Book vs. Film: Cloud Atlas

Stories cross mediums like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a story.

Back in July when the glorious six-minute trailer for Cloud Atlas came out, I wrote about how I had written about the unfilmable nature of the source material back in February. In said article-- which I had initially planned for LitReactor's October 2011 launch, but postponed so I could wait for a producer's quote which never materialized-- I promised to revisit the matter once the film had been released. It was set to hit theaters this past October, which it did, but luckily I got to see the film early, at a Fantastic Fest secret screening this past September. At the time of this reading (but not of this writing), some of you have no doubt seen the film, and the column idea I hatched over a year ago has finally come to fruition. It will now spread across the consciousness of the internet, and be transformed in the minds of those who read it, before being passed on in some form or another, verbal or electronic, while hopefully retaining its true essence.

The directors got the hard part right: adapting the narrative. They do a superb job of taking the film-unfriendly structure of the book and shaping it into something much more cinematic.

And if you haven't seen the film or read the book, I'd like to think I've just given you some inkling of what to expect from this thing called Cloud Atlas-- whether its sextet of stories are presented in the nested structure of the book or the constant cross-cutting of the cinematic experience. For those of you who are not familiar with either, this blurb from the back of the Sceptre paperback edition of the novel is appropriate to both:

Six interlocking lives-- one amazing adventure. In a narrative that circles the globe and reaches from the 19th century to a post-apocalyptic future, [Cloud Atlas] erases the boundaries of time, genre and language to offer an enthralling vision of humanity's will to power, and where it will lead us.

If it sounds broad it's because Cloud Atlas isn't an easy book to summarize. It's no wonder nobody, including myself, thought a film version was a good idea. Enter Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski, three talented optimists who thought otherwise. Thus began the long, arduous task of shepherding such unlikely material to the silver screen.

Fast forward to the here and now, and the question on everyone's mind is: Is the film incarnation of Cloud Atlas a success or a suckfest? I guess it depends on who you ask. For me, the trio of directors got the hard part right: adapting the narrative. They do a superb job of taking the film-unfriendly structure of the book and shaping it into something much more cinematic. That's not to say it's a conventional film, as each segment still varies greatly in genre, style, and tone; but they have been fused together in a way that strengthens the core themes of the story, making the characters' interconnectivity even more pronounced than in the novel. Sure, they take great liberties with much of the plot, which I'm not going to get into here, but such an approach to the source material was necessary for the adaptation to succeed. And David Mitchell, the author of the novel, agrees. He wrote in the New York Times:

...[the directors'] plan to foreground the novel’s “transmigrating souls” motif by having actors perform multiple roles (each role being a sort of way station on that soul’s karmic journey) struck me as ingenious. ...Wherever the Cloud Atlas screenplay differed from Cloud Atlas the novel, it did so for sound reasons that left me more impressed than piqued.

The idea to have each actor play multiple parts was an inspired one, but it also proves problematic. It bolsters the themes of reincarnation in the story and gives the narrative a cohesive thematic through-line, but not every actor is appropriately cast for each part they play. Tom Hanks is completely wrong for Dermot "Duster" Hoggins, the Irish ruffian turned novelist from "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" storyline, and his accent is comically horrendous. You can argue it is an appropriate performance considering the tone of that section in Mitchell's novel, but other examples do not have the same luxury. Hanks' portrayal of Dr. Henry Goose from the Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing section is similarly cartoonish, and feels even more out of place, no thanks to his giant buck-teeth and Sylvester The Cat-like delivery.

Other characters are distracting not so much due to egregious performances as bad makeup jobs. Making a black woman white or an Asian woman Mexican is not as easy as it sounds. Color is one thing, but facial structure is another. Perfect examples are Hallie Berry as Jocasta Ayrs; Doona Bae as a Mexican woman and Adam Ewing's freckle-faced, red-headed wife (is there such a thing as an Asian ginger?); and Hugo Weaving as matronly battle-axe Nurse Noakes, as well as a weirdly Spock-like Asian man.

In addition to taking you out of the film, this has led to accusations of racial insensitivity. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans has lambasted the filmmakers for using Caucasian actors to portray people of Asian descent, saying the choice is tantamount to yellowface. Which is a shame, because this obviously wasn't the intention. Andy Wachowski told the Huffington Post:

That's good that people are casting a critical eye. We need to cast critical eyes toward these things. What are the motivations behind directors and casting? I totally support it. But our intention is the antithesis of that idea. The intention is to talk about things that are beyond race. The character of this film is humanity, so if you look at our past work and consider what our intention might be, we ask that those people give us a chance and at least see the movie before they start casting judgment.

Even if you find their creative choice insensitive, there's no doubt the Wachowskis' hearts are in the right place. It's all there up on the screen, in the overly earnest Hollywood moments and the grandiose classical score that accompanies them. Aided by earnest everyman Tom Hanks, the Wachowskis (and Tykwer) get all Earnest Goes To Camp on that ass. In fact, it seems the Wachowskis are so concerned with people 'getting' the film, they rarely forgo an opportunity to hammer its point home. They could have reigned it in a little, eschewed some of the schmaltz, and the film would have been better for it. This was one of my main concerns going in, and it got validated like parking. The Wachowskis are not the subtlest of filmmakers, although I'm not sure a more restrained director would have made a better film.

