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Most sane directors in Hollywood took one look at David Mitchell's sprawling, densely layered novel Cloud Atlas and said "this is unfilmable." Luckily for all of us, Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer are at least a little bit insane, and decided not just to translate Mitchell's novel to the screen, but to alter its structure immensely while, somehow, keeping large sections of the original novel in place. It's an adaptation that looks nothing like the source material, but at the asme time, nails it perfectly.
So how do you even pull something like that off? The Wachowskis and Tykwer made three very large changes to the overall function of Cloud Atlas that made it even possible to film. The biggest came when they decided to ditch Mitchell's structure-- the stories all nested within one another-- and chop them up and layer them on top of each other and essentially make a salad out of what was a layer cake. Here's a quick diagram of the book's structure, for reference:
That rigid setup goes out the window from the first shot of Cloud Atlas, where we meet Tom Hanks as Zachry-- the main character of "Sloosha's Crossin'" recounting his story, then immediately meet Hanks again as Henry Goose, the villain of the book's first story, "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing." A montage introduces all the main characters in quick succession and ends, just before the main titles, with Robert Frobisher climbing into a bathtub and narrating his final letter to Rufus Sixsmith.
SPOILER ALERT FROM HERE ON OUT. If you have not read Cloud Atlas or seen the movie and don't want to know what happens, leave this article! If you have read the book and haven't seen the movie, it's your call if you want some of these structural surprises revealed.
So, the three major overarching changes between Cloud Atlas the book and the movie.
The structure. Gone are the neatly nested stories, in which each character reads the story of the previous one through a book or letters or manuscript or futuristic orb. In its place is a series of montages, overlapping dialogue and deft edits that draw all kinds of parallels among the stories that you might not have noticed, and allows the rise and fall of the stories to synch up in consistently unexpected ways.
The actors all play multiple roles. In the book there is a suggestion of a single soul reoccurring throughout time, thanks to a comet-shaped birthmark that appears on Robert Frobisher, Luisa Rey and other characters. That idea is expanded dramatically in the movie, in which actors reoccur in most if not all of the timelines, sometimes as similar characters-- Hugo Weaving is a bad guy in all of them, though he transforms into a nurse in one-- and sometimes dramatically different ones, as when Halle Berry goes from a tribal child to a Jewish woman in Scotland to the Hispanic American Luisa Rey. This drives home the theme of recurrence, but also helps engage you in characters you don't yet know-- you've seen Halle Berry as Luisa Rey already, so when she reappears as Meronym, you already feel like you know her.
Love is all around you. We only see one love story play out in the book of Cloud Atlas-- the relationship between Sonmi-451 and Hae-Joo Im-- and another, the one between Frobisher and Sixsmith, is hinted at. Both of these relationships are made stronger in the movie, and other romantic clinches-- between Adam Ewing and his wife Tilda, between Timothy Cavendish and his youthful flame, between Meronym and Zachry-- are added to give every single story an aspect of romance. There are other thematic additions, like the idea of every timeline including an imprisonment of some kind, but the love stories are the most significant, and make the movie Cloud Atlas significantly more sentimental than the book.
If you've read the book and want to go into the movie with a general idea of which changes to expect, that's pretty much everything you need to know. But if you want a more detailed breakdown of how each individual story has changed, well, that's really what this column is for. Over the next few pages I've broken Cloud Atlas down into the six individual stories and noticed the biggest story changes, though of course, in any adaptation, there are plenty of other smaller ones. Take a look and let me know of any others you noticed in the comments!
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