‘Cloud Atlas’ and the Art of Adaptation
Photos: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Stanley Kubrick once said that if something can be written or thought about, it can most definitely be filmed as well. But just because you can film something doesn’t mean you should. I’m thinking specifically about adaptations here, and even more specifically, I’m thinking about the recently released Cloud Atlas. That’s not to say I didn’t like Lana and Andy Wachowski’s latest work: but if the original novel is a genre-bending exploration of humanity, the screen version is a haphazardly beautiful hot mess.
In the David Mitchell bestseller, six seemingly unrelated stories are stitched together to create a loose mosaic narrative. A nineteenth century Pacific journal, a collection of post-Great War letters, an American disco mystery thriller, a present-day escape comedy, a dystopic interview session & a post-apocalyptic fireside chat—these disparate elements are linked to one another by the thinnest of stylistic threads, and in their own subtle ways, each story examines the same issues of time and significance thrust under wildly different microscopes.
What ultimately redeems this complex novel is its combination of stylistic tricks and overwhelming humanity, and I have no doubt the Wachowskis saw these same features glaring out from the first page of the story. But while translating a specific genre from book to screen might be routine enough, the process gets noticeably harder the more forms the source material cycles through. When you’re trying to weave it all together into a single coherent film, it gets harder still – though some movies (I’m looking straight at you, Tarentino) are able to pull it off excellently well. So if that’s the case, what exactly is the problem with Cloud Atlas’ rollercoaster ride?
For one, unless you’ve read the book, the film is almost incomprehensible. From the opening tip, you’re thrown without warning into a three-hour opera that dips in and out of intense action and emotion as effortlessly as leaves rustling in the wind, or clouds drifting across the sky. As such, the tagline of the film (that everything is connected) eventually becomes ridiculous—not because of its ostentation but because of its uncanny applicability. Every individual strand in this movie is in fact connected, but the synapses are so erratically linked that you might find yourself at times caught in some seizure-like trance, numbingly absorbing each frenetic and seemingly ill judged jump through time with little care or cognition.
But that doesn’t prevent me from wanting to believe in the Wachowskis’ potential to operate on some deep or metaphoric level. The Matrix (1999) was a once-in-a-lifetime success—a truly great film that pushed the boundaries of individuality and expression while becoming possibly the first movie to so seamlessly blend raw action with intense spiritual interrogation. In a way, the Wachowskis almost used up all their credit in making Matrix. Either that, or they struck some kind of Faustian deal to acquire the foundation of the work itself. In whatever case, the two were unable to equal the early success. The next couple Matrix films, while perhaps more probing thematically, fell completely apart on the screen, paling in comparison to their predecessor. And there’s no reason to bring up Speed Racer (2008), which alienated parents and children alike with its completely inappropriate metaphysical questions on the nature of racing itself.
So regardless of whether or not we’re able to produce some semblance of rhyme or reason for the screen version of Cloud Atlas (for the record: I believe it’s possible), can we still safely say that the film is a poor adaptation of what is otherwise a phenomenal book? To solve that question we have to spell out what exactly makes a good adaptation, and as with all such issues in art, that logic is needlessly subjective. Let me therefore offer a plain answer: an adaptation is good only if the new work is something completely independent of the original.
Think about it. Unless the source material is a pile of crap, you’d find it next to impossible to convince enough people that the adapted piece is any better. In layman’s terms, the book is always superior to the movie, just as the film is always better than its novelization. That’s just the way it is. So if you’re going to make the bonehead mistake of trying to translate something across mediums, especially if that something is particularly good, then you’d better be capable of turning _________’s work into your own reimagining. The Wachowskis did just that: it so happens their efforts were fruitless.
That doesn’t mean the gesture should go unappreciated. Like I said, I enjoyed every second of Cloud Atlas, as I enjoyed every page of the Mitchell novel. But the latter captured the thrill and wonder of disconnecting genres—made clear by the power of the printed word. The film, on the other hand, is just as pleasurable a ride for the first twenty or so minutes. Then it fades fast into a cinematic collage that touches on a lot of variable nerves but can’t fully explore any one idea all the way through: Cloud Atlas the Movie tries to be Cloud Atlas the Book, and the results are not exactly impressive.
But even the best adaptations are not without detractors. The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Half-Blood Prince were two stunning films that took great liberties with the J.K. Rowling novels on which they were based. And if I were to start a list of every alteration Peter Jackson made when producing The Lord of the Rings trilogy, this article would be unreadable. The point is that artistic mediums do not exist in a vacuum. While the tricks and tropes might change from paradigm to paradigm, the emphasis always remains on the individual artist’s version of the story, which is something you just have to accept for what it is, making your own judgment on it in time.