I think I stumbled across the (perhaps totally unoriginal) idea for this type of post when I was writing about one of the Bond books and the film, and also more recently when I reviewed the various iterations of Carrie.
Positioning the idea as a book versus a film is sometimes going to be like the biblical David versus Goliath story – the underdog (movie) may come out on top. Certainly screenwriters and adaptors of novels need to know how to streamline stories, to get to their essence, and deliver the goods more succinctly than perhaps novelists do, but the medium is much maligned in comparison to its older paper (or Kindle) based ancestor. While the phrases ‘the book’s better’ and ‘read the book first then watch the film’ are turning into clichés it’s not always the case and with this series of posts I aim to explore the various nuances of the battle and have a good moan at the same time.
So anyway, I think I’ll be doing a few of these and for the (almost) inaugural post I have stupidly chosen one of the most complex books I have read / movies I have seen – by David Mitchell (famous for not being the UK comedian and writing Cloud Atlas) / the Wachowksi siblings (famous for once being brothers and doing The Matrix trilogy and more recently Sense8 on Netflix).
For me I began reading the book knowing very little about it apart from it might involve some kind of linkage of characters over time (I’d seen the movie trailer). For a while I just saw the way it was laid out as a bit of a gimmick and a way of tying together six short stories that Mitchell had written, however as I progressed I realised that the story was more than the sum of its parts.
The parts are as follows – The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing – the oldest time period where Ewing thinks he’s suffering from a brain parasite and is travelling home on a sailboat and discovers a stowaway. The story breaks off abruptly in mid-sentence to which I recall remarking to Siggy ‘oh… it’s one of those clever books!’
The second part is – Letters from Zedelghem – a bit of a young cad, Robert Frobisher, travels to Belgium to befriend a geriatric composer whom he thinks he can help produce new music and earn some much-needed cash after he is ostracised by his father. The story is in the form of letters to his friend Sixsmith back in Blighty. Frobisher finds a damaged copy of Ewing’s published journal and questions its authenticity – especially the choice of language. This little comment made me laugh.
The third part is – Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery – sees Sixsmith as a scientist in the 1970s having written a damning report about a US nuclear reactor and Rey being the investigative journalist wanting to break his story. Sixsmith carries with him the letters from his friend Frobisher. The story temporarily ends with an ‘accident’ on a bridge.
The fourth part is – The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish – an aged literary agent is on the run from a gangster’s family to whom he owes money from the runaway success of a book entitled ‘Knuckle Sandwich’. He ends up travelling to what he thinks is a hotel but turns out to be an old people’s home where he becomes trapped. He also has one half of a screenplay of Rey’s story to read.
The fifth part is – An Orison of Sonmi-451 – an out-and-out sci-fi tale of a dystopian future inhabited by clones and true-bloods. The clones are basically the slave class. One clone Somni-451 discovers that she is a bit different from the others and is befriended and rescued by revolutionaries. She watches the movie version of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.
The sixth part is – Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After – based even further into the future is a back-to-basics tale after the revolution and what looks like a nuclear or biological holocaust. The language used is an interesting form of Pidgeon English and reads a little like ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Somni is the island people’s diety. This tale is told in its entirety and then we return to the second parts of the other tales in reverse chronological order. Clever eh? Each character has a distinct voice and motivations that keep you turning the pages.
The Orison of Sonmi-451 finishes off the future story with a shock revelation. It’s a bit unoriginal and much along the lines of Soylent Green. It opens the clone’s eyes and spurs her on to want to help the revolution. Then we return to the humorous tale of Timothy Cavendish who despite the obstacles in his way manages to escape from the old people’s home – with a little help from his friends. Luisa Rey survives her ‘accident’ and again with some help from her dead father’s friend comes out on top. The young composer in Zedelghem doesn’t have such a happy ending but he does manage to compose the Cloud Atlas Sonatas – the best work he’s ever done. And finally we get back to The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (Part 2) where Ewing’s illness and the fate of his stowaway are resolved.
Mitchell weaves all the players together through time via the concept of souls being clouds floating through time. He manages to plant the others stories into their future versions tales very well and even physically tags them with the same comet shaped birthmark. This latter part is somewhat down-played in the novel, but used as an explicit hook in the movie adaptation.
