“Cloud Atlas” and the Art of Adaptation

Cinema to the Max
Awkward poses by the directors of "Cloud Atlas."
Awkward poses by the directors of "Cloud Atlas." // Creative Commons

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 19th-century Pacific journal, a collection of post-Great War letters, an American disco mystery thriller, a present-day escape comedy, a dystopic interview session and a post-apocalyptic fireside chat — these disparate elements are linked to one another by the thinnest of stylistic threads. The journal that makes the first story is a footnote in the second, just as the letters of the second are mentioned in the third. And in their own subtle ways, each story examines the same issues of time and significance thrust under wildly different microscopes.

But 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.

Does this mean we can 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 entirely subjective. Let me therefore offer as plain an answer as I can: 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 [insert name here]’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, if only because you can do a lot more with 500 pages. The film, on the other hand, is just as pleasurable a ride for the first 20 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 “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, this article would be unreadable. The point is that artistic mediums do not exist in vacuums. 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.

 

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