Page to Screen: The Cinematic Arrangement of the Cloud Atlas Sextet

Poster for the 2012 Wachowski/Tykwer adaptation

With its unconventional structure, sprawling cast of characters, and a diverse mix of genres from historical drama to science fiction, David Mitchell’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel Cloud Atlas is one that even the author considered ‘unfilmable’. Prime adaptation material, then, for the Wachowskis – a writer-director duo perhaps defined more than anything else by the unerring ambition of their projects. Already taking on a cinematic adaptation of a novel as uncinematic as to be comprised of what is essentially a series of short stories, the duo, along with German writer-director Tom Tykwer, tasked themselves with expanding the novel’s heavy themes of reincarnation, time, and interconnectedness, and convincing their audience to go along with the multi-roling of the main cast, something generally considered unthinkable in the naturalistic tradition of Hollywood cinema. Taking on an epic spanning centuries and taking on the nature of relationships between people across time and space, Cloud Atlas is a story – or six stories – on a huge scale, with ideas to match. All three directors were clear that they were going to make a film that compromised on neither those big ideas or on the exciting drama and action that gives the story its blockbuster feel. Instead, the aim was to break down the barriers put up between films that are ‘entertainment’ and films that explore weightier concepts.

The process of filmmaking is one comprised of a multitude of factors which cumulatively decide whether the film is or is not considered successful. In an adaptation, perhaps the key factor in this is the depth of the understanding the filmmakers have of both the medium of the source material, and that of cinema itself. While a run-of-the-mill novel adaption will transfer the action of the story from prose to script, the ones that stand out display an ability to translate the themes and atmosphere of the novel into the language of cinema, using sound, movement, and cinematography to say, or expand upon, what the original author did with carefully chosen words. It is this ability to translate the essence of the novel that allows Tykwer and the Wachowskis to effectively weave a truly cinematic story out of material once deemed unfilmable – deemed as such, surely, by those with a lesser understanding of the medium. From the structure, to the scene transitions, to the casting, the film uses cinematic techniques to bring out the story’s themes much more than in the source novel, while simultaneously pulling the disparate stories into a more cohesive whole and increasing the narrative’s emotional weight.

Mitchell’s source novel follows six separate stories, each featuring a different protagonist, setting, time period, and genre. In addition, each is told in a different form, whether it be through a journal, a series of letters, an interview, etc. In a featurette found on the film’s home release, the author admits he wrote each separately, before cutting each in half and pasting them into the order that would create the novel’s unique structure, which sees the final story (that of Zachry in the far-flung post-apocalyptic future) sandwiched between two sections that feature the beginning and end halves, respectively, of the other five. The film dispenses with this structure entirely, instead cutting between the stories scene-by-scene, as is more conventional to multi-stranded screen narratives, taking the audience through each protagonist’s journey simultaneously. But using a more conventional structure for this medium does not compromise the film artistically; in fact, it enhances it, with the new structure becoming one of the key ways the filmmakers express the story’s theme of interconnectivity and ‘eternal recurrence.’

Explaining the new structure, Lana Wachowski states that ‘as soon as [we] broke down the character elements and the plot elements of every story [we] saw how similar they were and how often you could use a set up in one story and then the pay off in another story.’ The script allows the audience to follow the different stories at once, but at the same time moulds all six into a single narrative. Intricately crafted, it ensures each story hits similar narrative beats at the same time, reflecting Lilly Wachowski’s claim that the film is not six stories, ‘… it’s one story.’ Choosing to re-structure the story this way allows the film to retain the essence of the traditional three-act film structure, with each story building to a climax in the third act in the same way that would be expected of a more conventional film. This approach has both structural and thematic benefits: firstly, it helps the film feel much more like a cohesive whole than a collection of thematically related short films in the vein of the Coen Brothers’ similarly unconventional anthology movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – a film aimed at a much smaller audience than the blockbuster-baiting Cloud Atlas. While readers of the novel are likely to accept its unconventional structure due to the crossover between readers of novels and short stories (Mitchell himself has written both), short films (and indeed, anthology films like Scruggs) are less likely to be watched by the casual viewers a film on this scale attempts to attract. By shaping the six parallel stories into a familiar cinematic narrative structure, Cloud Atlas’ writers are able to tell an unconventional tale in a familiar packaging that allows them to break down the barriers between excitement and ‘ideas’. Ensuring the switches between stories happen at similar moments ensures there is no inconsistency to the pacing, and the time spent away from each character and their journey only serves to heighten the tension.

