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Cloud Atlas – a transmedial movie


Cloud Atlas, the film of the unfilmable novel, has had a belated UK release. With an epic cast including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent and High Grant, it’s ambitious and watchable and complex – but clearly nowhere near as complex as the source material.

Both take six stories spread across time, from a Polynesian, Conrad-esque sea adventure to a far future tale of storytelling tribes. The sections have connecting themes and motifs. But, although the film and book contain the same stories and characters, the whole is very different.

The key difference is that the novel isn’t so much about history as it is about the end of history.

The filmic Cloud Atlas becomes a narrative about humanity’s interconnected history. The key theme is freedom, told through a series of stories of servitude.

That’s also what the novel does – but only in one layer.

The novel explores these and much bigger themes, as transparent fictions. Each section is told in a different literary style. It, famously, does so within a Russian doll, Calvino inspired temporal structure.

Cloud Atlas the movie changes these integral, structural elements. There are no clear stylistic changes from genre to genre. We cut back and forth between periods rapidly (sometimes too rapidly) in order to impose a linear, classic realist structure from conflict to resolution over the course of two and three quarter hours.

Despite the involvement of multiple directors (Matrix makers the Wachowskis and Perfume’s Tom Twyker) the film strikes one note throughout. Each period is as lush, slick and Hollywood generic as the next.

The result is a very different kind of story.

I enjoyed it, still. It reminds you of Terry Gilliam in places… It’s worth watching as a kind of crazy, folly of a blockbuster. It’s deliriously expensive looking.

Or, as occurred to me this morning after two coffees and no breakfast, you might think of the movie as a meta-textual artifact that has fallen from David Mitchell’s original novel.

Just as Timothy Cavendish totes around the manuscript for Half Lives in his tattered leather satchel, or Somni 451 watches Cavendish romp free from the old folks home in a film adaptation… You could choose to see Twyker and the Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas as another meta-fiction – a metafiction about the novel Cloud Atlas.

This, in some ways, makes more sense. Without the source material, the film is hideously difficult to follow….

Pretentious? Certainly. But fun. And most definitely in the spirit of the book.

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