Cloud Atlas [Novel] Analysis

Contains spoilers.

Having watched the film of Cloud Atlas, and loving it, I decided I had to read the book, originally published in 2004 and written by David Mitchell.  I don’t think I’ll write a ‘proper’ review, on the basis that the novel is very similar to the film, but there are still interesting points to discuss and this may well end up morphing into a review of sorts.

The most apparent aspect of the book is the sheer skill of Mitchell’s writing.  I’ve never read anything quite like it.  Each of the six stories within the novel are told in a different style and in a different genre.  You have:

  1. Narrative in the form of fictional journals.
  2. Narrative in the form of fictional letters.
  3. Narrative in the form of a fictional novel first draft – a novel within a novel.
  4. Narrative in the form of an autobiography.
  5. Narrative in the form of an interview transcript.
  6. Narrative in the form of spoken word.

I didn’t quite get this from the film, but I think each section is supposed to be real documents/records – very much harkening back to the 19th century style of writing fiction as fact.  It is complete genius.  Mitchell gets into the head of each character, creating wildly different personas: from the modest and likeable Adam Ewing to the narcissistic and delusional Robert Frobisher, gutsy Luisa Rey to pernickety Timothy Cavendish, and revolutionary Sonmi-451 to troubled Zachry.  The variety of vibrant personalities, literally dozens of them, which are stacked into the novel is astonishing.  The idea of each person being real beyond the confines of the novel, of their work really existing, is reinforced through their ripples into other stories; when Robert finds Adam’s journal, I almost believe it to be real.  Tiny details like The Prophetess casually maintained in the background in San Francisco, 100 years after Adam travelled on it; or Timothy receiving a draft of The First Luisa Rey Mystery – it’s just brilliantly done.

If I had to suggest a criticism for the novel, which would not be easily done, it’d be that some of these connections between characters are rather superficial.  The connections between characters are signified by the comet birthmark, and occasional déja vu, but otherwise the reincarnation aspect is a little flimsy (more on that later).  One of the ideas that most attracted me to the film was the idea of characters’ influences rippling through time to impact the lives of future people, to inspire revolutions, etc.  This is not the case with the novel.  Adam’s Pacific Voyage can only loosely really have a direct impact upon Luisa, or Sonmi’s revolution, and has no literal impact whatsoever upon Zachry on the ‘Ha-Why’.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  There are far subtler links, such as, going back to Adam, his rescue from Henry’s poisoning coming when they reach Hawaii; after The Fall, one of the final refuges of civilisation is on the same island.  Oh!  And, in the dystopia, Hawaii is where fabricants are told they’ll go for ‘exultation’.  Hawaii symbolises salvation.  I have only this moment realised that – another testament to the layers upon layers of depth this novel has.  Though, the fact that Hawaii falls to barbarianism at the end of chapter 6 suggests salvation does not truly exist.  Gosh, analysing this novel is fun.

Adding to that idea, the novel’s greatest links are thematic in nature.  The theme of conflict between the weak and strong, “the weak are meat, the strong do eat“, recurs again and again (The Maori invasion of the Moriori, Henry’s poisoning of Adam, Vivyan’s power over Robert, the power of corpocracy to subjugate a population first seen in 1973 and again in Neo-Seoul, Timothy’s incarceration in the Aurora House and then, back to savagery, the cannibal Kona terrorising Hawaii).  Belief also permeates through the pages: at the beginning, Christianity is being spread throughout the globe as ancient Polynesian religions in the Pacific are wiped out; by the far future Christianity is a long-lost myth nobody can remember, and has been replaced by a belief in Sonmi and other Gods.  This is chronologically foreshadowed when The Prophetess stops at the island of Raiatea, and the theory is given that all religions will eventually fail.  After doing some research, I was also alerted to the theme of ascent and descent: both Adam and Zachry begin their journeys after climbing a mountain; Autua earns a place on the The Prophetess after climbing the sails; Robert falls in love after climbing a tower with Eva, and his downfall occurs progressively after he returns to the ground; both Luisa and Sonmi experience a great fall whilst travelling in a Ford, which indicates the beginning of violence in their stories; Felix inch is killed by Dermot by being thrown off a building; the process of awakening within Frabricants is called ‘ascension’, and Sonmi must literally ascend an elevator to escape from Papa Song’s; and the collapse of civilisation is termed ‘The Fall’.  Humanity is a species on a rollercoaster, the book seems to scream.

