Vague ramblings

Cloud Atlas: book, film and the art of zooming

Posted in Ace Writers, Fiction by Ian Cundell on 23 January, 2014

In 1977 Charles and Ray Eames created a short film called The Power of Ten, surely the most viewed short film in history. We start with a couple picnicking in a park, zoom out to the very edges of the universe and then back to the building blocks of matter. It was shown at schools all over the world and as a staple BBC test transmission in the days before all-day TV. Watch it – it is all kinds of wonderful.

I would be moderately surprised if, somewhere in the back of his mind, David Mitchell was not influenced by this icon of the short film art when crafting Cloud Atlas(1). Here be spoilers. He starts with a very personal murder mystery amid the islanders of the south Pacific, with slave-keeping Maoris as a baleful off-centre presence, zooms to a distant future and then back again to the denouement of that highly personal story. Along the way are stories of varying resolutions (in the sense of pixel density, not conclusion) as Mitchell weaves his theme.

It is very well handled and Mitchell switches between styles with ease – only the post-Apocalypse sequence gets a little tiring with its slightly mannered “native” dialect. It is hard not to root for Omni-451, for Luisa Rey or for loving, but doomed, Rufus Sixsmith. Even selfish and petulant Timothy Cavendish ends up being likeable.

But here is the clever bit: we begin and end in Ewing’s story amid slavers in the Pacific and, right bang slap in the middle of the book is the resolution – this time in the sense of conclusion – far in the future with Zachary’s grandchildren harassed by slavers in the Pacific. There is nothing remotely gloomy or dystopian about the way to story is told, with much lightness and humour from the most imperilled characters, and yet its conclusion is a long way from optimistic.

That is very clever, in my view.

And then there is the movie. It should go without saying (and therefore needs spelling out) that book and film are very different media and anyone expecting a direct translation (transliteration?) is bound to be disappointed. It is absolutely fair enough that the very formal sextet structure of the book is honoured more in breach than observance in the film, even if it makes the opening feel a tad rushed.

And yet, and yet…

Let’s get the superficial stuff out of the way first: the excessive literalism with which the films handles the generational continuity isn’t really supported by the book and, as a consequence, the prosthetics are very distracting (although mightily impressive from a technical standpoint). It invited the viewer to get sucked into “spot-the-actor” as well as pushing aside the supernatural flourishes of the book.

Also, to me, the moving of Robert Frobisher’s story from Belgium to Edinburgh seemed arbitrary and lacking in imagination. More importantly, his story loses it subtlety: in the book his decision to commit suicide is almost Buddhist in its fatalism, and this is completely lost, with an unseemly melodramatic flourish. And that’s before we get to the ludicrous Hollywood shoot-out in Nea So Copros Neo-Seoul and the slapped-on climate change warning.

But there is a bigger issue: the film ends far, far away with Earth in a distant sky as “outworlders” come to the rescue – an invention entirely of the film, not even hinted at in the book (quite the opposite: The Prescients are as doomed and everyone else). I can’t help suspecting the dead hand of a Hollywood producer demanding a happy ending, irrespective of how this undercuts the nuance and intelligence of the book. It was clumsy and grafted on.

The Power of Ten travelled the Universe, macro and micro, and left what it saw unchanged, the couple still picnicking in the park. The novel Cloud Atlas travelled the Earth, across ages and the more things changed the more they remained the same. Fans of science fiction tend to get snotty about non-genre novelists trampling in their turf, but I think Mitchell succeeds because he grasps the axiom, usually attributed to Ray Bradbury, that:  “Science Fiction doesn’t try to predict the future, but to prevent it.” Indeed, this is practically spelled out in Ewing’s last diary entry.

The film comprehensively loses this deftness of touch, declaring that it will all be alright in the end, as the good guys ride in to whisk us off to a new home. For a visual medium to not grasp the reason for zooming is disappointing.

The thing is, I absolutely refuse to accept that film is an inferior medium. When a movie soars, it soars to as a great a height as any other art form. But it does so best when it is not afraid to follow the logic of the story. The film of Cloud Atlas let fear prevail.

—— (1) If these notes seem a little tardy, it is because I have an over-sensitive hype alarm, and often find myself resisting pressure to buy books “I must read” or “I will love”. I was prompted to do so now because Jenny Barden threw down the challenge or, as I prefer to think of it, set me some homework.


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