Recently, David Mitchell, the author of “Cloud Atlas,” was sitting with Lana Wachowski, the co-director and screenwriter of “Cloud Atlas,” watching their mutual movie. At some point, Mitchell leaned over and asked who wrote a particular line of dialogue.
“That’s yours, you idiot,” said Wachowski. At least according to Mitchell.
The point: The seams between Mitchell’s best-selling novel and the movie opening Friday – directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski (“The Matrix) and German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) – are fairly invisible, at least in terms of meaning and message. Just as the book imparted a story of cosmic solidarity, karmic responsibility and spiritual unity, so does the film adaptation, which stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and a cast that numbers far fewer than the characters.
At the same time, readers of the very popular novel set in 1936 Scotland – and 1973 San Francisco, 2012 England, 2144 “Neo Seoul” and the South Pacific of 1949 – are going to find a very different beast on screen than what they found between the covers of the book: Rather than the six “nesting” narratives, each of which was being read by the principal of each successive story line, the movie takes a “mosaic” strategy, telling the half-dozen stories simultaneously. Or as close to that as possible.
The question: To read or not to read?
“I would see the movie first,” Hanks said, with just a hint of mischief. “Imagining the story is very different from seeing it on screen, so forget the book, see the movie first, and if you want to learn more …,” he said, affecting the voice of a bygone TV announcer, “… pick up the book. There are substantial differences. Of course, a lot got dropped out. And Andy, Lana and Tom added quite a few embellishments that David Mitchell didn’t.”
The book’s English author said he didn’t care if one read the novel first or saw the movie (as long as one reads the book). And of course, so many people have read the book that for many the point is moot. (About 300,000 paperback copies are in print in the United States alone).
Ordinarily, movie adaptations ignore their source material rather easily. But “Cloud Atlas” is a special case. It’s about the sea voyage of a 19th-century San Francisco attorney (Jim Sturgess) who aids a runaway slave (David Gyasi) and is poisoned by a shady shipmate (Hanks). And it’s about a poor, pre-World War I composer (Ben Whishaw) who becomes the amanuensis of an older, famous musician (Jim Broadbent), and about a publisher in present-day Britain (Broadbent) who’s committed to a “rest home” by his nefarious brother (Hugh Grant), and a 2300s Hawaiian goat herder (Hanks) who is visited by a woman from the future (Berry) and imperiled by a savage chieftain (Grant), and about a journalist (Berry) trying to expose an incipient nuclear disaster in 1973, and a genetically engineered worker (Korea’s Doona Bae) in league with an anticorporatist revolutionary (Sturgess) in the year 2144.
What the movie does – and the book couldn’t – is have the various cast play various characters, punctuating the theme of eternal souls and universal oneness.
“It was just so different,” Sturgess said. “The whole idea of it was so bizarre and out there, we all approached it the same way, that it was crazy, stupid, outlandish and amazing all at the same time. Everyone had the same attitude, which was to have fun with it rather than becoming stressful and intense. It was a big dress-up playtime for the actors.”
“What I got from it,” said Berry, “was something I think I already knew – that what we do or don’t do reverberates throughout time. And how we act affects others – perhaps not just in this life. I do believe in reincarnation and that we’ve been here before. My real take-away was to be very mindful of everything I do and say, or support and not support, what I teach my daughter. And how I treat other people.
“We say we’re the most spoiled actors in Hollywood,” she said of the “Cloud Atlas” cast. “On our next projects, we’ll be saying, ‘We only get to play one person?’ It was the best fun you can imagine.”
In explaining the approach that he and his fellow director-screenwriters took, Andy Wachowski said what they attempted to match was the experience of having read the book, rather than reading it. “You read a book, you go to bed, you think about it, you sleep on it,” he said. “It impresses itself on your subconscious. While this is happening, your brain is finding connections in the book of the sort David Mitchell has ingeniously laid out between narratives.” To achieve the same kind of effect, he said, they “struck on this idea of the mosaic.”
Those familiar with “Cloud Atlas” know the number six figures prominently (six story lines, the sextet written by Whishaw’s character, James D’Arcy’s character, Rufus Sixsmith, etc.). The only actors who play six roles, however, are Hanks and Berry. So they must be the stars.
“I think Doona Bae is the main character,” Hanks said of his Korean co-star. “She’s the one who actually articulates the crux of the story, and it made me slap my head in wonder: She’s talking to James D’Arcy, and she says, ‘The truth is singular; its versions are mistruths.’ And I said, ‘Holy smoke, to have that thrown down at the beginning of the movie! This is going to be some ride.’ “