David Mitchell’s popular 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas, was – like Watchmen and Life of Pi – declared by many to be unfilmable. But the Wachowskis apparently don’t know the meaning of that word, and now the film of Cloud Atlas is gaining popularity from critics and audiences alike. And with that in mind, it’s worth taking a look at what made David Mitchell’s source material so popular.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Cloud Atlas, it follows the stories of six people over the course of hundreds of years and across thousands of miles. The first is Adam Ewing, an 18th-century lawyer travelling the Pacific and seeing first hand the “civilising effect” of white colonists. The second is Robert Frobisher, a cocky young composer writing letters to a friend from 1930s Belgium. Luisa Rey, the third, is a reporter in the 70s working to uncover a deadly conspiracy.
Timothy Cavendish, a cantankerous old vanity publisher, is the fourth hero, who we follow as he finds himself imprisoned, Ken Kesey-style – in a rest home overruled by an evil nurse. The fifth story follows Sonmi-451, a lowly worker in a dystopian future that is heavily implied to be North Korea; and the sixth – by far the most striking – protagonist is Zachry, a young goatherd living in post-apocalyptic Hawaii.
What makes Cloud Atlas work so well is the tangible link between all six stories – they genuinely have an air of one, over-arching narrative as opposed to six separate tales hastily slapped together. There are some fantastic interweaving themes here like love, the fear of death and the pursuit of power. There’s also a very subtle hint of reincarnation here – different characters across the novel share a unique birthmark, and what’s very clever is that there seems to be no set pattern: the bearer changes race and even sex without warning, and the links between stories are ingenious. There’s a real sense that everything is happening in a universe far bigger than the sum of its individual characters.
Part of that is down to Mitchell’s superb command of multiple writing styles. Each story is written in a unique fashion – Sonmi-451’s is an interview, Louisa Rey’s gives more than a few nods to 70’s journalism thrillers à la All the President’s Men, and Zachry’s post-apocalyptic yarn is told in a fascinatingly readable pidgin English. It’s a bold move, and one that could have easily gone ended in disaster, but Mitchell makes it work because everything is expertly held together.
It goes without saying that not everyone will like Cloud Atlas – many will dismiss it as being too pretentious or too grandiose, and the switching between writing styles will doubtless frustrate many readers. But it’s an ambitious, daring piece of writing that manages tell six distince narratives without losing focus of the bigger picture.
If nothing else, it’ll be interesting to see how the Wachowskis bring such a complex work to the big screen.