Monday, March 11, 2013

Cloud Atlas

I have, as near as I can tell, a first-edition hardcover copy of Cloud Atlas sitting next to me. It was the second David Mitchell book I bought (after Ghostwritten), and the third I owned (I got number 9 dream as a gift). It was the last that I managed to actually get through (until The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet came out, anyway).

It's not difficult to admit that, initially, I didn't "get" it. Even though Ghostwritten and number 9 dream had played with nonlinear and nontraditional narratives to varying degrees, Cloud Atlas was a totally different beast. I didn't think much of The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing - and it's still my least favourite of the stories - and the way it cut off mid-sentence struck me as extremely odd. I don't think I made it far enough into Letters from Zedelghem on my first attempt to reach Frobisher's discovery of Ewing's journal - which causes that first chapter to make sense - so I abandoned it.

I can't remember exactly when I picked up the Kindle edition (Amazon can, however: January 1st, 2011), but I'm pretty sure it was around the time that the film adaptation was announced. A few blog posts mentioned the nested matryoshka structure which piqued my interest again, and I stuck through Ewing and Frobisher's opening chapters to get to Luisa Rey, where everything started to click.

Tonight, we saw the film version at the DCA, and I'm still decompressing.

Some of it was brilliant. While the Wachowski version of Nea So Copros (imaginatively renamed "Neo Seoul") doesn't really look how I imagined it, it is stunning. The way O-hawaii is shot in Zachry's story is gorgeous - as, in fact is the whole thing. There's no question it's a technical masterpiece.

Some of the story changes bug me, though - more than they should. The biggest one is giving Zachry the comet birthmark; in the novel it's Meronym who has it. If that doesn't seem like a big story point to get hung up on, it's not - I can't really explain why it bothers me. The Frobisher story, which I was never really fond of anyway, has been more or less completely gutted and rebuilt; Ayrs' daughter Eve has been completely excised from the plot and the whole thing is transplanted from Holland to Edinburgh (although this does allow Cavendish's story to visit the same house a few decades later). A lot of the Chatham Isles stuff has been cut from Ewing's story, which doesn't really have much plot impact but makes the friendship between Ewing and Dr. Goose seem even more peculiar.

The Luisa Rey, Cavendish and Sonmi stories are more or less complete though, and I think I found the first two more interesting than I did in the book. An Orison of Sonmi-451 and Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After are my two favourite chapters of the book, and I'm glad they were kept mostly intact - even if Sonmi's is simplified a lot in places for time.

And with a running time of nearly three hours, it's probably for the best that liberties were taken with the slower parts of the book; the emotional beats are all pretty well intact, although the point of the story is probably overstated. It takes a while to get going as well; I thought the early scenes were very exposition-heavy, which is probably necessary when you're setting up six different stories with six different casts set across a thousand years of human history but still feels clumsy.

It has definitely inspired me to re-read the book, though; I'm sure there's a lot of stuff I've missed previously. The last time I read number 9 dream I spotted another link to the overall Mitchell universe, so I'm sure Cloud Atlas still has a lot to find.

In a more perfect world, I like to think Cloud Atlas would have gotten a 12-episode TV series; the first half of the first five stories, two episodes for Sloosha's Crossin', and then the closing parts of the stories in reverse order.

I'm holding out hope for a Ghostwritten series with that approach. Come on, HBO - don't let me down.

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