Tuesday, November 13, 2012

100 Books #106 - David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS (with thoughts on the film)

My experience with Cloud Atlas, book and film, has been a most unusual one. Pretty much always, if a book in one of my general areas of interest attracts enough attention to be actually greenlit and made into a film, I won't go near said film until I've read the book, which is always better than the film (even though I love film). I figured this case would be no different, so when previews for this film started showing up before all the big dumb superhero movies and whatnot this summer, I took notice, recalling that some of my friends had recommended this book to me and that I'd decided it sounded interesting enough to get hold of and read someday.

Then the film announcement and PANIC! Not much time to read the book, aaaaaah! But I was reading all of these other books (seriously, the number of books I'm reading at any given time is truly absurd). But surely I could fit this one in. So I started it.

And it kind of fizzled on me. I read the first section -- half-baked Joseph Conrad, lots of White Man's Burden -- and slowly propelled myself on sheer inertia into the second... and then Angry Robot dropped some new books and Candlemark & Gleam dropped one I was OMG excited for (that would be Mr. Blank) and I got an eARC of something else I was excited for (Fridgularity) and the Humble Bundle came out and...

BOOM! Theatrical release. And early buzz on the film was decidedly mixed. I quickly discovered that most of the haters, though, were hating on the controversial make-up jobs; to convey the continuity of characters/souls/whatever over time (this is, at least in part, a reincarnation story, after all), some big-time make-up work was required to, e.g., make white actors look Asian, black actors look white or Asian, etc. It got to be a whole thing. As things do.

But that's all beside the point, for me. Which is not to say that I don't get or feel with the people who were complaining about the makeup (which was also very distracting, perhaps even more so than that done on Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper), just that, to me, it seems that doing what the directors did with these actors helped ground the film's reality in a way that casting racially correct actors wouldn't. And really? Cloud Atlas, the movie, needed plenty of grounding, because it, and the novel it adapted, are nothing like what audiences are used to getting from a big budget film like this.

Both film and book offer a spectacular array and variety of storytelling. There is a 19th century high seas adventure full of perfidy and plotting (that would be the aforementioned half-baked Conrad), a High Romantic tale of forbidden love and musical composition on the eve of WWII, a 1970s conspiracy thriller (even in the novel, this part of the story felt like an action movie), a contemporary senior citizen's nightmare riff on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a dystopian high tech sci fi tale of clones and revolution, and a post-apocalyptic last grab at redemption for humanity that features the remnants of a high tech civilization collaborating with a tribe of aboriginal types who survived the apocalypse only because they were never part of the high tech world to begin with. Which is to say that there is very likely something for everyone.

But I didn't get that feel at all when I started the book! In both book and film, the stories are broken into chunks and intercut with one another, but the book has bigger chunks and fewer cuts. Ordinarily, this would argue for the book's being a richer and more comprehensive experience, but in this case, the film's three directors (Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Twyker) and the editor (Alexander Bener, whom I think needs to get an Oscar for his work) broke the stories into much smaller chunks, did a great deal more intercutting even from the very first, and did not respect the novel's chronology all that much -- and in so doing conveyed the novel's point* better than the novel did.

That's right. Chopping up the story/stories and remixing them like some kid from Pirate Cinema actually made it all make more sense. And rekindled my interest in the book. Hell, rekindled isn't the term -- more like ignited. Because I knew that, even though the film is longish by mainstream cinema standards, it probably wasn't totally serving all of the stories as well as one might like (I'd love to find out that a gigantic directors' cut DVD is in the works because that would be one to own). I especially suspected that there was more going on in the high tech sci-fi story, in which a Neo-Seoul, Korea, is ruled by a "corpocracy" than the film touched on.

And I was right.

Am I conveying that there's a hell of a lot going on in this novel? Because there is. At bottom, these six interlinked stories ask all kinds of difficult questions about how we treat one another as human beings, questions about slavery and freedom, respect for the individual and his/her right to self-determination, what civilization is, even how we might define what constitutes a human being. These are chiefly explored through the lens of slavery and related forms of coercion: the first story deals with the historical institution as we all remember it; the second with the horrors of an attempt to transform willing servitude/apprenticeship into slavery via blackmail; the third shifts gears to examine how a free society can be enslaved and endangered by corporate interests eager to feed the hunger for more ever more energy and stuff; the fourth examines the plight of an old man tricked into a retirement home whose residents are essentially prisoners; the fifth brings it all together in the story of a clone designed for a life of food service drudgery, engineered and conditioned to believe it's a wonderful life but awakening to its actual horrors -- she is a sentient being who is the property of a corporation and her every waking and sleeping moment is under its control, until suddenly it's not***; and the last story shows us the potential consequences of all of these elements and impulses run mad: a devastated environment, a loss of civilization, a return to life that is nasty, brutish and short, in which a character from the first story's credo that "the weak are meat the strong do eat" becomes literal.

The stories are interwoven most cunningly, for these are not merely sequential episodes. Ideas and images from one story echo in others** and some elements from "earlier" bits only really make sense after one has gotten to later ones (lots of nice "aha" moments). The feeling that it's all quite profound is, I think, earned.

But I genuinely think that I would not have enjoyed this book as much had I not read it concurrently with the film. The novel tells a great story/set of stories; the film tells it better, but in doing so has to leave out a lot of bits that make the novel a richer version of the story. They complement each other beautifully.

But really, I would have probably dropped this novel unfinished had the timing of events not produced their sequence in my personal life as they did.

*At least as I understand it.

**Naturally, the visual motifs are more apparent in the film, and some more are added (I think chiefly of the sapphire buttons from the first story and how they keep turning up), to elegant effect.

***The film pulls the most cynical/subversive punch from this story, which shouldn't surprise anyone, really; in general, the film versions of the stories have some teeth pulled and are given rather happier endings than they have in the book.

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