A weekend or so ago, I went to see the film version of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I will put it out there from the beginning that I rather enjoyed it, though could see why many people wouldn’t. For one thing, if you hadn’t read the book I don’t think you stand a hope in hell of following what was going on. If you have read the book, then it’s interesting to see how they’ve adapted the story to screen.
In many ways, the script and casting would have been better suited to a theatre production. I didn’t hate the idea of actors playing several characters (possibly because I spent too much time in drama groups as a teenager) but even I found it a little gimmicky towards the end. It is also very, very long. So long that if you haven’t seen it in the cinema yet, I would recommend waiting until it is released on DVD so that you can watch it but cut it into hour-long chunks at a time. On the whole I would have preferred it as a TV series.
In addition to the length and the rep style casting (which was clever but overdone) my main criticism would be that I think they over did it with the concept of reincarnation and made it the centre of the story in a way that it just wasn’t in the book. Once you’d finished playing what Charlie Brooker called something like Where’s Wally with famous people, you end up feeling like you’re playing spot the birthmark. Unless you haven’t read the book, friends I’ve talked to who hadn’t didn’t notice it.
My thoughts on each individual story and how they were adapted are below:
A Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (Adam Ewing)
By far the driest story in the novel (though important, obviously) I think they did a great job of making this more interesting on the screen. They brushed over the darker elements of racial Darwinism and focussed on the story of an unlikely friendship between a professional white man and an escaped slave who become one another’s salvation. Which was a relief. I thought that Tom Hanks was reasonable here but when I read the book and thought about a film adaptation, I pictured Robert Downey Jr playing Henry Bones. Maybe I’d just watched one of the Sherlock Holmes films.
Letters from Zedelghem (Robert Frobisher)
This was probably my favourite story in the book. I loved Frobisher’s irreverent narrative and shady dealing s and I do think Ben Whishaw was perfectly cast, sadly this story was massively interfered with partly to reduce the film’s running time and budget, partly because… well who knows? The story is moved from Belgium to Edinburgh, Ayres is syphilitic but no longer blind. Nor is he nearly as vile as he was in the novel. The daughter is cut out completely, which makes it look as though Frobisher commits suicide as a result of a rejected pass at Vyvyan Ayres. My mind is still reeling from the horror of it. On the Brightside, you get to see Ben Whishaw naked. Which means I get to type that and net in unsuspecting googlers who aren’t in it for his acting talents.
The First Luisa Rae Mystery (Luisa Rey)
Halle Berry was pretty good here, it’s just a pity that you don’t really get much information about why everyone is being killed. Hugh Grant is smarmy. I’m not sure Tom Hanks in a blonde wig is a love at first sight thing. By far the worst thing about this story was that they had Agent Smith from The Matrix playing another bad guy. Actually he cropped up as Agent Smith from The Matrix in some of the other stories as well. Must’ve been a glitch in the matrix…
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (Timothy Cavendish)
Another great story in the book, this was well adapted in the film and made me laugh almost as much as reading the book did. Though when I laughed at Tom Hanks’ Irish accent, it wasn’t in a good way. I was a little confused about why they tried to make this story look like a reincarnation link between Luisa Rey and Somni-451, since the Luisa Rey story is set in 1975 and Timothy Cavendish is present day and 65, so the dates don’t work. This is made clearer in the book by Cavendish wanting to edit allusions to reincarnation out, but I guess that doesn’t work with the “message” of the film. Oh, and you get to see Ben Whishaw in drag. Sorry, need those google hits.
An Orison of Somni-451 (Somni)
Again, well adapted and this story was visually stunning. I think they blew their production budget here which explains why they had to save on Hugh Grant’s make up in every other story. The book is far nastier than this extract in the film. A lot has been cut eg. Somni’s time as a student’s Science project and the horrible moment with the little fabricant doll. I thought one of the eeriest bits of the book was when Somni explained to the archivist that everything she had told him had been a story and that she wasn’t the first ascended fabricant- they cut that for the film but I thought they made up for it quite well.
Sloosha’s Crossin an’Ev’thin’ After (Zachary)
To be fair to Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, I think they acted this as well as they could have done with this. You lost a bit of dialogue from the dialect, but otherwise this was well acted and the setting was beautiful. My main issue was that in the book Zachary is a teenage boy when you see his father and brother killed/taken at Sloosha’s crossing and it explains his fear of Old Georgie without making him look like a coward who sat back and watched a child die. Tom Hanks’ Zachary was harder to like because you don’t see the death of his father, the disappearance of his brother, the loss of his baby when he’s still very young. So to make Zachary and Meronym the same age… meh. I wasn’t a big fan but it was well enough done for what it was.