The brilliant characters, backstories and historical settings Mitchell creates are aided by his mastery over language.  Each of the six stories are written differently: the Pacific Journal is written very archaically, as would be expected for the 19th century, with great circumlocutions and vast descriptions, making this a literary analyst’s goldmine.  Robert’s letters are much swifter, often using sentenced excluding pronouncs and beginning with verbs (so, stuff like: “Thought I’d go down to the shops.  Didn’t like them one bit.  Found Vivyan intolerable when I returned) which is a realistic way for someone to write informal letters.  Robert also writes using much musical imagery and with many exaggerations, creating a clear personality for the character.  Half Lives is written in the present tense and, as Timothy comments, is divided into small, serialised chapters, making this a very distinct genre and allowing the action to be swift.  Timothy’s autobiographical writing moves to and fro between the present and the past, making references to the reader here and there as he goes.  Sonmi’s story is told in interview format, which is a neat way of allowing small details to be explained and also of determining society’s attitudes through comments the interviewer makes.  Language begins to change here, with ‘ex’ always becoming ‘x’ – so, ‘xcitement’ and ‘xcercise’ – and finally, by Zachry’s time, it’s just gone mad.  I commented on the future dialect in the movie, which was bravely kept in, but the novel was staggeringly well-developed on this front, with a good 80 pages written in it.  To quote a random example:

   “Yay, but what’d we do?  My thinkin’ was stormin’n’fearing’. The Valleys is raided’n’burning’, prob’ly … an’ if Hilo ain’t fallen yet, it’ll fall soon…
My friend jus’ tended my wounds’n’hurtin’s with bandagin’s’n’stuff then raised a cup’n’med’sun stone to my lips.  This’ll help fix your busted body, Zachry.  Shut up your yibberin’ an’ sleep now.”

You can’t fail to be awed by the level of detail in this.  Typing that, it’s incredibly difficult even to transcribe, let alone create and write consistently for 80 pages.  I still maintain this is Cloud Atlas‘ finest feature.

The central idea of Cloud Atlas appears to be reincarnation, though this is only symbolic at most.  Mitchell explained:

“Literally all of the main characters, except one [Zachry], are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark…that’s just a symbol really of the universality of human nature.  The title itself “Cloud Atlas,” the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book’s theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context…”
(shamelessly taken from Wikipedia)

I very much like this explanation, though it doesn’t immediately come across from watching the film.  I think it would be futile to examine the progression of the birthmarked character through the novel, because any connections would be purely accidental on Mitchell’s part.  As he explains, the reincarnation is simply a loose device to make his case for human nature’s consistency throughout the ages.  It is interesting to compare the film’s take to the novel, which had a very deliberately different interpretation.  Reincarnation was signified by the recurring actors, so it would go: Henry => hotel clerk => Isaac => Dermot => an actor for Timothy => Zachry; slave => Jocasta => Luisa => Meronym; Hugo Weaving always played the villain; etc.  And the transition of the soul would go along the lines of: Tom Hank’s characters begin misguided and villainous, but redemption begins with Isaac’s betrayal at Swannekke and he ends as a hero; Halle Berry’s characters begin powerless, first as a slave and then a Jew fleeing persecution, but through Luisa she challenges men’s sexist views on women and, by the time of Meronym, has the most power of any character.  I think this is quite a weak and flimsy interpretation of reincarnation, personally, as what the filmmakers chose to do was limited by the source material.  An ambitious effort, certainly.

Finally, despite the film being very loyal to the novel, there are some quite large differences.  Large sections on the Moriori backstory were cut and the themes of religion; Eva was cut and, in the novel, Robert never shoots Vivyan, quite largely changing the story; Sonmi’s story is highly changed, as she spends a covertly educating herself at a university and it is eventually revealed that Union was a conspiracy by the corpocracy to destroy any public support for abolitionism; and Catkin doesn’t escape Hawaii in the novel.  I can understand why each of these decisions were made in scripting the film, and wouldn’t criticise any of them.

