We’re ecstatic about today’s guest post from best friend of The Wise Guise, Josh Smith, who previously wrote this joy of a blog post. If we had it our way, Josh would write a new post every day, but he’s a legitimate family man, so alas, no can do. However, we couldn’t be happier to have his book review and movie preview of Cloud Atlas today. Mainly because we wanted to have a clue what was going on in the movie when we saw it and Josh read the book for us. But this post is filled with wit, insight, and a litany of intelligent cultural references. Hope y’all enjoy it as much as we do!
First, let’s get something straight. This is my friend Sawyer ashamedly displaying the book he ordered based upon my raving recommendation.
WRONG. We’re talking about David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, not The Cloud Atlas, Not Cloud Atlas: A Collection of Poems, or even The Cloud Spotter’s Atlas to the Skies. The novel in question features very few weather-related references and boasts no poetry. My friend Phil’s father-in-law happens to be a meteorologist. I do not remember his name right now but I know that even though he is elderly he still wouldn’t have made this terrible mistake.* You’ve brought disgrace upon your house, Sawyer.
I cannot describe the mixture of excitement and dread I experienced when it first sank in that my beloved Cloud Atlas was being rewritten for the big screen by the Wachowski … er… siblings. It’s like when you realize that your favorite band’s song is getting massive airplay (yay!), but it’s because Mandy Moore recorded a version for the new Nicholas Sparks movie (sigh).** I may not have ever read Cloud Atlas if not for the fact that the W’s had also fallen in love with this novel, but our shared affinity for the work does not necessarily translate to confidence in their ability to adapt it. How many people hated what Helena Bonham-Carter’s meal-ticket did to Alice in Wonderland, meanwhile, I personally am terrified that Gavin Hood (X-Men: Origins: Wolverine: First Blood: Canadian Redux) got his paws on the gloriously perfect Ender’s Game. I cringe.
BUT – before we begin to lament the casting of pearls before Steins, let’s accentuate the positive. ***
What I Love About the Book
Three of my favorite genres are 19th century seafaring, post-apocalyptic sci-fi, and dystopian satire. Cloud Atlas has it all in spades. It’s is actually a collection of six loosely connected novellas, spread over diverse genres and periods, each exploring the human propensity to abuse power. Six unique characters narrate the parts, each attempting to escape his or her oppressors meanwhile battling the perverse lures of assimilation and Stockholm syndrome. One minute, Mitchell channels Phillip K. Dick, the next minute we’re hearing Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo or Melville’s travelogue. Cloud Atlas has an epic sweep, spanning from the mid-nineteenth century to somewhere in the distant post-apocalyptic future and it can be dizzying, but the common themes create a compass for stability amid the vertigo.
Cloud Atlas has too much merit to spell out here, so I’ll just say that overall I thought the themes were strong, the pacing was well above average and the characters were deeply empathetic. I raced through the 500+ pages in a couple of days. If I just had to pull out a story to rave about, the most pleasant surprise was probably The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. It’s a sort of modern, quirky, human-heartstrings story about senior citizens, somewhat similar in style to Cocoon or Something’s Gotta Give. Not usually my cup of tea, but I think Mitchell was speaking in his mother tongue with Timothy. His mastery of each genre was profound (I know this because it says so on the back of the book), but this novella eclipsed the others. It was funny, surprising, and endearing.
Why the Movie Will Ruin the Book ****
1. Structure –
a. The prestige of Cloud Atlas is owed in large part to its structure. The first five stories are suspended at climax one-by-one as you, the reader, find yourself suddenly in a new story. You join a character who has also been enthralled and left cliffhanging at the preceding story’s climax, and then you are drawn in as he or she begins to deal with his or her own crisis. At the height of the final story, each of the previous narratives begins to collapse into resolution, until you are back where you started, aboard the Prophetess in the 19th century South Pacific. This might remind you a bit of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but has been more aptly compared to a Russian nesting-doll, (an image Mitchell deftly includes in the book). The structure for me was one of the most satisfying elements of the work – a narrative device that made its vastness palatable and stretched the tension much further.
b. The movie version will not even attempt this brilliant arrangement because the pansy producers were afraid to be still introducing new characters 90 minutes into a film. This is one of the primary reasons the novel was deemed un-adaptable, and may even prove to have been. The W’s considered that “un-adaptable” status a formal challenge and, along with co-director Tom Twyker (Run Lolita Run), set to work defeating the purpose. The producers were correct to assume that the general public is too dumb to hold all six stories in their heads at a time, but that doesn’t make me hate producers and the general public less.
