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The Cloud Atlas Novel Vs. the Movie: The Structure is Everything

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Oct 26, 2012 | 1:22pm EDT

Cloud Atlas

In a brilliant moment of metanarrative, a character in David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas describes both a musical composition he is working on and the novel itself as "a sextet for overlapping soloists." "Piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order," Mitchell writes.

The novel is a palindrome of stories. In the first half, we are introduced to six sets of characters who grapple with large concepts such as freedom, oppression, truth, and love, in six distinct time periods and settings — from a 19th century trade ship to post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Each section ends in a cliffhanger, and we must wait, in some cases hundreds of pages, until we are treated to each story's resolution. By bisecting the stories and separating them, Mitchell allows room for discovery. Each segment provides insight to one or more of the others, and in doing so, enriches our understanding of the characters, stories, and, well, the course of history, in each section before we return to them again.

In Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Andy Wachowski's film adaptation, the novel's symmetrical structure is replaced with overlapping, interrupting cuts. We frequently jump from one story to the next — and back again — and in doing so, the film gains a catapulting momentum. The stories unfold simultaneously, rather than chronologically, heightening each story's sense of immediacy. By chopping up and re-piecing together Mitchell's already fragmented sections, Tykwer and the Wachowskis are able to unify Mitchell's story in a way that works for the screen. While Mitchell's novel is a slide — you diligently climb a ladder to the apex and then enjoy sliding down the other side, a gigantic grin on your face — Tykwer and the Wachowskis' film is a freight train. It steadily plows ahead, albeit while making stops and jumps along the way, until you reach your destination. Tykwer and the Wachowski's have successfully molded Mitchell's novel into a form that works for cinema, but in changing the structure they have fundamentally altered the themes.

In Mitchell's novel, the structure is the theme. Just as the descriptions in the text refer to the novel as a whole, the text constantly refers back to the fact that it is a text, that it is itself a story. The novel is not interested in leading the reader to believe that the stories or characters it depicts are real — in fact, it seeks to do the opposite. Each section consciously calls into question the veracity of another section. After reading the first 50-odd pages of Adam Ewing's journal, we jump ahead and find a young Rufus Sixsmith also reading the journal, which he believes to be a work of fiction. We ride along with Luisa Rey as she seeks to unravel the dark mystery behind a California nuclear power plant, and then we find British publisher Timothy Cavendish reading Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery. We watch Timothy Cavendish get locked in an old folks home against his will, and then later watch it happen again on Sonmi's Sony — as a Hollywood movie. And the list goes on. It doesn't matter whether these stories are real or made-up, Mitchell tells us, just that they have been recorded for posterity. Cloud Atlas Tom Hanks

For, you see, in each segment of the novel, someone is seeking to elicit great social change. In each segment, someone is looking to free the oppressed, to create a better future for the next generation to inherit. What is important, therefore, is not the who/what/where/when of it all, just that these ideas are preserved and passed on. By deliberately casting a shadow of doubt on each individual narrative, Mitchell gives power to the greater thematic agenda.

In the film, these small ambiguities are missing. We therefore take the events as truth and, as a result, are left with a very different bigger picture. While Mitchell seeks to examine how tales make the transition from personal experience to historical legacy and the effect this has on civilization's conscience, Tykwer and the Wachowskis are more interested in exploring the unity of the human spirit. The film's creators take every opportunity they can, from casting the same actors in multiple roles to splicing together parallel scenes from different sections, to remind us that we are all one. Yes, like the novel, the film shows us how humanity has always struggled (and seemingly always will struggle) with the idea of freedom and oppression, but it is more interested in the individual's role in this grand scheme. The film values consciousness, while the novel looks at conscience.

Mitchell's novel, structured by moving ahead chronologically and then backtracking through time in the reverse order, seems to be saying, "Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it." The film, meanwhile, cuts back and forth through time in a way that says, "History is a construct; we are all connected." The distinction is subtle, but it ultimately leaves the audience with a different gut feeling. Readers of Mitchell's book are spurred to examine the pitfalls of the society in which we live. Viewers of the film, alternatively, will be motivated by a feeling of empathy for fellow humans. Both of these ideas are honorable and important, but they are, at root, different. And it is curious that three filmmakers who claim to have such a deep respect and appreciation for the novel have chosen to leave out this part of Mitchell's message.

Mitchell and the filmmakers both chose to punctuate their respective pieces of art with the same quotation. "Your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean," Adam Ewing's father in law tells him. Ewing in turn responds, "Yet what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?" But Mitchell's novel adds a final, cheeky aside to this inspiring quotation. The sentence ends with a footnote, which reads, "Here my father's handwriting slips into spasmodic illegibility." While Tykwer and the Wachowki's film shifts from Ewing's proclamation of human connectivity to one final look at a future civilization before the credits roll, Mitchell uses his final words to draw the powerful quote into question. The words are almost illegible and undoubtedly hard to read, Mitchell says, but they have somehow survived. It is the text that will help propel humanity forward, in addition to the people themselves.

Follow Abbey Stone on Twitter @abbeystone

[Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures]

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