Overall, Cloud Atlas has to be one of the best books I have ever read.  It tops my list of books read in 2013, currently numbering 9 (though, in fairness, the Twilight saga takes up 4 of them).  I feel compelled to read more of David Mitchell’s books, though few libraries seem to have them, annoyingly.  And I see he’s writing another novel now about the ‘stuff between life and death’, which sounds very promising indeed.

Final rating (if I had to give one): 10/10

Cloud Atlas [Film] (Review)

Contains spoilers.

“An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.”

Where to begin?  I honestly don’t know how to review this film – I suspect, much like the book was claimed to be “unfilmable”, this unfilmable film is “unreviewable.”  But I’ll take a stab at it anyway.  I first stumbled across the film when I happened to watch the trailer, and instantly fell in love.  I felt inspired and awe-struck by the trailer alone, and I knew that this is a film I had to see.  I hoped it would not let me down.  The original novel was written by David Mitchell, an author whose work I know of shamefully little.  The film is directed by the Wachowski Siblings – whose most famous work, The Matrix, I’ve recently had an ambivalent encounter with – and Tom Tkywer.  At nearly 3 hours long, this film is not for the faint-hearted.

Within the first five minutes we witness the old, scarred Zachry speaking in a strange, futuristic dialect, journalist Luisa Ray travelling to a nuclear power plant to uncover a conspiracy, Timothy Cavendish writing on his typewriter, Robert Frobisher loading a pistol into his mouth, Adam Ewing seeking out Dr. Henry Goose, and the final interview of the clone Sonmi-451.  The film doesn’t get any easier than that.

Cloud Atlas can be described as 6 separate stories woven together, although the more you watch the more it comes to resemble one story with 6 differing facets:

  1. 1849:  On the South Pacific Ocean, after visiting a slave plantation on the Chatham Islands, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) helps a self-freed slave stowaway, Autua (David Gyasi), while his doctor, Henry Goose (Tom Hanks), slowly poisons him to steal his possessions.  Upon arriving home, he joins an abolitionist movement.
  2. 1936: Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), inspired by Ewing’s journal, helps musician Vivyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) with his compositions, culminating in the composition of the Cloud Atlas Sextet.  During this time he writes letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy).
  3. 1973: Journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) meets an older Sixsmith, who now works as nuclear physicist.  After Sixsmith’s death, she works with Isaac Sachs (Tom Hanks) and Joe Napier (Keith David) to uncover the conspiracy to allow the nuclear reactors to fail.  She is driven by the need not to repeat the mistakes of Frobisher, whose letters she reads.
  4. 2012: Publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), fleeing from gangsters to whom he owes money, is tricked into a militant nursing home by his brother, Denholme (James D’Arcy).  He then escapes.  His work as a publisher continues when he receives a manuscript based on Rey’s life, and also writes about his own story.
  5. 2144: In the dystopian city of Neo-Seoul, South Korea, the clone Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) is rescued from servitude by Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess) and enters a resistance movement.  A film based on Cavendish’s adventure helps to cement her beliefs.  However the rebellion fails and Sonmi-451 is executed.
  6. 2321: In a post-apocalyptic world, Zachry (Tom Hanks) lives in a primitive society.  Plagued by cannibals from another tribe, the people look towards their Goddess, Sonmi, for guidance.  When the technologically advanced Meronym (Halle Berry) arrives, Zachry takes her to Sonmi’s temple, but they return to find his tribe has been wiped out.

I truly admire the way in which the action cuts between characters and the six time periods with such ease, finding links to tie certain sections of the stories together.  For example, one moment Autua is balancing across the ship’s yard avoiding gunshots, and then the film cuts to Sonmi and Hae-Joo running across a walkway between buildings over the city, avoiding lasershots.  Both Luisa and Timothy are chased by Hugo Weaving’s characters in a sequence from different stories edited together.  When Sonmi discovers the grim fate of every clone, Zachry simultaneously discovers that his village has been massacred.  When Adam and his wife Tilda decide to join the abolitionist movement, Tilda’s father’s speech, in which he claims the movement is destined to end in failure, is interspersed with shots of Sonmi’s execution.