Cover for David Mitchell’s 2004 novel

Thematically, the way the film intercuts scenes from the six different stories allows the filmmakers to highlight the parallels between them, emphasizing the themes of connection and ‘eternal recurrence’ that were only hinted at in the book. The way each character takes similar actions, or undergoes similar trials, shows history endlessly repeating itself, but each time with small changes, showing both the diversity and sameness of humankind and human experience.

Film’s ability to follow separate narratives happening in parallel does much service to the themes of Cloud Atlas, but this structural change is not the only way in which Tykwer and the Wachowskis exploited the medium to expand the novel’s themes. The similarities between stories is further emphasised by the use of voice-over, when one character delivers a monologue over a montage of moments from different stories; the feelings they are expressing, the experiences they are going through, are shared with those individuals throughout time with whom they share much, despite never meeting. Similarly, scene transitions use dialogue to link the stories, such as Zachry telling Metronym “I’ll guide you through the devil’s door if that’s where you want to go” as the scene cuts to Cavendish driving through the gates of Aurora House, a place which would soon become his own personal hell. Alternatively, similar visuals are used to tie stories together in the same way, such as when the film cuts from Sonmi and Hae-Joo crossing a narrow bridge to Moriori seaman Autua deftly climbing across the rigging of the Prophetess.

But clever scene transitions are not the only place where the filmmakers employed mirroring images to pull the disparate stories together and enrich the film’s themes; everything from the locations to the set design to the costumes used repeated visuals to tie each story together, many too subtle to spot on first viewing. The 2012 Starlight Bar has the same layout as the futuristic Papa Songs diner; costumes from different stories feature similar textures; the tattoos of the Valley people are based on the design of Ayers’ dressing gown. Ayers’ Edinburgh mansion becomes Aurora House; this choice is particularly meaningful as both Ayers and Aurora inmate Timothy Cavendish are played by Jim Broadbent – as Tykwer says, the old musician’s home eventually “becomes the prison for the same soul.” Perhaps most importantly of all, the titular Cloud Atlas Sextet, written by Robert Frobisher and later discovered by reporter Luisa Rey, plays a much larger – if subtle – role than it did in the novel. It appears as the music played in Papa Song’s Diner, the ‘muzak’ played to residents of Aurora House, a more dramatic version scores the movie The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, watched by Sonmi and Yoona, and finally as the melody to the fabricant’s haunting Xultation song. While this detail is one that is easily missed, particularly when audiences are used to movie soundtracks using variations on a theme throughout, the use of the piece in this way both pulls the stories together aurally the way the mirroring images do visually, and threads the sextet through each story in a way that justifies its use as the film’s title much more than was the case for the novel.

Undoubtedly the main connecting factor between the stories, though, is the use of the same actors taking on different roles in each. Certainly one of the filmmakers’ most radical and divisive ideas, most easily criticised for the awkward prosthetics used to make white actors look Asian, the result is somewhat of a mixed bag, but on balance, the oddness of some of the characters’ appearances is outweighed by the thematic resonance of the decision to multi-role. By and large, actors get similar roles in each story: Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant play villains; an unscrupulous Tom Hanks first extorts Adam Ewing as Goose, then Robert Frobisher (who has taken the alias of Ewing) as the manager of a hotel where he is staying. This makes more explicit the themes of reincarnation, of the same souls living their lives over and over again throughout time. Perhaps most interestingly, the relationships between different cast members’ characters is also retained in numerous cases: Hanks and Halle Berry bond as both Zachry/Metronym and Luisa/Sachs; Ben Whishaw’s Frobisher imagines an affair with Jim Broadbent’s Vyvyan Ayrs which is later consummated by another pair of the actors’ roles, Timothy Cavendish and his brother’s wife Georgette. As Mitchell says, ‘it’s not just people [that are reincarnated], it’s the relationships between them and the nature of those.’

