Ordinarily, the nature of the novel to film adaptation is one rife with criticism. On one hand, it can adorn a simple singular narrative into a rich and masterful screen experience; on the other it can lose the magic, the stylisation and the character of the original text. Sometimes, it can do both.
So, upon the knowledge of the forthcoming adaptation of David Mitchell's critically acclaimed Cloud Atlas, I was initially wildly ambivalent. Yet another retold, re-imagined story, due to be met with equal parts disdain and delight. 'Why can't Hollywood make it's own ideas!' the people cry, to a decidedly deaf production board.
After more investigation, it seemed to be a surprising combination: A modern literary classic! A tale that spans eras and characters! Adapted by the Wachowski siblings and Thomas Tykwer! And a cast that spans the Hollywood Yellow Pages! A decidedly more interesting take, then, than What To Expect When You’re Expecting.
Yet something about this intrigued me more than others; namely, its cryptic trailer.
Unsure as to my own feelings about the film, I showed my housemate the bloated trailer. Over its sprawling 5 minute duration, his singular response was 'Well I don't have a fucking clue what it's about'. He has a point.
So, upon shuffling around an Oxfam book store looking for a new read, I stumbled across a worn 50p copy of David Mitchell’s opus, and decided I would take the plunge. Now, I am not one to seek out books of films, but it had indelibly caught my eye. It’s a risky move, as it could already preempt an automatic disdain for the film prior to viewing. I like to think I’m fairly adept at discerning and separating source material from adaptation as two entirely separate entities (as a comic book fan, I am more than used to seeing old textual love affairs brutally slaughtered in front of my eyes). Unwittingly, I did stumble into one of the most panoramic novels I have read in many years, a fantastic novel that toys with concepts of genre, structure and narrative, and one that I couldn’t put down for weeks.
For those that are unaware, the story spans 6 different stories, all in different historical eras and genres. Each tale defines a section of the book, moving chronologically forward to the distant future, before then turning back on itself. And yes, each story is inextricably linked to the next and so forth, sometimes through rather overt physical references, and sometimes in a much more thematic manner. For me, the beauty of the novel was in this narrative aspect: it was as much about the art of story telling as the stories themselves.
As I mentioned earlier, genre is crucial in defining these chapters: it starts off in diary form from an American Notary in 1850, to letters from a musician in 1930, all the way to camp fire story telling in a post apocalyptic future. Mitchell has a mastery of the English language, adapting styles constantly and inventing alternative modes of address. For me, the sheer majesty of reading this sort of prose was very refreshing.
This, then, highlights one of my biggest fears about the film: these are inherently literary genre conventions - how can they possibly be translated to the screen? Sure, genre conventions are crucial within Hollywood, but can they really be presented in the manner that Mitchell uses them? The joy of the different narratives was essential, yet on screen they can be potentially ruined, and the thought of a film that jumps from period drama, to detective thriller, to comedy is gut wrenching.
One of the beautiful notions of the book was the subtlety of the connections between the different stories, sharing similar thematic qualities of power relations and the nature of the individual. The few overt connections could have been too heavy handed, yet he didn’t dwell on it enough for this.
I can guarantee that this is not how the film will be. Hollywood, without a doubt, will attempt to make grossly extreme connections between all the different tales and ram them down the viewers throat with all the subtlety of a One Direction fan that has just been given Harry Styles’ front door key. They’ve been advertising in this manner, and it terrifies me how extreme they are going to push it: ‘LOOK THESE PEOPLE ARE ALL THE SAME, THEY’RE JUST IN A DIFFERENT TIMES. LOOK, WE’VE EVEN MADE THEM ALL THE SAME ACTOR, JUST TO MAKE YOUR LIFE A BIT EASIER’. Maybe ‘The Matrix guys’ don’t want to totally confuse their audiences again.
My early fears of the film aren’t entirely unfounded. Early reviews suggest a film that is distinctly average, trying to be more than the sum of its parts. A particularly great line from the Little White Lies review posited it as the sort of film that’s perfect for those with the life ambition to swim with dolphins.
Now, I’m not trying to be overtly negative: there’s no denying the sheer scope of the film, and if anyone was going to try and tackle such a sprawling and postmodern narrative, a selection of reputable directors as these deserve credit for the attempt. Some of the elements will surely be able to be masterfully presented, and they will surely be able to recreate the different worlds that the novels designs. I will enter with an open mind and my usual brand of blind optimism, but I can guarantee it will be the age old notion of style over substance, and one that is ultimately left null and void because Hugh Grant is in it, being, well, Hugh Grant. And there’s nothing in the world more bereft of style or substance than Hugh Grant