This is a film that Roger Ebert had trouble getting, even after seeing it twice, and with good reason: It’s a film specifically for those who’ve read the book. How else is one supposed to follow the six interwoven plot strands?
People often say that the book ruins the movie, that afterward Hermione Granger can’t be anyone but Emma Watson, for instance. And unless the book offers a clear and different description, that does tend to happen. But lately I’ve found that for books with a strong narrative, the reverse can be worse: Knowing what’s going to happen can ruin the fun. The anticipation of what comes next, and curiosity about how it will be presented, can prevent one from focusing on the here and now.
The Boat (Das Boot 1981/1997) is commonly considered the best, most authentic submarine film ever made, and rightly so. I should know, seeing as submarine films and novels are my Achilles’ heel, along with Battleship (2012), which is in fact a submarine film in disguise. It is 2% excitement, 8% dread and depth charges, and 90% boredom—just like in an actual submarine during wartime. The boring parts are often offset by the tension of awaiting orders and the beauty of the sea (U-boats ran on diesel and only submerged during battle), but I made the mistake of reading the novel first, which had more tension, more beauty, and even more snarkiness—leaving the boredom to the film. I stopped watching right after the crew receives orders to head to Italy.
Even classic films like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and The Big Sleep (1946) (but not its dialogue) fall afoul of this problem, the latter especially plot-heavy, even though its plot makes zero sense (according to Raymond Chandler!). A film where this doesn’t happen, or at least not to a disruptive extent, is No Country for Old Men (2007), mostly because Cormac McCarthy isn’t too big on plot and character descriptions in the first place; the symbolism and downright mystery translate perfectly well. For some unrelated and inexplicable reason, a significant number of Stephen King film adaptations strike me as better than their original books. (Maybe he should screenwrite full-time?) Other films, such as Blade Runner (1982/2007), Adaptation. (2002), and Arrival (2016), are so different from their source material that it’d be more accurate to say they are “inspired by” rather than “based on.” (Speaking of Arrival, the final reveal that the flashbacks are actually flashforwards is transcendently euphoric, but if you think about it, it’s really a one-trick pony of a film. The most beautiful physical aspect of the film is the protagonist’s lakeside house.)
For its part, Cloud Atlas steers clear of this trap by doing something truly ingenious: rearranging the plot. This is possible because David Mitchell’s novel is six stories, one inside another like a Russian nesting doll, each story cleaved through right down the middle. In fact, the rearrangement is not only possible but also preferable. In the book, each story is interrupted by a cliffhanger at the highest point of tension, which makes the resolution in the equal-length second half kind of a letdown. The film’s intercutting of the six plots not only better aligns their contours of tension, it also much better conveys the major themes of metempsychosis and the universal human experience; the controversial whitewashing (or yellowface) is but an unfortunate side effect of the necessary reuse of actors. This rearrangement is a purely cinematic option; imagine how difficult it’d be to follow what’s going on if the novel jumped around as frequently—which brings me back to the first paragraph: The ideal viewer for this film, rara avis, is someone who’s read the book.
Some changes have unavoidably been made to the story and its elements beyond the structure, most of which are minor. The biggest change is in the story of Sonmi-451. The film gives us a straight-up dystopian revolution, whereas the novel’s conspiracy-within-a-conspiracy plot is much more complex. Even here, the choices made by the film produce a more cinematic experience, for, just like the beautiful descriptions of the sea in Das Boot, the intricate world set out with pages and pages of exposition would have created a screenwriter’s dilemma: Either bore the audience to death with words—not cinema’s strong suit—or let the camera do as much world-building as it can, leaving a big fat hole where ideology and subjective interiority should be. The lackluster results of the latter choice can be seen in the adaptation of Intruder in the Dust (1949), a Faulkner novel.
Of course, one thing the book introduces but could never produce is the thing alluded to in the title: the “Cloud Atlas Sextet.” This is the undisputed triumph of the film, a fully realized piece of music that links the plot threads together, aligns with the film’s contour of tension, and embodies its major themes, all while giving us a killer OST. Cloud Atlas is a glorious reward for readers who’ve slogged through a brilliant but flawed novel, and the soundtrack is the cherry on top of the icing on the cake.
Editor’s note: This piece has been published in revised form at Critics at Large.