2. Reincarnation –
a. In the novel, reincarnation is a subtle literary device used to enable the author to express that oppression is a universal human flaw. It’s not ONE soul that’s reincarnated, but the fact that ALL souls that share this “spirit” of tyranny, while only SOME re-incarnate (literally, to flesh out again) the heroic spirit that says, “not me, and not us.” Evidence of this fact is the final incarnation’s name – Meronym – which means, “a part which serves as representative of the whole.” This is true of her as an ambassador of her own people, but also as a sort of proxy for all of humankind’s potential. It’s really tasteful and not at all religious or farfetched.
b. In the movie version, probably subtitled REINCARNATION IS AWESOME AND MARKETABLE!, there will be a soul named TOM HANKS! that undergoes a series of reincarnations over hundreds of years, through which it learns compassion and equity, moving slowly from the tyrannical side of humanity to the liberator side. One would probably expect a Korean clone/slave from the future to represent this great ascent and to take her cause global with V for Vendetta-style badassery. One would receive this great gift, plus a bunch of white guys in thousands of dollars of makeup, approximating a look that hiring actual Asians could have delivered just as well, all for the sake of further driving the reincarnation debacle. Look out, midgets suing Snow White and the Huntsman – there’s new ridiculous and ironic equal-rights litigation on the docket.
3. Romantic themes –
a. Cloud Atlas is not romance. It does boast a delicious Fitzgerald-esque novella, set in the 1930’s and featuring lots of sex and aristocracy, but still, no romance. This particular episode is designed to show that oppression happens not only on the national and global scales, but also in the wars on intimacy between two people, behind closed doors. Verily Mitchell says unto thee, whensoever two people are gathered, no one is safe from the threat of tyranny.
b. I’m pretty sure the movie is going to try to make lovers out of Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, because of two words: “office,” and “box.” (This blog features an interactive word scramble. Have fun.) I imagine the two will suffer several awkward missed connections for a couple hundred years before they finally make it to the top of the Empire State Building and then the soul of Nora Ephron will be reincarnated into the body of Meg Ryan, look directly at the camera, and say, “Get it?”
Why the Movie Might Still be Amazing
1. Source Material – It’s hard to screw up some of these payoffs. It’s not like they were starting from scratch. Sort of like how 10 Things I Hate About You wasn’t altogether terrible compared to other teen movies of the era because Shakespeare wrote great stories and The Taming of the Shrew is one of his funnier ones. Cloud Atlas has so many gorgeous moments that could survive the evolution process and metamorph to cinemagic. God, I hope so.
2. Stellar Actors – Another reason 10 Things wasn’t terrible is because Heath Ledger was a good actor. The W’s bought a lot of great actors for their movie, and that was wise (I’m looking at you, George Lucas). I’m anxiously awaiting Hugo Weaving’s portrayal of Ol’ Georgie and Jim Broadbent’s Timothy Cavendish. Weaving and Broadbent as supporting characters is a strong bench. I have a friend who let me screen a movie he’s producing, wherein Sam Rockwell takes a decently well-written secondary role and creates one of the most memorable and nuanced characters I can think of.
3. Special Effects – Watch the trailer. I enjoyed Avatar based on visuals alone. This one looks just as fun. If you want to give me some line about how the writing or acting in Avatar were good, then what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.
In short, go see this movie – it will probably be very entertaining. I intend to write a follow-up piece unless the movie actually makes my first post look idiotic, in which case I’ll just slink quietly back to my day-job and secretly plot a way to bring down the Wise Guise empire. But regardless of the movie, I can say with confidence that if you enjoy reading, Cloud Atlas is a great way to spend a few rainy days.
*I do not think old people are dumb. Plus they don’t read the Internets anyway, so relax.
**Yes, this happened. No, I do not want to talk about it.
***This hilarious joke depends upon the reader’s understanding that a.) the expression “pearls before swine” refers to someone being given a gift that is above their capacity to appreciate b.) Stein is a typically Jewish name, c.) a lot of Hollywood producers are Jewish, and d.) Hollywood always ruins “pearls” of great literature. I am not racist. I am funny. FUNNY, I TELL YOU.
**** This is based on stuff I read somewhere, but this is the Internet, not a research paper. You can take your  crap to a dot org site. The Blogosphere is an authority unto itself.