Cloud Atlas is arguably David Mitchell’s most famous book. Published in 2004, it intertwines six different stories that span centuries and are all somehow interlinked. The main characters are represented as reincarnations of the same soul, hence the tag line and title reference “Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies.”
Reincarnation is represented by each of the main characters having a birthmark in the shape of a comet. It’s also hinted at through their shared memories: Vyvyan Ayrs dreams of an underground world where all the people have the same face, representing the workplace of Sonmi-451, while Sonmi remembers being in a previous car accident during a car crash, which is a reference to Luisa Rey’s car being forced off a bridge.
But it’s not just through the theme of reincarnation that the ‘lives’ are interlinked. The main characters from each ‘life’ interact with the previous narrative in some way, and so the narrative structure is extremely important. It is a circular structure, where each narrative is interrupted at a key point in the story arc, and then continues from exactly the same point in the second half of that particular story. The structure is as follows:
1) The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (part 1)
2) Letters from Zedelghem (part 1)
3) Half-Lives – The First Luisa Rey Mystery (part 1)
4) The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (part 1)
5) An Orison of Sonmi-451 (part 1)
6) Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After (which is told in one part only, and so is twice the length of the other sections)
7) An Orison of Somni-451 (part 2)
8) The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (part 2)
9) Half-Lives – The First Luisa Rey Mystery (part 2)
10) Letters from Zedelghem (part 2)
11) The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (part 2).
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, as the title suggests, is written in the form of a journal by Adam Ewing, a laywer. It’s set in 1849 on the Chatham Islands, where Adam is waiting for his ship to be repaired so he can travel home to San Francisco. He befriends a doctor, Henry Goose, who begins treating him for a mysterious ailment, identified by Goose as a parasite in his brain. He also helps a stowaway Moriori slave, Autua, who he witnessed being whipped by Maoris. The journal is interrupted mid-sentence by Letters from Zedelghem.
Letters from Zedelghem is written in the form of letters sent by Robert Frobisher to his friend and ex-lover Sixsmith in the late 1920s/early 1930s. They tell of his running away to Belgium to work as an amanuensis to composer Vyvyan Ayrs, where he embarks on an affair with Ayrs’ wife Jocasta and later falls in love with her daughter Eva. He also mentions that he has discovered an old book which he is reading, called The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.
Half-Lives – The First Luisa Rey Mystery is the story of a journalist, Luisa Rey, who is trying to expose a corrupt company attempting to cover up a report about the dangers of their nuclear power plant in 1975. She is first alerted to the cover-up by Rufus Sixsmith, an ex-employee of the nuclear power plant. After Sixsmith is murdered, she discovers a series of letters written to him by Robert Frobisher.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is written directly to the reader in the voice of Timothy Cavendish, who is a publisher forced to live in a nursing home against his will and hopes to turn his experience into a film script. It’s set pretty much in the present day, and is quite a light-hearted and humorous narrative, as Timothy Cavendish attempts to escape with a few other geriatric ‘prisoners’. Before entering the retirement home, Timothy Cavendish received a manuscript from a new author, called Half-Lives – The First Luisa Rey Mystery.
An Orison of Sonmi-451 is set in the future where the work force consists of clones, or ‘fabricants’, who are ‘genomed’ to work as slave labour for the ‘pureblood’ community. Sonmi-451 is a fabricant, who ‘ascends’ to near pureblood status through education and is used to start a revolution about the way that fabricants are treated. Her narrative is presented in the form of her last interview with an ‘archivist’ before she is executed for the role she plays. During her narrative she watches an old-style film called The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.
Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After is the last of the six narratives. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic future after the fall of civilisation, where the remains of humankind have reverted to living in tribes. Zachry is an old man recalling his life as a teenager whose family has to host Meronym, a visiting ‘prescient’ (people who remember how to use technologies from before ‘the fall’) who is looking for somewhere for the remains of her people to live. She stays with Zachry’s tribe to learn their ways and explore their land. She has in her possession an ‘orison’ which projects the image of Zachry’s god Sonmi giving an interview with an archivist.
The narratives then continue in reverse order, wrapping up their own story lines. The Cloud Atlas sextet, a piece of music composed by Robert Frobisher and described in one of his letters, is also used as a metaphor for the structure of the book and a reference to the tag line mentioned earlier: “Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a ‘sextet for overlapping soloists’: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the 1st set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the 2nd, each interruption is recontinued, in order.”
I really enjoyed Cloud Atlas, I think the whole idea behind it is really clever and it’s really satisfying to see that it works. I definitely found some parts easier to read than others, and some parts were more enjoyable and entertaining for me. I was less enthralled with The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing and An Orison of Somni-451 because I found them the least interesting of the lot, and I sort of wanted to just get their parts over with so I could move on to other narratives that I enjoyed more. I liked Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After but it was definitely the hardest of them all to read. It’s not exactly dialectical, but it’s written in a sort of corrupted way with slang and bastardisation of words. It’s kind of hard to explain, so I’ll give a couple of examples – remembering becomes “mem’ryin’”, asking after people becomes “howzittin’” babies become “babbits” and having knowledge or common sense becomes having “smart”. The meaning’s always clear, but it’s slower to read and takes a lot more concentration to get through. It’s one of the most memorable storylines though, with a really strong narrative voice.
