In the summer of 2010 I almost started to cry when, reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, I encountered the first mention of the title in the middle of the book. It took my breath away, which is a tough thing to do. It was the most challenging thing I’ve read since graduating from college and also the most rewarding, but had I not been reading it with a book club I might have abandoned ship during the first chapter. Now I confidently place it my top five favorite books of all time. It is intelligent and uncompromising without being pretentious or overbearing, and while not a flowery narrative it has moments of absolute beauty. The book is also supremely literary: bursting with references, allusions, and no fewer than six different pieces of storytelling, all linked together internally by six different types of literary documents. It is a symphony of the English language.
Imagine my dismay at the news that it was being made into a movie. A movie that took a very long time to make and stars Tom Hanks in every one of the six stories. A movie that needed a five-minute-long trailer and an explanation from the three directors to try and sell it to a public that gave Michael Bay so much money that he could make three Transformers movies. A movie that seemed from all indications to emphasize the ideas of reincarnation and destiny, perhaps the most broad, reductive, disappointing possible readings of the text. Worst of all, I knew I had no choice but to see it when it came out, no matter how sure I was it would break my heart and inflame my hair-trigger sense of artistic indignation.
Like the majority of books adapted as movies it’s not a literal, complete adaptation. Unlike most adaptations, though, it manages to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. The screenplay sheds chunks of the book that make the story more fleshed-out and complete, opting instead to add small pieces that emphasize or even create extra connections among the six stories. The structure of the book is also reworked: in the book you begin in the mid-1800s on a ship crossing the Pacific for San Francisco, a story that ends at its halfway point. Each story thereafter ends at its halfway point, moving forward in time and around the world until the entire middle story unfolds far, far in the future. The second halves of the stories are then told moving back in time so that you end on the ship where you began. In the movie all of the stories play out simultaneously. Rather than the cleaner line of the book, which leans on the power of words to make its connections, the film layers the stories, jumping back and forth between points of visual, actor or plot connection. It’s a surprisingly effective substitute for the text, aided by the heavy use of voice overs. However, this side-by-side storytelling and the constant reappearance of the same actors does make some of the themes of the film begin to feel more redundant than they did in the book.
Despite what could be taken as somewhat straightforward statements about reincarnation, destiny, and the tenacity of the brightest parts of human nature, the film does retain one of the most significant concepts from the book: the transmission and reappropriation of ideas. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry don’t actually keep meeting because their love was meant to be somehow, somewhere, but because it’s a visual representation of how ideas travel through time and space. And not just good ideas. The film might invite the viewer to renew his or her faith in the possible goodness of human beings, but it does so without too intensely sentimentalizing the nature of human life. Along with tolerance and a thirst for knowledge, the ideas we carry through time also include fear, manipulation, indifference, violence, greed, and cannibalism. Of course the filmmakers have a very clear opinion regarding which of these ideas are better than others and what we the audience should think about them, but they present those views with a thankfully reasonable amount of pandering and arm twisting. Overall the sprawling meditation on just about every emotion a human can endure might be a bit much if not for “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” the laugh-out-loud ridiculous story that lives within these other more serious narratives. Cavendish is played absolutely brilliantly by Jim Broadbent, the very actor I’d imagined as the living embodiment of the character when I read the book.
Ultimately it’s arrogant to try and sum up what either the book or the movie are actually about, partly because they are so big that there’s something for everyone to respond differently to. And while Mitchell has said that the book is indeed about six different reincarnations of the same soul, neither he nor the film seek to entirely define what that means. What is more sure is that these are six stories about everything. About how we are these things that wander around containing genetic information and universal concepts and how both of those things regenerate themselves over time. It’s about cycles and coincidences and recurrences. It’s about trying to make a movie about all of these things and maybe not succeeding at every part of it, but creating moments of pure, beautiful lucidity in a sprawling work of great ambition. About seeing our limitations next to our potential. About things within our reach and beyond it.