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Cloud Atlas (the movie/my opinion)

Cloud Atlas

To do any kind of a comprehensive review of Cloud Atlas, I would have to have seen it more than once, which I haven’t. At least not yet. Other people all over the internet have tried their hands at interpreting and explaining it, dissecting it into bite-sized pieces to tease out all the hidden and not-so-hidden layers of meaning. The reviews range from the positively rhapsodic to the totally dismissive. As for me, I enjoyed the movie well enough that if I don’t get another chance to see it on the big screen, I’ll probably get the DVD. The extras are sure to be worth it.

Much of the detail of the book was still fresh in my mind when I saw the movie, so I was a bit preoccupied with comparing one to the other—and comparing my mental pictures with the directors’ pictures. Someone seeing the movie without having read the book would be spared those distractions. But they would not be spared the distraction of trying to figure out who was who (actor-wise), since each of the major players had roles in several different stories/time periods, sometimes made up and costumed to a fare-thee-well. I understand the intention behind this choice of casting, but it did interfere with my suspension of disbelief. I think I would find a second viewing more satisfying because it would be easier to focus on the storylines.

And the storylines are very good. All six stories are compelling, even more so in the movie. Part of the reason may be that so much material from the book had to be cut in order to make this three-hour movie. Editing is a boon to any kind of writing. Raymond Carver didn’t begin to gain notoriety until editor Gordon Lish slashed a collection of his stories to the bone. It’s an imperfect analogy, though, since the filmmakers did create a couple of scenes to either dramatize an element or to outright change an outcome .

I also thought interspersing the stories—which wasn’t really an option in the linear narrative of the book—worked much better to illustrate the themes of interconnectedness, oppression, and reincarnation. There was an awful lot going on, but it wasn’t difficult to keep track of.

As spectacle, the movie is a winner. The sets, costumes, writing, acting, and directing are all first rate. As mini-morality plays, each individual story is a winner, too. But the stories don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts, which the book and movie are both trying to convince us they do. Is it necessary that they do? I don’t think so.

The Wachowskis have directed a couple of movies I really enjoyed, 1996’s Bound and 1999’s The Matrix. But I haven’t quite forgiven them for V for Vendetta, which I thought was absurdly heavy handed and completely lacking in subtlety. Of course, it was adapted from a graphic novel, which was probably the right format for it. Cloud Atlas redeemed them, in my opinion. I hope the movie gains a following because it deserves to be appreciated for what it is, not for what it could be, should be, or has delusions of being.

Cloud Atlas (the book/my rant)

Cover of "Cloud Atlas"

Cover of Cloud Atlas

The talk I’d been hearing about Cloud Atlas from the time of its publication in 2004 was that it was both brilliant and a difficult read. So although I purchased the book in January, I left it parked on my bedside table for several months. I wasn’t tempted to begin reading it until I learned the Wachowskis (formerly the Wachowski brothers) had made a movie of it. Both a story in The New Yorker about the making of the movie and a long trailer for it on YouTube heightened the intrigue. Thus I finally undertook to read the 509 page tome. Since I was under the assumption the book would be hard to get into, I was pleasantly surprised to find that wasn’t the case at all.

I should state up front that I tend to read at face value—especially the first time around—rather than with the intention of fitting all the pieces of a puzzle together. So if I’m reading a mystery and can figure out whodunit before the author reveals it, I consider the story to have been poorly plotted. In the case of Cloud Atlas, I noted the links between the characters living in different time periods and tolerated the abrupt passages from one section to another, even when they came mid-sentence. But I wasn’t trying to work out the meaning of it all.

This was my first introduction to David Mitchell, and I initially felt that he did an outstanding job writing in multiple genres and holding my interest with each new storyline. At least that was my impression when I posted my movie review of The Words, wherein I made a brief, favorable reference to Cloud Atlas. That was before I reached page 239, which begins the section titled “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”—an entire 70 pages written in dialect!

I’ve taken a number of writing classes and workshops and have read dozens of books on fiction writing. It’s pretty well ingrained in my brain that the guidelines for using dialect in a novel can be summed up thusly: don’t do it! The reason to avoid dialect is quite simple. Dialect makes it hard on your readers. It slows them down. It takes them out of the story.

As a writer, why would you want to do that? Don’t you want your readers to maintain their suspension of disbelief? Don’t you want them to be so engrossed they can’t put the book down, even if it is 509 pages long? If you’re David Mitchell writing Cloud Atlas, you’re already a little on the ropes with your readers with your Russian doll story architecture. So why would you also force them to slog through 70 unrelenting pages of dialect smack in the middle of the book?

Had I not been committed to seeing the movie to find out how the directors dealt with the multiple time periods, I would have given up on the book after the first 10 pages of “Sloosha’s Crossin.’” As it was, I kept thumbing through the section to find out how many more pages there were. I even skipped paragraphs and whole pages here and there, mumbling dark thoughts about the author’s self-indulgence. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it.

I finished the book, but my annoyance over those 70 pages turned me off to the point where I could no longer suspend disbelief enough to get back into the other stories. When I got to the end, I did not have any epiphanies—and probably wouldn’t have under the best of circumstances, given the conclusion—I just slapped the book closed, relieved that I had made it through.

My next thought was that I really need to reread One Hundred Years of Solitude.

By the time I went to see Cloud Atlas, the movie, it was with the same trepidation with which I’d begun reading the novel. However, that experience was much more satisfying. Tune in next time for my totally rant-free take on the movie.

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