It’s Letters from Zedelghem that’s my favourite part though, it’s the section that stayed with me more than any of the others after I first read Cloud Atlas a year or so ago. I love the character of Robert Frobisher, I love the nature of the letters he sent to Sixsmith, and I still feel more than a little heartbroken about the whole sorry affair. I was delighted when I heard Ben Whishaw would be playing him in the film version, to me he seems the perfect choice and I instantly heard all of his letters read in the voice of Ben Whishaw in my head when I went to reread the book before seeing the film. Having now seen the film, I can confirm that it really was a superb casting choice.
I wasn’t really sure how the book would work in film form though, because it’s quite a complicated story with all the interlocking narratives and so many different characters. To be honest I’m still not entirely sure what to make of the film. There have definitely been a few artistic liberties taken, some of which I can forgive more than others. The unforgivable liberty of course has to be the mangling of Robert Frobisher’s storyline. The idea that he fell in love with Vyvyan Ayrs, as the film portrays, is absolutely ridiculous and laughable. He didn’t even like Ayrs by the end because he was too jealous and resentful of Ayrs trying to take all the credit for Robert Frobisher’s own work! He was in love with Ayrs’ daughter Eva, who didn’t even feature in the film. It might seem like a fairly minor thing, but it actually completely changes the characterisation of the character of Robert Frobisher. In the book he had a certain arrogance, which suited him and was the main reason why he couldn’t bear to live with Ayrs any longer – he wanted his work to be represented as his, and he wasn’t happy even sharing it with Ayrs. All that guff in the trailer where Frobisher says to Ayrs “There are whole movements I wrote about us meeting again and again in different lives and different ages” is absolute nonsense, and the idea that he’d fall in love with such a cantankerous, selfish, syphilitic geriatric is completely laughable. I’m so disappointed with this part of the film, the book presents a wonderful character with a wonderful storyline, the film makers cast it beautifully and then completely screw it all up by throwing in the wrong love affair. I’m more than disappointed actually, I’m angry because there was just no need for it, no need at all.
The other artistic liberties rile me less, and some of them at least can be explained. In the book, Zachry is a teenager, the Kona tribe kill his father and kidnap his brother, and he lives with his mother, his other siblings (including Catkin), and later Meronym, who is 50 years old. In the film Zachry is a fully grown man, the Kona kill his adult brother and kidnap his nephew, and he lives with his sister-in-law and his niece Catkin, and Meronym’s visit grows into a romance between the two of them as fully grown adults. This doesn’t massively change the characterisation of Zachry, and I think his age was changed purely so that he could be played by Tom Hanks. The same actors are used throughout the film to play the main characters and a host of minor ones, and so to fit this casting a few ages have had to be tweaked. In fact, 13 main actors fill the roles of 64 major and minor characters throughout the film and it makes for a pretty fun game trying to work out who’s who. This was easier said than done in some cases, as each actor played at least one character of a different gender and a lot of prosthetics were used very effectively, which meant the cast list was pretty surprising at times. I think the idea of representing reincarnation by having the same actors playing lots of different characters was quite a clever touch, and would have made it easier to understand in the film than the shared half memories used in the novel, but I imagine that it could get a bit confusing trying to keep track of which character’s which and who’s who in each storyline when a lot of characters looked vaguely similar, especially if you haven’t read the book.
Some other plot elements didn’t quite match up with the book, like Zachry and Meronym moving to another planet, and at times I felt that some of the storylines (particularly Luisa Rey’s) needed a bit more explanation and could have been hard to follow for those unfamiliar with the book. The film didn’t really make clear exactly what scandal she was trying to expose and why, or who some of the characters were and what their involvement was. There just seemed to be an awful lot of shooting and attempted murders without any real explanation about what was going on. I found it a bit hard to follow at times, and I knew what was meant to be happening! Considering how long the film was (and at 172 minutes I’d say it was too long to feel sustained), it all seemed a bit thin in terms of explaining the plot, and I’d have thought there would have been plenty of time in those 172 minutes to make everything seem a bit clearer.
I must admit the film seemed pretty disjointed as well. The structure of the novel was so important for highlighting links and the cyclical feel of the story, but the film jumped back and forth in time and between story lines quite happily, and I felt like it kept moving on to the next thing before anything really felt established in each storyline. I think in a way moving about so much actually made it harder to see how all the different lives interacted, which sort of defeats the premise of the whole story.
To be honest, I just feel like the film makers took on too big a challenge. The book was ambitious enough to begin with; if anything, I feel like the film was too ambitious. Cinematically, it’s pretty and the music’s wonderful and it captures the basic essence of the book, it just feels like there’s something huge missing at the same time. I had such high expectations after watching the trailer, and I have to admit that even now I well up as soon as the trailer starts. I just feel so disappointed that I was moved so much by the book and a five minute trailer, and yet the film failed to move me at all. I wouldn’t say it’s not worth watching, but I would say to read the book too. I don’t think you can appreciate the scope of the story or get a real feel for the characters without reading the book, and I’d so hate for anyone to miss out on the real Robert Frobisher.
See previous Book vs Film featuring Enduring Love, or read a review of David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.