Curiously, a Blu-ray featurette sees co-writer-director Tom Tykwer say that the filmmakers ‘distanced [themselves] a bit from the idea that these are actually reborn characters,’ a strange claim as the casting choices seem to show the opposite – that the film makes the reincarnation themes significantly more overt than they were in the source novel. There, reincarnation is tied to the appearance of the comet-shaped birthmark that appears on characters in each story. The characters linked by the birthmark, implied by the novel to mark the same soul throughout time, are not ones played by the same actor in the film, meaning its appearance in the adaption – where reincarnation of the soul is visually represented through casting – seem superfluous at best, and at worst threatens to confuse the film’s choices as to which characters share the same souls. Tykwer’s claim that the film doesn’t portray reincarnation in a literal sense is seemingly contradicted by fellow writer-director Lana Wachowski, who sees the film as following the development of individual souls as they pass through different lives: ‘by having actors play multiple parts, you actually get to see what happens when Adam Ewing, played by Jim Sturgess, goes off and becomes this abolitionist crusader [in Sonmi’s story].’ While this macrocosmic character development may not be the most obvious, viewing the film in this way does allow further meaning to be read into the story’s messages about reincarnation, time, and change. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the change in Tom Hank’s characters from the villainous Henry Goose to heroic Zachry – can people truly change? Is redemption possible? What is the nature of guilt? Viewing these two characters as different iterations of the same essential essence further expands the film’s themes of repetition vs change, and how the two can (and do) co-exist. While Zachry himself struggles with his own guilt, the filmmakers suggest he is also experiencing guilt from the sins of his past selves, making his struggle towards courage and goodness all the more difficult – and his eventual triumph all the more cathartic. However, this interpretation only makes sense if one picks and chooses the correct characters: Hanks’ characters do not all follow a progression from evil towards good – his Isaac Sachs is a good man in the seventies, before he is transformed into murderer Dermot Hoggins in the 2012 storyline. Most of the cast do not have a discernible ‘development’ throughout their different roles, and it is hard to see where bit-parts and cameos like Berry’s ‘Native Woman’ and Broadbent’s ‘Prescient 2’ would fit in to such an interpretation.

But perhaps this particular artistic choice was never meant to be taken so literally. After all, Cloud Atlas is a film unashamed in its heartfelt ode to human connection and love, and as its sentimental ending shows, its representation of reincarnation is not one to be taken scientifically or spiritually, but emotionally. “If I care to imagine heaven,” Sonmi says to the archivist moments before her execution, “I would imagine a door opening, and behind it, I will find him there, waiting for me.” As she speaks, somewhere across time and space a door opens, and she embraces her lover Hae-Joo as Adam and Tilda Ewing, reunited after a long sea voyage.

Daring, experimental, and as ambitious as they come, Cloud Atlas failed to attain the cultural endurance of the Wachowskis’ 1999 sci-fi classic The Matrix nor the critical acclaim showered on the novel, which recently took the number nine spot on The Guardian’s list of the 100 best books of the 21st century. Nonetheless, the intricacy of the film’s multiple layers and the masterful ways in which this complexity is utilised to communicate themes that are clear, unified, and emotionally resonant is a feat that is rarely achieved to such a degree. While some choices, notably the multi-roling of actors, proved divisive, Cloud Atlas demonstrates a deep understanding of the medium of cinema on the part of its creators – something which future adaptations should perhaps value more highly.