Mitchell’s excellent 2004 novel. The amazing trailer for the film appeared last summer while I was teaching this difficult and LONG novel as part of a Science in Literature class, and though I was suspicious of the “everthing is connected” interpretation suggested in this trailer, I must admit some shivers may have been observed along the spinal column when I saw it. I put off seeing the movie itself because I knew how hard the novel would be to adapt well (if you think Time’s Arrow does weird things with temporal structure, then look out!), and because the reviews didn’t exactly overcome my doubts. Even before seeing it, I wasn’t sure the Watchowskis were the right people for the job (though the third director, Tom Twyker, seemed a great choice: his Run Lola Run does some pretty cool stuff with time–without a 100K+ budget, too). To make the most of the novel’s spirit (never mind its letter), you’d need a Charlie Kaufman with Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze type collaboration. Or something.

(Incidentally, I’ll soon be teaching a course on adaptation. The blog, still inactive, will be here.)

In any case, why does this adaptation not quite get it? Because it’s not a total failure–not like the film version of Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which is just embarrassing. Like Fincher’s Benjamin Button, though, it does take a complex story with a very ambiguous philosophical and ethical vision and trims it down to a nice little moral: “we’re all prisoners in one way of another, but love conquers all!” Does it, though? does it really?

The idea that love can transcend time is very marketable, but does it make a good story? Not in this case: Mitchell’s novel is refreshing for saying so little about romantic love. Really, only Adam Ewing is truly in love in the sense that the film endorses for all its protagonists, and even then his wife Tilda never appears as anything more than a name in his journal.

Now, I wouldn’t expect a totally faithful adaptation of the novel, but did it have to be unfaithful in this particular way? I guess so. Again, the budget may have forced some concessions to the romcom masterplot. But to repeat myself: I’m irked with the adaptation not because it fails to be faithful. The movie would have been far worse had it tried simply to translate the novel to the screen. I’m irked because it chose the line of least resistance in its unfaithfulness; what I mean is that of all the ways it could have adapted the novel, it chose the most crassly commercial, the most overdone, the most emotionally manipulative. Part of the power  and pathos of Somni-451’s story is not that she finds love and loses it, which, as Tennyson has convinced us, is better than not having loved at all; it is the fact that even when she awakens to the limits her dystopic society has imposed on her and her fellow “fabricants,” love is never on her radar at all. There are other, more urgent things for her to worry about, and the very impossibility of her imagining love is probably the greatest thing David Mitchell has to say about love in his entire novel.

So why is this novel so hard to turn to film? Well, apart from the mind-boggling temporal structure (which gets more bizarre the more you think about it), this novel boasts six different narratives in six different genres and styles, all but one of them narrated in the first person. As I’ve mentioned in class, literature written in the first-person seems almost inherently uncongenial for film adaptation–or, at least, it’s much harder to do well. Think both film versions of Lolita, or A Clockwork Orange, or The Great Gatsby… to name just a few. As my examples suggest, the difficulty is increased when the narrator is unreliable. It can be done well (think Tristram Shandy), but this often requires a very innovative approach to adaptation–a total re-imagining of the text. Our translation assignment based on Thinks… may help suggest why first-person narrators don’t lend themselves particularly well to film, which approaches the condition of the objective third-person narration (though emotion and other inner states can be suggested through music, lighting, focalization, etc).

Another problem with the film of Cloud Atlas, though, is the huge effort the directors put into using the same group of actors in all six narratives. And this is not to linger on the odd choice of Tom Hanks and meh choice of Halle Berry…. There is something kind of unsettling in the film’s suggestion that we all get recycled through time and space–and not just some select souls who bear the same birthmark. Hugh Grant is one of the best things about Cloud Atlas (now there’s something I never expected to say), but his reappearance across time and space as a bad guy (the same goes for Hugo Weaving) seems to suggest that good and evil always recur in the same forms. Isn’t the transmission of the birthmark enough? Do we really need to see so much Hanks? Do we really–I mean really–need to see Jim Sturges made up as a Korean? Speaking of too much sameness, it would have been nice, too, to see more variety in the style of the filmmaking. Why not some imitation ’70s colour and wash for the Luisa Rey parts? Or black and white for Robert Frobisher? Or something! Some kind of alternation from the constant lushness, that sharp, colourful Wachowski aesthetic…

But my main annoyance was the almost total lack of humour in the film. Come on! Why so serious? The “Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” thankfully, is inherently comic so the filmmakers weren’t able to avoid having fun with it (and thank goodness for Jim Broadbent), but reducing the rest of the rich, often hilarious narration to a few voiceovers of a contemplative nature totally dispenses with Adam Ewing’s endearingly naive clownishness and Henry Goose’s malicious wit; Robert Frobisher’s immature, arch-poetic flourishes and his over-the-top cattiness; Bill Smoke’s Tarrantino-esque hit-man philosophizing and the tasteless but still funny jokes in “Half-Lives”; and Zachry’s rich classification of post-apocalyptic redneck terminology for poop and sex. Only Somni-451 is not funny, though even it has moments of wit. But fear not: where there was humour the filmmakers have made sure there were fights. Even gentle Adam Ewing gets to do some head-smashing!

How does one make such an adaptation work? Well, for one thing, I’d say less attention to story and more to discourse; less to the letter, and more to the spirit (which is, in the novel at least, a strange brew of Nietzsche, Nabokov and New Age–can you picture it? of is the alliteration just too suspect?). It’s hard to translate puns from page to screen, but there is such a thing as a visual pun, and many films have used them well. Had the filmmakers paid a bit more attention to tone, and done a bit less editing…. Ah, who am I kidding? I’m not saying some things aren’t really well done, because some are, and some connections that I overlooked in my readings of the novel were suddenly brought to my attention by the film. It is worth seeing. But the novel…. All I can say is that this film gives you a sense of the novel in the same way a personal ad gives you the sense of a living, breathing lovely but kind of crazy companion.

Oh well. Here’s looking forward to the adaptation of Madame Bovary…

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