I read David Micthell’s novel during the summer. I almost wish I hadn’t. If you have read the comments following my review of Cloud Atlas, you will already have seen my initial reflections on the first half of the novel. I will include those reflections here as well.
You may recall that Cloud Atlas was my favourite film of 2012; this in spite of my major complaint about the redemptive violence that is featured in most of the six stories that make up the film. In my review, I mentioned my hope that the redemptive violence was in the film because it was in Mitchell’s novel and the filmmakers wanted to remain true to that novel. When I learned of the close collaboration between Mitchell and the directors (Tom Tykwer, Lana and Andy Wachowski), my hope seemed well-founded. Not so much.
In fact, the six stories in the novel were almost all better than their film versions. The Sonmi story in particular was a revelation, easily my favourite in the book. Imagine my shock and disappointment (with respect to the film) when I read a story that featured no violence whatsoever on Sonmi’s behalf. There was no grand shoot-out in Sonmi’s rescue or in her defense when she is captured. Sure there is a line in the novel where Sonmi advocates violence if necessary to end the horrific abuse and slaughter of fabricants. Like elsewhere in the novel, the attitude toward violence is ambiguous at best. But following the recording of her video, Sonmi allows herself to be captured without violence. That’s because her boyfriend Hae-Joo was really an ‘agent provocateur’. Yes, the most fascinating and entertaining story in the novel was turned into something completely different in the film: a bizarre special-effects romance/action/sci-fi. How Mitchell could have allowed this travesty is beyond my understanding.
The first story of the novel, Adam Ewing’s adventure in the South Pacific in 1849, also suffered from a new ending. In the novel, the good doctor is not killed for his crimes but slips away once his evil deeds are revealed. This story also includes an account of the Moriori people who lived on the islands of New Zealand before being wiped out or enslaved by the Maori. The Moriori were pacifists who refused to use violence even to defend themselves. Again, the novel doesn’t exactly support the pacifist position, suggesting as it does that the Moriori were wiped out precisely because they refused to fight, but it is nevertheless a fascinating account of what is portrayed as a unique and marvelous people.
Then there is the story from the far future, which points to a major flaw in both the novel and the film. In this story, we see the protagonist (Zachry) slitting the throat of a Kona man who has passed out in Zachry's home (the Kona had just wiped out the village, enslaving the survivors). Zachry had been given three prophetic warnings earlier in his life, warnings which he took very seriously. The first warning was not to kill Meronym by cutting the rope which would have led to her death. The third warning was not to cross a certain bridge. Zachry heeds both of those warnings and the results have a very positive outcome in his life. The second warning is not to slit the sleeping man's throat. The warning causes him to hesitate, but he kills the man anyway, though he is convinced that he will suffer dire consequences as a result. Indeed, he lives in constant fear every minute that he will suffer those consequences. But as far as I can determine, the only consequence of that action is that he gets an arrow through his leg. Painful, yes, but it eventually heals with no long-term effect and hardly seems worth the warning. So what was the big deal? On top of that is the inner conversation Zachry has just before killing the sleeping man, a conversation in which he convincingly argues against the killing of the man because: 1) his people forbid the stealing of another person's life, saying it will poison the killer's soul and such a person is then shunned for life lest they infect other's souls; 2) this act of revenge would not bring his family back to him; 3) it would "stone" his soul; 4) he himself, or his brother, might have been born a Kona or adopted by Konas and so it was like he was killing himself or his brother; and 5) Old Georgie clearly WANTED Zachry to kill this man. All very good arguments but he kills the man anyway, saying that "in our busted world, the right thing ain't always possible”. Okay, I understand where Zachry and the writer (Mitchell) are coming from, and I wish some of that conversation and hesitation had been conveyed in the film, but ultimately all of the "redemptive" violence in the story is excused in one way or another as part of what it means to be human. Killing the Kona was seemingly supposed to result in consequences which would make Zachry ultimately regret the human impulse of revenge, but I find no evidence of such consequences.
Perhaps you have noticed that all three of these highlighted stories were directed by the Wachowskis. For this, at least, I am grateful, because it allows me to maintain the illusion that Tykwer (who directed the other three stories) and I are kindred spirits. But my disappointment with the Wachowski half of the film is profound. I will never be able to watch Cloud Atlas again without seeing how much better it could have been had it remained more faithful to the novel.
Nevertheless, let me be clear that in many ways I liked the film better than the novel and Cloud Atlas will remain my favourite film of 2012. As someone who has little time to read novels and can take months to read a 530-page book, I found the structure of the novel extremely difficult. It highlights for me the amazing genius of Tykwer and the Wachowskis in the way they chose to structure the film. Indeed, this structure is so brilliant that it adds many layers of meaning to the stories in the novel and turns a good novel into a masterpiece while at the same time reducing some great stories to mediocrity through the use of action and redemptive violence. If Cloud Atlas the film had remained faithful to the content of the stories, it might have become one of my top ten films of all time. Now it will be lucky to break into my top 100. So very sad!