Written by David Mitchell (not the one from ‘Peep Show’) in 2004 and adapted into a film in 2012, ‘Cloud Atlas’ seemed a nice change from my habit of reading the more iconic Victorian novels.
I must admit, if I hadn’t seen the trailer for the film (and spotting a copy for £2.50 in Cancer Research) I probably wouldn’t have decided to buy it in the first place. Another confession, the book has actually sat on my bookshelf gathering dust for the past six months, but eventually, I gave it a go.
Just a quick note, ‘Cloud Atlas’ is a science fiction novel. I wouldn’t say it’s quite as full on as ‘1984’ or ‘War of the Worlds’, but it does have a number of sci-fi elements to it, so if you aren’t really into this genre then the whole article might not be your cup of tea.
I suppose that before I start, I should shed some light on the layout of the novel. Cloud Atlas is split into 12 parts, telling the story of 6 different people across time. The blurb focuses on the fact that each character is linked across time by a distinctive feature, a birthmark in the shape of a comet. Talking to the BBC, Mitchell stated ‘Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark’, it certainly sounds interesting enough.
So, passing the time on my Ryanair flight to Lanzarote (feeling a bit like a certain Prime Minister), I started the novel. The first narrative throws us into the ‘Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing’ written in 1850 documenting his journey from the Chatham Islands to Hawaii to go on to San Francisco. I’m not sure if it was down to a bad nights sleep or the first part of the story, but I simply couldn’t stay awake. Surprising really considering my interest in history, I think I’ll put it down to my lack of sleep. Despite this I somehow managed to plod along and got to the slightly more interesting second part of the story, ‘Letters from Zedelghem’. The story of a happy-go-lucky (or down-and-out, depending if you’re a glass half empty kind of person – how many sayings can I get into one sentence..?!) English composer trying to make a name for himself in post-WW1 Belgium. Following from this we are transported to the 70s, where we have the story of Luisa Rey, a journalist looking for something bigger than simply writing a gossip column in a low-ranking newspaper. Personally I found this story the most interesting, simply because this was the ONLY story that vaguely mentioned the fact that each of the 6 different people are connected.
The ONLY one.
I can’t help but find that incredibly bizarre.
I think this is the only real issue I have with this novel. Each story was interesting, and could have easily been published as a collection of short stories should the author have wished it. However, I think this desire to have many different stories within one novel has distracted Mitchell from the original concept; each character is an example of reincarnation.
Annoying really, because if I posted a blog post claiming the topic was about Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ but it was actually about Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ with only a passing mention of the former, I’d have people wondering what I was playing at, but when a big-shot author does it, he gets a shed-load of stellar reviews and a film!
As a theme, reincarnation would have been brilliant, providing it had been done properly. By this I mean mentioned more than a handful of times, lazily linking each character with a ‘comet-shaped birthmark’. I might even go as far as saying that the theme might have just been slapped on at the end in order for it to be published. For me, if it weren’t for the birthmark, the novel wouldn’t have a plot.
I suppose it’s left me wondering if the novel actually has a plot at all!
After finishing the book, I thought maybe I’d understand what I’d read better by watching the film. As I said before, the film was released in 2012 with an estimated budget of $102,000,000 starring Hollywood heavyweights Tom Hanks and Hallie Berry. Once again, it seemed promising.
Looking at some other film reviews online, there appears to be a great deal of emphasis upon it being the ‘Cinematographic Masterpiece of the 21st Century’, mixing a variety of different genres into one. Well, to a point, but like the novel, there are still some properly sloppy parts within it.
Obviously, as the whole point of the novel is (apparently) reincarnation, the directors quite cleverly decided to re-use the same actors within each story. This often meant covering the actors faces in prosthetics, the results of which were generally quite hit and miss. For example, instead of simply employing a Korean actor to play the role of the ‘unidentified archivist’ in the story of Sonmi-451, make-up were ordered to take Hugo Weaving and try make him look like a Korean man. Now, I’m not sure if the prosthetics were SUPPOSED to be funny, but some were frankly impossible to take seriously.
If you Google it, you’ll understand my point.
Sadly, as with a great deal of films based on novels, there are elements that are either changed, added or omitted that have absolutely nothing to do with the original story. In this case, the location of the second story (‘Letters from Zedelghem’) is moved from Belgium to Edinburgh, for no obviously logical reason. I can only imagine they were getting slightly strapped for cash and found cheaper locations in the UK rather than where the story is actually set.
Not a bad thing for tourism of course, but in terms of closeness to the novel…
The most resonating factor of this film is that I still have no real clue to what I’ve actually seen. I think if a person were to sit and watch the film with no contextual knowledge, they would be even more baffled than someone who already has SOME understanding by reading it. I’m confident they wouldn’t pick up on the reincarnation ‘theme’, or indeed be able to distinguish between the different stories! One reviewer advised the audience to ‘spend a day sitting down and thinking about what you’ve watched’, which to me is absurd. Who on earth has the time to even CONTEMPLATE spending the following day thinking about a film? Apart from someone reading for a degree in film studies of course.
This may be just me, but I like to watch a film and understand a good chunk of it pretty much straight away. I think if a film isn’t able to properly convey its meaning across to its audience upon first viewing, then it isn’t a very good film!
I’m going to have to conclude this post without a clear idea of what to think about Cloud Atlas. I think initially, because it had won awards and been made into a film, I thought it would be a really good, gritty novel. I suppose to a point, it is, but only in the writing of SOME of the individual stories (maybe even just two of the six). Otherwise, this novel left me feeling disappointed and short-changed.
In terms of the film, there are clear attempts at making the story coherent (by recycling the same actors) but the constant flicking between each story with no logical reasoning behind it, meant that my head was spinning for about ¾ of the 3 hour film.
Of course, don’t let that put you off. Give it a go yourself and see what you think.
Maybe you’ll be able to shed some light on it!
I don’t want to let a week of my life go to waste!