Cloud Atlas: What to Expect

Cloud Atlas poster
Category: Reading
Tagged: film, adaptations

When someone decides to adapt one of your favourite books into a movie, it’s tough. You know you want to see the movie, but you don’t want to get your hopes up too high. You have to manage expectations. There’s nothing worse than getting all excited, only to find the director has gone in a totally different direction with the story, miscast every major character and ruined all the accents.

Bearing this in mind, to say that I was nervous about the triple-directored, ensemble-casted, three-hour-epic adaptation of Cloud Atlas released this weekend would be a huge understatement.

I love David Mitchell and I didn’t want to see his wonderful, delicate and structurally complex novel turned into a hot mess. I know there must be some of you out there equally worried, so I thought I’d break down some of the major changes to expect, so you can go in with a clear idea of what you will and won’t see. Spoiler alert: Hugh Grant with a mohawk is something you will see.

Cloud Atlas is six stories, spanning millennia, that bounce off and reflect back upon each other, showing us the repetition and connectedness of our experiences over time. Some stories are explicitly connected by a linking character, others by a single thread so fine you’d hardly notice it, but they are all connected in some way. Each story has a distinct genre and voice, and is totally different from the others, Simple, right?

How did they tell it?

Cloud Atlas - the book - is a difficult text – six interlocking stories that open into each other and cut off mid-text to let the next story begin. It’s not what a reader would expect and it does not translate well to the high-paced action we expect from a cinema feature.

For the screen, the narrative is tweaked so each story is told alongside the others, jumping back and forth between them at points that emphasise their connectedness. By choosing which story to tell and when, the directors keep us hanging just enough on each moment of suspense to make it resonate with the novel’s style.

What you’ll notice first is...

The makeup, for definite. Every central actor gets a makeover in order to cameo in the other storylines, but the insistence with which this is done makes for jarring stuff. Add to this a couple of bad accents and you can’t help but be jolted out of the story to pick apart the production and the performance when you should be focusing on what’s actually happening.

Over the course of the film, keep an eye out for a ginger Tom Hanks with Martin Short’s teeth, a busty Hugo Weaving as battleaxe Nurse Noakes, post-apocalyptic Hugh Grant and the cauliflower-eared Irish gangster, Dermot Hoggins, with an accent butchered by Tom Hanks.

As a concept, I like it, but if they had just held back a little bit, it could have been elegant where instead it was clumsy.


One of my biggest worries was how Cloud Atlas’ many genres would play out next to each other on the big screen. Each story has its own voice and style, and that could have been too much for the movie version. They decided to treat each one separately and luckily, once each section settles into its storyline, this didn’t prove to be much of a problem, because the story did the work of keeping you interested.

Cloud Atlas: A Love Story?

From watching the trailer, I was quite surprised about how the film was being sold as a love story. A story about connectedness, sure; a film about the universality of human experience, definitely, but I didn’t really remember it being about love.

The changes the directors made here are enjoyable; I liked it, but this is where the movie diverges most from the book. The movie is all about love - four protagonists, four pairings - where soulmates are given the chance to meet again in different lives, different ways. Even the ghastly Timothy Cavendish gets a redeeming makeover by giving him a love interest with whom he could be reunited!

What surprised me most was the choice to change Robert Frobisher. This is done to fit the story in with the over-arching theme of love, but it actually works. In the book, Frobisher is frankly kind of an arse, and I never enjoyed his story. Though this was my least favourite section of the book when I read it, I left the movie with him as my favourite character by far.

Heroes and Villains

Unfortunately, allowing for the ‘star-crossed lovers’ theme also created the film’s biggest problem. If the heroes have to keep playing opposite each other, so too do the villains. Thus every actor who played a ‘baddie’ in their own storyline is consigned to be the baddie in every other story too. Making the villains destined to repeat their evil deeds in every story adds a strange predeterminism angle to the story. Instead of coming away from the film thinking ‘All humans are equal regardless of background or experience and everyone has the potential to do something revolutionary’ – which I think was what they were going for, you are left with the slightly sinking message: of ‘All humans are equal and capable of great things...except for some of them who are just plain evil’.

It’s not the same Cloud Atlas, but as an overwhelmingly large film dealing with massive issues while trying to capture some of the spirit of the original book, it works. Just.

What did you think of the Cloud Atlas movie? How did it compare with the book?

Looking for more literary adaptations? Check out our list of 12 Books That Became Award-Winning Movies.

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