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Mapping The Differences In 'Cloud Atlas': Book Vs. Movie

Melissah Yang |
November 5, 2012 | 10:17 a.m. PST

Associate Arts Editor

Cloud Atlas (Warner Bros.)
Cloud Atlas (Warner Bros.)
Three of us went Friday to watch the highly anticipated film adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel “Cloud Atlas.” I had read it before. The other two had not.  

“What is it about?”

Mouth pressed. “Um…”

“What is it like?”

Nervous laugh. Grimaced face. 

“Will I like it?”

Head tilted right. Wrinkled nose. Right shoulder shrugged. 

This is a typical conversation between someone who has read “Cloud Atlas” and someone who hasn’t. 

As the theater lights began to dim, they asked me questions about what they were getting themselves into. And in all honesty, I had no idea what I was getting into either.

Three long hours later, we walked out, and I asked them if they understood the movie. One was more confident than the other, but they both said yes. 

So that being said, people who have not read the book should be fine watching the film

But then I asked them to describe the movie. 

Mouths pressed. Shoulders shrugged. Grimaced faces. 

“What is it about?”

There is a reason why Hollywood has avoided adapting Mitchell’s novel for eight years. The novel has six different narratives with six different characters that are set in six different times and places. Plus, the novel crosses over six different genres through six different mediums of storytelling. 

It's all very complicated.

“Cloud Atlas” tells six stories: 

  1. Notary Adam Ewing is on a Pacific island during postcolonial times and learns about the native tribe called the Moriori. 
  2. Musician Robert Frobisher works as an assistant to a revered composer in Belgium. 
  3. Journalist Luisa Rey investigates corruption at a California power plant. 
  4. Publisher Timothy Cavendish is trapped in an English nursing home against his will. 
  5. Cloned waitress Sonmi~451 rebels against a consumer-driven, totalitarian society in a future dystopian Korea. 
  6. Tribesman Zachry struggles for survival in a post apocalyptic Hawaii.

The novel hints that these characters are possible reincarnations of the same soul because five of the main characters have a common comet-like birthmark.

But the theme of reincarnation doesn’t apply to just characters. It applies to an act of kindness that appears in each narrative. Adam Ewing’s decision to help an enslaved native reverberates throughout time and throughout the chapters. 

The film pushes the idea of reincarnated souls to the forefront by casting the same actors in different roles for all of the stories. 

The idea is interesting, and seeing Hugo Weaving play his typical Wachowski bad-guy role in a dress is a movie-going experience on its own. But the film’s portrayal of reincarnated souls gets lost under all of the ridiculous makeup and get-ups.

Think the Wayans brothers in "White Chicks" but now with other types of ethnic-crossings.

“What is it like?”

“Cloud Atlas” is unlike any other novel because of its unusual narrative structure. The novel layers six stories over each other, and the stories are connected through each character’s act of “reading” the previous character’s story. 

Frobisher finds Ewing’s diary, Luisa Rey reads Frobisher’s letters, Cavendish receives a manuscript of Luisa Rey’s story, Sonmi~451 watches Cavendish star in a movie, and Zachry tells the legend of Sonmi~451 over a campfire.

The structure of Mitchell’s novel follows this layering of literary discovery. All the characters, except Zachry, appear twice in 11 chapters – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – so that Adam Ewing begins and ends the novel. 

The film adaptation abandons the novel’s structure and instead creates a mosaic-like picture. The film opens with a montage of scenes from all six narratives, introducing the many characters that each actor plays throughout the film. 

The film jumps from narrative to narrative by following an actor who plays a character in both stories. One scene will show Zachry (Tom Hanks) and Meronym (Halle Berry) climbing a mountain in post apocalyptic Hawaii and then move centuries earlier to Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) talking with an aged Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy) about the power plant conspiracy.   

Writers and directors, Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, changed the narrative structure because they said the novel’s layering would not work for film.

“It would be impossible to introduce a new story ninety minutes in,” Lana Wachowski said in an interview with the New Yorker.  

The abrupt scene changes do not seem like an option either. Instead, they are disorienting. Just when viewers understand what is going on, they are suddenly transported to another time and place. 

The decision to abandon the original structure does a disservice to Mitchell’s groundbreaking work. In fragmenting its multiple narratives and then later returning to them, the novel plays with the idea of telling a large narrative that transcends common notions of time. 

The film could have - and should have - kept the layers. If each of the 11 chapters averaged around 15 minutes, the six stories could have began and finished with enough time left over to still be shorter than the film's 172 minutes of jump scenes.

"Will I like it?”

The film feels epic. The high-production value reflects the Wachowskis and Tykwer’s ambitious task of telling six stories in a single film.

But “Cloud Atlas” the novel is epic. Mitchell layers and splits the stories but still manages to make the novel feel complete. The split chapters keep the individual plots in suspense. Each story is engaging on its own. Layered together, the novel becomes a globalized narrative that takes on all genres. 

Mitchell said that he originally thought "Cloud Atlas" to be "unfilmable." 

Read the book. Watch the movie. Tell us what you think. 

Reach Melissah here. Follow her on Twitter.



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