Earlier this year it was announced by Tom Tykwer, that the Wachowski’s had bought the rights to Cloud Atlas, a novel written by David Mitchell. Tykwer is adapting the screenplay of the award winning 2004 novel, although it is unclear who is set to direct, at this stage.
This news got Mike and I very interested. The Wachowski’s are of course best known for The Matrix (one of Mike’s favourite films) and the hugely underrated but very entertaining, Speed Racer. Tykwer’s Run Lola Run is, amongst others, one of my favourite films. The combination of filmmakers was sure to be an intriguing and successful one.
So, we kept an eye out for the novel at the heart of this collaboration, and I’ve recently finished reading it. There’s just so much going on in this book, that I want to get it all straight in my head, and the best way to do that, is to put it down on (blog-)paper. So here goes…
Wikipedia has a very nice plot summary, so I won’t go into too much detail here – best read it (or the novel) for yourself. The basic gist of it is this: Six seperate stories are nested within one another. Starting with an Amercian notary aboard a ship in the Pacific, set in the mid-19th century, followed by an English musician fleeing debtors to Zedelghem, Belgium to work (and hide) with a talented composer, then a journalist investigates corruption at a nuclear power plant in 1970’s California. The next story finds us in early 21st century England, where a book publisher finds himself trapped in a nursing home, then the novel takes a spin to the future, with the futuristic story of a fabricant (clone) in what-was-once-Korea who realises there is more to life than enslavement, and finally it goes post-apocolyptic with a campfire tale on Hawaii about a tribesmen meeting one of the last ‘civilised’ people left on the world.
Sounds like six completely different stories then. Why are they bound in the same cover? Well, this is where it gets clever. Yes, they are very different stories; not only are the characters (with the exception of one who is mentioned in two stories), the setting, and the time period completely different, but so is the genre for each story and the ‘mdeium’ in which it is written. But we discover, as we continue reading, that the stories are all linked. A character in the second story finds a copy of the ‘diary’ of the first character. He describes this in letters to a friend, who then gives these letters to the journalist in the third story. The journalists story is turned into a novel and this manuscript finds itself in the hands of the book publisher from story number four. He in turn, talks about how his life would make a great film, which, not surprisingly, it did – and the fabricant watches it before telling her tale to an ‘orison’ (holographic video recorder), and after the apocoplypse this orison falls into the hands of the tribesmen on Hawaii.
Sounds complicated, and on the upwards ride it is. But luckily, there is a downhill slope where it all becomes just that much clearer. The tribesmen ‘plays’ the second half of the orison, as we read the rest of her story. She in turn has a last request to finish watching the film about the book publisher, who at the end of the film sits down to finish reading the manuscript, etc. The whole novel becomes quite more-ish as you get caught up in each story, only to be abruptly ripped from it into a new world. I found the whole thing quite hard to put down.
So how would this work as a film? The film would have to remain faithful to the structure of the novel, or it would miss the point. Can you fit six different stories, each a different style, tone, pace and genre, with different characters into one film? Will the audience sit through it??? I have no idea.
As a novel it melds into one continuous arc. Despite the story within a story structure it feels like one story. There is a hint at the main characters all being the same reincarnated soul (except the last story, where it isn’t the main character). David Mitchell has confirmed this in an interview:
“All of the [leading] characters except one are reincarnations of the same soul … identified by a birthmark. … The “cloud” refers to the ever-changing manifestations of the “atlas”, which is the fixed human nature. … The book’s theme is predacity … individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations.”
And this brings me neatly to the next point… The novel’s scope covers the full circle of modern human society and it’s destruction. And it does seem destined to be cyclic in nature. At some point humanity will reach such a high point in technology and power that it will have nowhere to go but back down. This is illustrated in the fabricant’s story, where clones are created and manipulated to be agreeable drugged slaves. Much like the slave-trade alluded to in first story in the Pacific – of course by this point in history keeping slaves was frowned upon, but teaching Islanders to smoke – and become addicted to – tobacco was still fair game. The futuristic world of the fabricant seems to be the height of what human society can achieve, and we discover in the next story that not long after her escape from enslavement, her whole society fell, along with most of the civilised world.
“Yay, Old’uns’ Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an’ made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o’ humans, yay, a hunger for more… Human hunger birthed the Civlize, but human hunger killed it too”
(Cloud Atlas, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”, p. 286.)
There are as many messages to be taken from this novel as there are readers of it. It’s cleverness lies in how stories are incorporated into the previous story, especially on the downward spiral. Are they real or are they all fiction? Are some more real than others? Are we just another part of the story, and by writing this and referring to the book I am now part of it???
Books don’t offer real escape but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw.
(David Mitchell in Cloud Atlas, “Letters from Zedelghem”)