As I described in the summary, events in one story directly impact another.  As well-crafted as these initial connections are, the further you delve into the story you discover the subtler hints.  The comet birthmark is one, although I believe, in the novel, this is supposed to indicate one character living again and again in different lives, which the film chose to change and do by actor – leaving the birthmark rather redundant.  My favourites are the small connections, such as Vivyan’s house eventually becoming the care home Timothy (both played by Broadbent) is confined within.  While Nurse Noakes threatens to make Timothy eat soap, the clones in Neo-Seoul are fed a substance called soap, which it’s later revealed is protein recycled from former clones.  There is also, arguably, a development of the soul for each character: Hanks’ characters begin as scheming, selfish souls but develop into humble heroes.  Broadbent’s follow a similar pattern.  Meanwhile, Berry’s start off as persecuted characters – first as a Moriori slave and then a Jew in the 1930s – but develops into an independent journalist until finally becoming the most powerful character in the period as Meronym.  I say arguably because I don’t think these were Mitchell’s original intentions, and is merely an interpretation.  But, of course, the nature of Cloud Atlas leaves it open to so many interpretations.

Paradoxically, it is these connections between characters and times which was one of my favourite and least favourite aspects of the film.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching the links come together, but I felt it could have gone further with them.  At the film’s end I was left wondering what the overall point and message had been.  This isn’t necessarily a flaw.  Maybe, being so used to linear plots, I feel as there needs to be an overarching idea where the film could work perfectly well without one.

One part of the film done absolutely perfectly was the acting, make-up and costumes which  successfully disguised the actors in their repetitions across the 6 stories.  Half of the characters I didn’t realise were played by recurring actors until afterwards, such as Jim Sturgess as Hae-Joo Chang and Halle Berry as Jocasta Ayrs.  It is a crime that none of the actors were even nominated for an Oscar.  I was particularly  impressed when actors played a character of a different gender and race to their own – particularly Hae-Joo and Hugo Weaving as Nurse Noakes (which is perhaps one of the funniest things I have ever seen in a film).  While these changes were never 100% convincing, I don’t think they were supposed to be – the audience is supposed to understand that this is the same person in a different life.  I cannot praise this aspect of the film highly enough.

Another thing I loved about the film – something which probably hasn’t been mentioned by critics much – is the dialogue.  Quite simply, it all felt so real.  This is down to both the writing and the acting.  When characters spoke to each other, I believed they were having a spontaneous conversation rather than performing in a well-rehearsed scene.  Compare the dialogue here to the forced conversations in Shetland – for instance – and there’s really no contest.  Best of all, I was stunned to discover that, in the post-apocalyptic world, I was not being dense by misunderstanding the characters but they were actually speaking in a futuristic dialect.  Dialects and languages are complex things which evolve staggeringly quickly when isolated from the rest of the world, but to artificially create one is beyond impressive; it’s utter genius.  It appears to be an extension of Southern US dialects, where certain beats of speech are given further emphasis and twangs.  Artificial idioms and figures-of-speech are thrown in, making the dialect even more realistic.  Read these excerpts:

  • “Yоur аugurіn’ соmе truе, Αbbеѕѕ. Βrоkе brіdgе, јuѕt lіkе yоu ѕаy. Μеrоnym were thеrе, yibberin’ hеr аbout trekіn’ uр Μаunа Ѕоl. Why does this Ρrеѕсіеnt wоmаn соmе сurѕіn’ and twіѕtіn’ up my lіfе?”
  • “Fееlіn’ I оwnin’ yоu a real соwtow, fоr іnvаdіn’ yоur hоuѕе wіth nо ѕаyѕо. Τruе ѕоrryѕоmе… Ѕо, yоu mіndіn’ а ѕtrаngеr querin’ аbоut yоur troddin’?”

It has a poetic effect – almost Shakespearean.  The irony being that if someone spoke like this today they would be lambasted for mutilating the English language with rotten colloquialisms.  I found the dialect a beauty to listen to, though I can appreciate that other viewers would become irritated at the difficulties of understanding the words.

There’s much more I could say about Cloud Atlas, but the review has to end at some point.  Perhaps in another life I will review it differently.  This is, without a doubt, one of the most imaginative, thought-provoking films I have ever seen.  Watching it is an experience.  I have the opportunity to go see it again in a cinema but I don’t think my brain could cope with watching it from start to finish, all in one go, again.  It simply isn’t big enough.  But what I will say is that I feelin’ this move-move is mighty good, and that’s a tru-tru.

Final Rating: 10/10