All the six stories have been tweaked but the most obvious big changes are to the Letters from Zedelghem and Sonmi-451. Letters from Zedelghem might as well be called Letters from Edinburgh because that’s the location in the film. Perhaps they couldn’t get permission to film in Bruges?
In Robert Frobisher’s story the aged composer dreams of Sonmi-451’s underground restaurant and so the music also flows through time and space. This is a good example of where the film is more obvious about the interconnectedness of all things. That said some big cuts are made to make room to have time for more of this holistic intertwining. For instance, while Frobisher gets his leg over the composer’s wife Jocasta, surprisingly played by Halle Berry, he never has a chance to fall in love with her daughter as she’s not in the film and neither is the family she visits in Bruges, her lover, or the helpful policeman.
The death of Somni’s co-worker in the restaurant is streamlined and the idea of explosive collars introduced. It’s a tried and tested sci-fi mainstay and actually fits quite well into the story. The abattoir sequence is perhaps more shocking on the screen than it is on the page. Somni’s story is altered to allow some great sci-fi special effects and chase sequences and I don’t recall Somni making her revelatory broadcast while a gun battle ensues. Also her broadcast goes out to all across Earth and interestingly the ‘off world colonies’ – not sure if that was in the novel.
It is these off-world colonies that Meronym wants to contact by climbing to the observatories in the Sloosha’s Crossing story. In this tale the Kona (bad guys) aren’t so much slavers as rampaging barbarians – a shame this element is lost as it related back to Ewing’s and Somni’s tale. Zachry’s village is attacked as they’re coming back from the observatory (rather than during a trip to a neighbouring village for trading) and the idea that the village trades with Meronym’s more advanced people is also lost. Hugo Weaving plays the whispering Old George who looks like a Mighty Boosh character which somehow doesn’t quite work. I was thinking he’d be more of a ghostly hazy figure.
Luisa Rey’s story is also cut down to size. In an interesting change to say that the oil company wants to let the nuclear plant to fail and kill thousands rather than wanting to simply reveal its flaws, there’s no bank vault and therefore no explosives hidden in the vault and Hugo Weaving’s assassin character comes to a quicker end. There’s still time however for Rey to go to a record store, with clerk played by Ben Wishaw, and listen to the Sonata. The trip to the wharf where the boat from Ewing’s tale is exhibited is also cut.
Comedy is expertly provided by Jim Broadbent as Timothy Cavendish. The role of his brother, played by Hugh Grant under some unconvincing ‘old man’ makeup, has in how he ends up trapped in the nursing home is somewhat extrapolated.
The idea of souls through time is represented by the various actors taking on multiple roles in each story. It’s great that they chose to do this (following the Shakespearian tradition) and adds another layer to the complex story, but some of the makeup is a little comical. For instance Doona Bae as Ewing’s wife Tilda is jarring on the eye, and Ben Wishaw makes a better Georgette than Hugo Weaving does a Nurse Noakes. The vignettes on the closing credits are a bit of revelation if you haven’t spent the whole film trying to spot who’s playing who.
The ending of the film seems to emphasize the anti-slavery message more than the novel and also adds a bit more to the Sloosha’s Crossing story – Zachry finishes recounting his tale to his grandchildren and asks ‘which is Earth?’.
And the winner is…
The book. You have to applaud the movie makers for condensing the 529 page story down enough to get it into a film, but in doing so they’ve edited and chopped the narrative into such bite size offerings that you are never able to fully immerse yourself in any of the six character’s stories and really care about what happens to them. It jumps around like a cat in an electrified cage and no-one really wants to see that kind of thing happening.
By telling the stories in halves and leaving you hanging for most of the book Mitchell has pulled a blinder and being shortlisted for the Man Booker prize is no mean feat and let’s not forget that the book did win Richard and Judy’s best Read of the Year – a lofty accomplishment indeed! I wonder if the film might have fared better with critics if they had also taken Mitchell’s approach – play the stories out in bigger chunks and let the audience decide how they’re connected instead of quickly spoon-feeding bits with obvious interconnectedness.