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is a bravura piece of storytelling. It showcases his chameleonic mastery of style and genre, but is so much more than an exercise in literary acrobatics. It is an emotionally resonant piece of work with humanity at its heart. By default the Tykwer/Wachowski adaptation has greatness at its core, and I think the fact that it even exists is a huge cinematic achievement. They did the best possible job of transforming the complexities of the source material for the medium of film. Even though they edited, changed, shuffled and condensed, they were true to Mitchell's vision. Like I said, they got the hard part right. Unfortunately, it is prevented from achieving greatness by superficial missteps. And for a film that is about the things that are below the surface, that is a bit of a disappointment. Still, despite its flaws, and despite my fervent love for the novel, I count Cloud Atlas as a success. Even if you think the film is a hot mess, you have to agree-- Hollywood needs ambitious failures more than it does rote perfection. And at the very least, adaptations of difficult works of literature are putting money in great writers' pockets, and they keep the internet chattering.

Part Number:
Joshua Chaplinsky

Column by Joshua Chaplinsky

Joshua Chaplinsky is the Managing Editor of LitReactor. He is the author of The Paradox Twins (CLASH Books), the story collection Whispers in the Ear of A Dreaming Ape, and the parody Kanye West—Reanimator. His short fiction has been published by Vice, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Thuglit, Severed Press, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, Broken River Books, and more. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @jaceycockrobin. More info at and

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drea's picture
drea from Rural Alberta, Canada is reading between the lines October 30, 2012 - 2:57pm

Great article; I am so looking forward to seeing this film, simply to compare the book to the adaptation! Adapting anything is not an easy feat, never mind a sweeping saga such as Cloud Atlas (shit, I can barely adapt a recipe...) 

I'm going to see the film with someone who has not read Mitchell's book, so I'm interested in how our perceptions of the theme's delivery differ/are similar. Mostly, I'm hoping to get immersed in a world I haven't visited visually yet. 

Unrelated, but related, the unauthorized movie, "Nina" currently being filmed is taking some similar heat (replace blackcake for yellowcake) for casting a "not-black enough" woman (Zoe Saldana) in the role of Nina; saying Saldana does not meet Simone's phenotype.

I'm pretty easily immersed cinematically, so I am hopeful Cloud Atlas isn't that bad?? 

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine November 3, 2012 - 3:59pm

I'm not saying it's bad at all.

Yeah, I'm curious to hear the reaction of people not familiar with the book. The few I've heard have been, "That sucked!"

aaronfg's picture
aaronfg November 4, 2012 - 1:43pm

I saw the movie without reading the book and I loved the movie.  The bad makeup on certain characters didn't ruin or take me out of the movie at all. I just noted it as a shame, and moved on.

I thought the movie was insanely ambitious and a great experience. I could do without the hammering the themes at the end but oh well. I still loved it.

I'm reading the book now and I have to say, seeing the movie first has helped immensely. I had tried a few times earlier to read the book but never got beyond the first chapter since it was so boring. I still find the entire first chapter prior to him getting on the boat to be completely skip-able.

I'm almost through chapter 2 now (the Ayrs stuff) and that's been going by just fine. Looking forward to finishing the book this week.

drea's picture
drea from Rural Alberta, Canada is reading between the lines November 15, 2012 - 11:35pm

I FINALLY put pants on to leave the house and see this! (ok, for a reason other than work.) 


I really enjoyed the film, and my friend who is almost 15 years younger than I am, and hadn't read the book, enjoyed it as well. I actually gleaned a connection from the movie that hadn't been so apparent in the book (duh!) 

The movie splices between the stories almost frenetically at times; definitely dizzying. But NOT being spoon-fed a story is what I loved about both the book and the film. The themes--were they beat to death? Not when people continue to be beat to death over differences that really don't matter. Is society at large ready for the film? Maybe if the Wachowskis had wanted an audience to suck the story through a straw. 


For my friend and me, being in that theatre with the eight other people who were not there to see Twilight or Skyfall, (Javier Bardem and Daniel Craig's abs, Ima get to you later) it was an important film, and also importantly, an entertaining film that we will be speaking and thinking about long after the feeling returns to the asses we forgot we even had. 3 hours?!


And Joshua Chaplinsky? Your review, read before seeing the film, is still my favorite besides that gorgeous one that ran in the NYT...

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine November 16, 2012 - 8:51am

Well, thank you very much, drea, that's high praise. And glad you enjoyed the film.

Claudia Sneigoski's picture
Claudia Sneigoski July 16, 2013 - 4:34pm

I will not watch the movie.  Seeing the trailer was enough.  I suppose the author got a bunch of money to make it into a movie, but I can tell from the trailer that the reincarnation bit is so much more heavy handed....the book followed only one "person" through time, but to emphasise it the movie has added characters that were not in the book....making every major player also be connected through reincarnation.  The book is really 6 stories...each of which could be a separate movie, therefore the screenwriters had to snick out just a small bit from each storyline to present their reincarnation story.  So much more to the book.  I have only seen 3 book to movies that were worthy, and that was because the books were very short and the screenwriter stuck VERY close....The Shootist, Portnoy's Complaint and The Princess Bride.  The latter of which was improved upon because the author was also the screenwriter.