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The Book was Better

Kevin Noonan | Sunday, October 28, 2012


Whenever a feature film debuts based on a novel or play or some other source material, there without fail is always some pretentious, stuck-up, high-society know-it-all to let you know that the book was better, no matter how fabulous the film is.

Well, with “Cloud Atlas” hitting the theaters this weekend, I may as well start wearing a monocle, using words like “pedantic” and join the sailing team, because I’m here to tell you that the book was better.

The 2004 novel by David Mitchell of the same name is an epic tale of intertwining stories, characters and genres spanning hundreds of years, told in the style of a matryoshka, or Russian nesting doll.

Six different narratives are followed in the book. Each is presented in half chronologically, and then snakes back in opposite chronological order in the second half to reveal the conclusion. The exception is the sixth and final story, which takes place more than a hundred years after the fall of Earth’s future corporation-controlled civilization and is told in full as the center of the novel.

The first story follows the journal of a young lawyer named Adam Ewing on board a 19th-century ship in the Pacific Ocean taking him back to his home, wife and son in San Francisco. He is acting as a courier for his law firm and carries with him an unspecified amount of wealth, attracting the attention of many on board the ship. He comes into peril as he becomes increasingly ill with a mysterious parasite.

 The second is told through the letters of Robert Frobisher, a young musician, to Rufus Sixsmith, a physics student at Cambridge and his male lover, as he flees his home in the early 1930s and heads to Belgium to work with a syphilitic but brilliant English composer. It is from Frobisher that the title originates, as his masterwork composition the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” is the defining work of his life and the source of both his greatness and his fatal flaw.

A mystery novel comprises the third, following a gossip reporter, Louisa Rey, as she stumbles onto a deadly scandal at a nuclear power plant in the 1970s after running into the grown up and now respected physicist Rufus Sixsmith.

The present-day story follows Timothy Cavendish, an aging and failing publisher who comes into success after one of his writers murders a literary critic after receiving a horrible review. Cavendish runs into trouble with some ruffians, and is tricked by his brother into being committed into a nursing home, where he constantly plans his escape.

The fifth takes place in a dystopian future society controlled by corporation in which society has created a class of clones to perform what is essentially slave labor. One clone, Sonmi 451, has awakened to her own existence, and, doomed to execution, tells her story in a final interview.

The final story is a post-apocalyptic future tale of a new civilization of people that resembles in many ways the “savage” peoples Adam Ewing runs into in his South Pacific journey. Zachry, one of the men of the village, crosses paths with Meronym, a woman whose people has managed to hold onto the technology of the former world but is threatened by disease.

The novel, as may be apparent, is wildly complex and interweaves with impressive and subtle skill. At just over 500 pages, the narrative fully fleshes out the stories of its characters to expand beyond just the time connections, making it a through and through spectacular of epic storytelling.

The film does its best to convey the complexity and philosophy of the novel, and makes an impressive effort at a three-hour run time, but overall falls short of the grand nature of the book.

The film, adapted for the screen and directed by Tom Twyker (“Run Lola Run”) and Lana and Andy Wachowski (“The Matrix” trilogy), stars Tom Hanks and Halle Berry and an ensemble cast of familiar faces all playing multiple roles throughout the movie.

It is visually stunning, and the creation of six vastly different and intricately detailed worlds is certainly fantastically undertaken. But the problem of turning such a complex story into a film is that in the book, the author has enough freedom to allow his complexities and connections subtly. In a film setting however, these connections are much more overt and make the story feel flat.

The movie is still impressive because of the sensational source material and story, but in comparison to the novel, the verdict is clear: The book is better.

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