After reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas I would have said it was the perfect example of a book that couldn’t be filmed. Now, to prove me wrong, there’s a Cloud Atlas film by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer.
It’s really good. [SPOILERS AHEAD]
I mean, yes, when adapting a story that has 6 storylines and a unique structure (the book starts with a story from the 1850, tells half of each story which extends into a post-apocalyptic future and then goes back through time to finish each story) into film, it’s going to be changed. And the Wachowski’s are not making a subtle film here, so the changes are not going to err on the side of subtlety. The biggest change was intercutting all the stories together, so you bounce from Neo-Seoul to 1970s San Francisco to a Pacific voyage back to the 1930s composer all at once. And it worked. Each of the stories did have its own tone to it, but the reuse of actors in all these different roles made it feel like one movie.
Obviously, everything was less detailed than in the book. The conflicts within characters, obviously couldn’t come to the fore as much. If you love the book, this might bother you. I felt that most in the 1970s nuclear plant story and the 1930s composing story. If I hadn’t read the book I think I’d have been wondering where the depth to those storylines was. The movie had to pick one viewpoint character for the nuclear story, and chose wisely in sticking with Luisa Rey, but a lot of the intrigue in the book version of that story for me had been in the indecision about things. Similarly with the composing story we don’t have the sense of interiority that the book gave us.
But the simplicity of film worked so well in the two futuristic storylines. The story of the post-apocalyptic Valley people was done in excellent dialect and the interior parts of Zachry’s fear of the devil could be shown dramatically with the devil all around him. Visually, Neo-Seoul was great: the streets made of light for flying cars were awesome, and this was also where the best fight scenes were. I did kind of hate the facial prosthetics the white actors were wearing to look Korean. I had to think of them as something a bit more alien than Korean people to keep my cognitive dissonance down.
There were also a few very “movie” moments that I could have done without. Ending the film was obviously going to be difficult because of how it abandoned the novel’s structure. The Adam Ewing ending of “And now I am off to join the Abolitionists!” was such a Hollywood happy ending I had to check my copy of the book to see if that was wholly made up (it was not, but is expressed as a hope in a journal, not a dramatic fireside confrontation). The other big ending change was turning far-future Zachry into the person telling the whole story on some far planet. Which, again, was not subtle. And the 1970s “Don’t call me a wetback” line seemed gratuitous, though I guess it fit the kind of movie that era would produce.
But those quibbles are just that. I love stories that are cut up and told like this. Where you’re looking at the commonalities between stories and drawing connections in the process of watching. After the film was over last night one of the people in the theatre said “I have no idea what that was about but I think I liked it.” Nobody said anything similar when I was done watching Skyfall last week. Cloud Atlas demands something from the viewer that a lot of movies don’t, and I want more movies like it.
David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is about the Dutch in Nagasaki at the end of the 18th century. Jacob is a clerk who’s there to make his fortune so he can go back home to marry. Things don’t work out as he’d hoped and he has to become much better at politics than he was on arrival.
Mitchell splits up the narrative between a few different viewpoint characters in the book, which gives us not just the colonial perspective on what’s going on. The most troublesome part of the book for me was the nefarious practices going on in the mountain abbey. While the rest of the book felt like a more-restrained part of The Baroque Cycle, the abbey rumours were exceedingly pulpy and over the top. It made for a weird tone, since I wasn’t sure if the overly lurid doings were supposed to be taken seriously or if they were being overdone as a statement about exoticization/orientalism or if they were just weird.
I have been neglecting my reviewing duties. But don’t worry, I’ve still been reading. I haven’t given up on the printed word (and image). Just been slow in typing about them. So here is a list of the books I read before coming to Australia.
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is probably the book I’d heard his name connected to first, years ago. I remember shelving it as a page and remembering people saying it was one of those literary novels that was also science fiction but got to be in the literary fiction ghetto because of his previous work. And I remembered something about a note having to go into editions of the book saying “part one is supposed to end in the middle of a sentence. Don’t worry guys.” And that’s what I knew going in.
I picked up David Mitchell’s number9dream from the library last week, solely because we didn’t have The Cloud Atlas in. “Japan?” I said upon picking this one up, “Sure I’ll give it a shot.”
The thing I’ve been telling everyone about it is how British it feels, despite being about a young Japanese man from the countryside going to Tokyo to find the father he never met. It’s mostly just the turns of phrase Eiji (the main character and narrator) uses to describe things. The occasional word from the English countryside is a little jarring. At first I thought this was going to annoy me to no end, but as it went on it became kind of a translation artifact. It almost made it feel more Japanese because of the obviousness of the filter. I wonder how it is when translated into Japanese?
The thing that really made the book for me was the shifting styles in each part. There’s the story of Eiji Miyake trying to find his father, but each section has different sort of dreams. Panopticon is filled with wish-fulfillment action movie daydreams (and are perfect for making the book grab you and knock you a little off-kilter). Lost Property is all flashbacks and remembering. Video Games is mediated escape from reality. Et cetera. So structurally/stylistically: great.
The story itself works, though the quest itself isn’t the main thing. At least not for me. There are unrealistic things that happen. There are Yakuza; I won’t deny that. There is a bit of a sense of the writer stringing the protagonist along in service of the structure of the book. But whatever. I was happy to take the ride. It took me through some of the same headspace that a Haruki Murakami novel does (there is a discarded Murakami novel as a tiny bit of set-dressing in one of the chapters and I am sure Mitchell was conscious of the comparison) which is a place I like to be.
I don’t know if it’s a really good book or not. Maybe it’s culturally imperialistic or ethnocentric or one of those other very bad things of me to think that some young white guy can write a good novel about Japan. Maybe I only like it because it’s the kind of Murakami pastiche my China book might turn into. I know I liked it though.