Q: Which is better – the book or the film?


A: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas novel (2004) is far more compelling than its film adaptation. The latter wanted too much while giving too little.

In reviews of Cloud Atlas (dir. The Wachowski Sisters & Tom Tykwer, 2012), critics fussed over how to unpack a film that was so densely ambitious. I was similarly agitated by Atlas when I streamed it — shelving it until I could revisit it. I’ve since matured as a viewer (more skilled at engaging media I don’t love), and I’ve wondered if the film aged as well as my faculties have; especially in light of heightened interest in nonlinear storytelling (see: Charlie Kaufman and Terence Nance’s recent works).

My impatience with Atlas stemmed from the problem of three directors tugging a film whose largesse required a steady hand. Their collective influence made the film feel more haphazard than philosophical, even when they tried to patch their stylistic discords with cloying voiceover narration. Their heavy-handed maneuvers were both earnest and condescending — revealing the filmmakers’ fears that viewers might not ‘get’ the story’s subtle messaging. Yet, to make a moving film, at the very least you must believe in your audience’s intelligence.

Though it wasn’t free of pretensions, David Mitchell’s antecedent Cloud Atlas novel (2004) was tender in its language. I wish its film adaptation had prioritized this exactness, the sensation of being close enough to a story to feel its breath on your skin. Instead, the Atlas film had great scope and shallow depth. Like an elder with thinning memory, the film had only fleeting grasps of the novel’s wonder; it was storied, but it wasn’t on steady ground.

In revisiting Atlas, I’ve questioned if I was hypocritical for rejecting a film that ‘tells’ more than it ‘shows.’ Facing the mirror of my stated beliefs, I asked: Can ‘quality’ art not speak to its audience directly? I answered: Of course it can (and I have enjoyed films that make their theses clear), but a story has to call for that blunt approach in order to withstand it. Based on my reading of the novel, Cloud Atlas is a story that calls for ephemera, not gridlock  — it was made for the prod of a feather, not the blow of a hammer.

Atlas has lasting flaws, but I have more appreciation for its intentions in 2020 than I did years ago. Its pathos of human connection exceeding physical appearance is attractive, and surely grew from a personal place for The Wachowski Sisters, whose lives have been altered by traversions of gender. But my critiques remain.

A host of the film’s choices were so puzzling that I wasn’t sure if they were rash or overwrought. I’ve puzzled over these questions:

Did the Atlas cast need so many prosthetics, or was that an easy exit from the more consuming work of (convincingly) portraying personae reincarnate?

And — are we to believe Atlas’s audience was/is incapable of recognizing kindred spirits through shades of personality: particularities of their actions, voices or movements? Were we only trusted to track celebrity faces through obvious layers of glue and silicone?

The filmmakers’ suggestion that viewers wouldn’t recognize reborn characters unless they were played by recycled actors undermines Atlas’s endearing premise: that true connections transcend bodily form. So, my ultimate point of curiosity for Atlas is if the film lacked faith in its audience, itself, or both.

To reach beyond my frustration with Atlas’s choices, I tried perceiving it as a choose-your-own adventure film with a cumulative destination. I reasoned that I didn’t need to ride with all of its storylines — I could salvage what worked for me. The Big Isle storyline resonated in its depiction of a future white clan, overcoming its prejudices by surrendering to its own indigeneity — though the islanders’ awkward patois could be hard to overlook. (Language coaching may not have worked its magic.) I was also charmed by the Frobisher storyline, which reminded me of Maurice (dir. James Ivory, 1987), and the Neo Seoul storyline, whose stunning dystopia resembled an encore of the Wachowskis’ Matrixuniverse.

I hope future filmmakers aren’t too intimidated by Atlas’s shiny production value to remake it one day, and right its wrongs. Besides its aesthetic faux pas, we deserve better than the film’s uninspired conclusion that interracial love is enough to forge utopia (without considering why extant interracial romances haven’t been enough to heal collective suffering).

Supplemental Readings:

‘Cloud Atlas’: You’re Better Off Reading The Book’ by David Edelstein (Review)

Cloud Atlas’ by Peter Travers (Review)

Souls Tangled Up in Time’ by A.O. Scott (Review)

Castles in the sky’ by Roger Ebert (Review)

Cloud Atlas Busted for Casting Non-Asians in Multiple Asian Roles’ by Dany Roth