In the fraught relationship between film and literature, few events are rarer than a film adaptation that qualitatively surpasses its source material. Now, note the use of “literature” in the preceding sentence, as the bond between film and books is obviously and profoundly symbiotic. From The Godfather to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, from Forrest Gump to The Shining, scores of readily citable adaptations have leveraged their source material into a superior artistic product. But those films were very much adapted from books, the offhandedly purchased tombs meant to appease the eyes from preflight through unfasten your seat belts. To adapt a film from an actual piece of literature is an exponentially more difficult task. As in, to adapt the film at all, to impose it on celluloid in any capacity, is much more difficult. And to produce a film of higher quality than its literary source? That’s along the lines of untying Eagle Scout knots with zero-thumbed hands. It is an extraordinarily improbable task, but it is not an impossible one. Most recently, the contemporaneous No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood did exactly this. Both were film adaptations that aesthetically, intellectually, creatively outshone the novels on which they were based. This week, Cloud Atlas accomplished this very same feat, and the relationship between film and literature became a smidgen less fraught.
It makes sense to begin with David Mitchell, the British novelist who penned Cloud Atlas and augured the film’s superiority to the text in a bottomless New Yorker profile. Published in 2004, Mitchell’s novel integrates six distinct story lines, with six distinct formal structures and stylistic voices respectively presiding over each. The chronology of the narrative spans a half millenium, then doubles back upon itself, i.e. the book begins in the 19th century, proceeds in six incremental steps to the 25th century, and backwards it six incremental steps to end in the 19th century. Needless to say, Cloud Atlas, to an even greater degree than most novels, doesn’t lend itself well to adaptation. The Wachowski “Brothers” and Tom Twyker reasoned otherwise. Cloud Atlas the film is partly about that refusal to accept the limitations of your era, and Cloud Atlas the film is completely about the defiance against and transcendence of the limitations of your era. It’s also about everything, too.
To provide an adequate summation of Cloud Atlas: a sickly abolitionist lawyer pens a diary while sailing to San Francisco in the late 19th Century, that diary is read by a bisexual amanuensis in pre-WWII Europe who recounts the diary passages to his lover, forty years later his lover is involved with a female journalist in a life-threatening political conspiracy, forty years after that the journalist’s neighbor adapts her story into a series of mystery novels which are read by a curmudgeonly British publisher, one hundred years after that the British publisher’s life has been adapted into a movie that is watched by a revolutionary artificial intelligence in Korea, and one hundred fifty years after that, in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, a goat herder worships the revolutionary artificial intelligence as a god, and on back it goes. If any portions of that summation sound silly, preposterous, or unnecessarily convoluted, it’s most likely because Cloud Atlas is sometimes silly, preposterous, and unnecessarily convoluted*. At the same time, life is sometimes-if not often times-silly, preposterous, and unnecessarily convoluted. Like life, it is the confluence of senseless frivolity and dire sincerity that separates Cloud Atlas from its blockbuster peers as well as its independent peers. The film is both both genres and neither genre, both costume farce and philosophical treatise, both movie and film, singularly itself.
Few would venture to propose a holistic interpretation of what Cloud Atlas is about, and in their reluctance they would be just. More courageous interpreters would evoke Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence, or posit the film as a theological meditation on the transmigration of souls. Still others would read into the peripheral notions of the inescapability of the present, the corruptive nature of consumerist culture, the persistence of evil, the destruction of the good. None of these assertions would be wrong, but neither would they be perfectly right. The film is as open to multiple interpretations as it is closed to a single one. Yet, in this reviewer’s oh so very humble opinion, Cloud Atlas is about one aspect of life above all others: the ultimate and incalculable power of individual choice.
Every day human beings are faced with thousands of choices: what cereal to buy, what shirt to wear, who to love, who to hate, marry, vote for. And every day human beings delude themselves into believing that their choices do not, in the grand scheme, matter. What difference will one vote make amongst millions? Who should I spend my time with? Does this shirt accentuate my nipples? Why are Frosted Flakes so delicious? We uphold that these choices are meaningless because, in a way, they are. But choice, like Cloud Atlas, is not just one thing. Choice is everything. It is who you are, were, will be, and it is the everlasting effect of you that will persist through time and it is the ephemeral embodiment of you that will be instantly forgotten. To conceive that choice is meaningless is to forfeit your agency, to empower others to make choices for you, and those in power are more than willing to oblige. This is how evil persists through the ages, how the undeserving rise to power, how great men are censured and lesser men sanctified. It is the insidious force that tells you you are only the measure of how much money you have, how liked you are, how willing you are to conform to the conventions of your age. This is it, the great lie behind everything. The lie is what renders you passive to the horrors of your age, what tells you aren’t capable of addressing these horrors, you aren’t even capable of making the choice to try. You are transformed from active participant into innocent bystander in the story of your life, and by the time you realize it, you’re too late. Cloud Atlas is the argument for active participation in life, the incontrovertible argument for the primacy of choice, and how the ultimate exercise of this choice is transgression. So transgress. When you are fed a lie, call the feeder a liar. When society seeks to deindividuate you, become more wholly yourself. Choose to see the three hour long independent blockbuster alone, and when people ask if the book truly was unfilmable, say, “No. The transgressors were right. The movie is far superior to the book.”
Society lives to tell you what you cannot do, and you must die to show it what you can. You are one drop in an endless ocean, but to change one drop is to change the ocean entire.
Strawberry Verdict: 5 out of 5 Strawberries
*Cloud Atlas does contain an inconceivably stupid framing device that nearly derailed the entire moviegoing experience for me, nearly.