It’s hard to find two people who agree on what lies at the heart of “Cloud Atlas.” David Mitchell’s Booker Award-nominated novel is a beautiful literary puzzle that interlocks six stories over several centuries. In the film version, which just debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, written and directed by the Wachowski’s (“The Matrix”) and Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”), critics have been mixed, but no one can deny that the trio has crafted an ambitious, incredibly watchable nearly 3 hours of cinematic storytelling.
Kudos to the team, too, for writing a screenplay that condensed the novel’s over 500 pages into something screen-worthy. Some things were cut, some were added. Below are two lists: one of the three best casting decisions and another list of ten things that differed from the novel…and how each alteration fared on the big screen.
Be warned, spoilers abound. But surely once a “Cloud Atlas” fan watches the film, they’ll want to chat about the craft of this bombastic piece of cinema.
First, the top three casting choices, which sadly do not include Halle Berry or Tom Hanks, who hold their own in their respective roles, but who were more anchors than anything else:
Hugh Grant as Alberto Grimaldi: The Luisa Rey storyline needed a flashy skeezy villain to symbolize the corporate malfeasance at the heart of that story. The book held too many villains for the filmmakers to explore fully, so Grant, with blonde highlights and a sly smile holds a press conference and takes Rey on a journey of the nuclear plant with distrustful grace.
Ben Wishshaw as Robert Frobisher: It’s easy to like Frobisher as you read the letters to his friend and lover Rufus Sixsmith, but in the film, Wishshaw gives Frobisher an even more endearing air that is less proto-mad genius or mad genius protege than lovable opportunist.
Jim Broadbent as Timothy Cavendish: The broad eyes of character actor Jim Broadbent are a perfect fit for the most slapstick and absurd of the novel’s storylines.
Now, those pesky differences:
In the film, the writer of the Luisa Rey story is a young mystery novel nerd that shadows Luisa Rey during her real-life expose of the nuclear plot. When I read “Cloud Atlas,” I wasn’t completely sure the 1960’s world of Luisa Rey (and perhaps then the worlds of Adam Ewing and Robert Frobisher) was “real.” Making matters worse, we never meet the novelist, the “lady author, one dubiously named Hilary V. Hush” as Cavendish calls her (after seeing a photo of Hush, Cavendish adds “[I]t turns out the V is for Vincent! And what a lard-bucket! I’m no Chippendale myself, but Hilary has the girth to fill not two but three airline economy seats.”), as a character. In the film, the writer of the mystery novel and his ties to the story are made apparent..and I guess it’s fun, if a little cutesy.
In the film, the death-defying turns and backstabbers of Luisa Rey are all amalgamated into one villain, Alberto Grimaldi (Hugh Grant) and his many accomplices, who are not as developed and whose unique strategies are never made apparent. The scene where Luisa Rey gets driven off the bridge is not met with the same suspense when you don’t know (or remember) who’s doing the malicious driving.
In the film, when Vyvyan Ayers reveals to Frobisher the revelation that is the Cloud Atlas Sextet, his wife is not under Frobisher’s covers. In fact, that hilarious and suspenseful scene didn’t make it to the big screen. To the uninitiated, too, it is probably not made clear enough that the composer Vyvyan Ayers is suffering from syphillis (though there are references).
In the film, the story of Frobisher and Sixsmith is framed in a way to accentuate their homosexual love. Sure, it’s in the novel, but the Frobisher-Sixsmith story in the film is bookended by a tender shot of the two of them in bed together and a sentimental scene of Sixsmith coming on Frobisher after his tragic demise. The fun of the novel was reading into their feelings and filling in the gaps of their friendship and love.
In the film, the awkward bumbling Timothy Cavendish ends up with his first love (played by Susan Sarandon). In the book, he’s just as pathetic and unlovable when he breaks out of the home as before. The idea of a transformative escape is more fun, no?
In the film, the most fantastic and surprising scene of the entire book, the literary award party, is there but completely sped up. Letting the scene breathe for a few more seconds would give the opportunity for the scene to have the brevity and the dramatic suspense that the book so relishes in.
Contrary to what some might have taken from the extended trailer, Halle Berry and Tom Hanks aren’t lovers across time. Halle Berry and Tom Hanks have some of the most prominent roles in “Cloud Atlas,” but in some, like the Timothy Cavendish story, their roles are supporting and aren’t linked. And that’s for the better…the links across time, like the comet birthmarks, are more distractions than anything else.
In the film, Adam Ewing heads home to the arms of the lover he abandoned to go to sea. While the anticolonial messages are still there in the film, the film ties up all the stories with tidy knots of happy couples. The book is, of course, genius because each narrative is not ended in the service of liberalism and love stories, but in the service of messy verisimilitude.
But with all that, let me reiterate…it’s a total delight for fans of the novel, and there’s even pleasure to be gained from seeing the ways that the filmmakers flatten and simplify the storylines. This article also ignores the awesomeness that is the film’s treatment of the Somni-451 storyline but that’s because the changes in that storyline were so minor or inconsequential for what I thought was at the heart of that story.
Let’s geek out when “Cloud Atlas” heads to theaters October 26.
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