2. It’s actually about as faithful an adaptation as one could expect.
3. A major deviation from the novel:
The filmmakers (the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer) of Cloud Atlas chop up and rearrange the novel’s six sections such that each section’s individual arc (e.g. exposition, climax, dénouement, etc.) runs concurrently with the other narrative arcs—like braided strands—whereas the novel nests them—like matryoskha dolls.
It’s very clear why the filmmakers would wish to use a more traditional grammar, but the effect is often more taxing than rewarding—the work’s themes of eternal recurrence are overstated (yet somehow underdeveloped), pressed repeatedly on the viewer. There’s little breathing room.
4. Another (possible) deviation from Mitchell’s novel:
The filmmakers cast their company (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, and Hugo Weaving) in multiple roles, so that each actor portrays a new character in each section. Mitchell’s novel played with the idea of eternal recurrence subtly, using a comet-shaped birthmark as a linking signifier. The film adaptation overloads the theme, creating the impression of a system that simply doesn’t inhere through the plot unless the viewer chooses to impose it (granted, certain actors tend to be cast in villainous roles or heroic roles—but there isn’t a coherent system of correspondences between the actors and the characters, despite what snippets of dialog would wish the viewer to believer).
5. The biggest problem with casting actors across a variety of roles:
The effect is extremely distracting—especially when actors are playing characters across gender or across race (especially the film’s notorious use of “yellow face,” which is problematic on many levels, not the least of which is that the make-up and prosthetics just look awful—and the part of the yellow face that’s worst to me (and perhaps the least-remarked-upon) is the awful fake “Asian” accents that the white actors use, with mangled intonations, etc. Disastrous).
The gambit may have worked (only may) if the filmmakers had cast actors who could actually pull it off. Denis Lavant, Tilda Swinton, and Gary Oldman all come to mind as actors who inhabit their roles to such a degree that the character transcends them (in plainer language: Gary Oldman is excellent at not looking like Gary Oldman). Tom Hanks—well, Hanks is wonderful at balancing charm with profound gazes—but he looks just like Tom Hanks in every damn scene he’s in, whether he’s playing a contemporary British gangster (maybe the low point of the film) or a post-apocalyptic tribesman (which, let me just shoehorn this in here real quickly—I imagined the Zachry of the novel to be like, much, much younger than mid-fifties). Halle Berry looks like Halle Berry, even in white face. And Hugo Weaving doing his Nurse Ratchet impression…well, leave it alone, leave it alone.
6. One thing the film does very well:
Stylized action sequences. We might expect this—the Wachowskis gave us The Matrix trilogy—but I was surprised at how well these moments fit into the film. There must have been a temptation to wedge shootouts and battles and cool cityscape sequences into the film, but these pockets of action are used sparingly, effectively buoying the film.
7. Another thing the film does well:
Explore the themes of slavery (and slave-master dynamics) that are central to Mitchell’s text.
8. The biggest thematic short-coming of the Cloud Atlas film:
Its muddled handling of eternal recurrence. In my review of Mitchell’s novel, I suggested that the book was overtly investigating the relationship between Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence and his infamous and often misunderstood übermensch. Granted, the film does posit history as a cycle of domination and submission, and also suggests that figures who wish to break or disrupt or upset this cycle will be assassinated or martyred—but the film elides the novel’s Nietzschean impulses in favor of New Age contours. There’s a broad, hippy-dippy streak of faux-spiritualism to the film that’s too syrupy to swallow. (In full disclosure, dear reader—I prefer a healthy dose of bitter with any sweets).
9. Another problem:
The music. It’s not that the score by director Tom Tykwer and two collaborators is bad—it’s fine, I suppose—it’s that the filmmakers rely too heavily on music to stitch their story strands together. The effect is at times simultaneously dulling and claustrophobic.
10. An extension of the previous point:
This is perhaps the biggest shortcoming of Cloud Atlas: Its compression. The film runs to an epic three hours, but somehow feels rushed.
There’s not enough space for characters to develop, and because the film has created a system through which characters are essentially reiterations of previous “selves,” the changes that the characters do undergo seem like fore drawn conclusions. Perhaps the most drastic example comes in the fabricant Sonmi-451. She’s an emblematic character to the narrative, a messianic figure, and her catechism provides the novel’s perhaps strongest exploration of what it means to be human and free. While the film hardly botches the Sonmi-451 segment, it doesn’t devote enough time to showing her revolutionary arc.
11. I know, I know—the film is already three hours, and here I am asking for more.
Suggestion: Cloud Atlas might have been much stronger as a twelve part miniseries, giving its characters and themes room to breathe and grow.
Another suggestion: Cloud Atlas as a one-man theatrical show starring, I don’t know, Gary Oldman (?). 75 minutes tops.
12. My criticisms might seem overly nitpicky, and to be clear, they are from the perspective of someone who read and enjoyed the book first. Still, I hate to fault the Wachowskis and Tykwer for their ambition, scope, technical prowess, and, oddly, their restraint. The film is far more focused and coherent than it has any right to be and its themes come through clearly. The filmmakers show a deep respect for Mitchell’s novel as well as the film’s audience while at the same time offering their own personal interpretation of the source material. When Cloud Atlas stumbles or outright fails, it does so on its own terms—which is why I think the film ultimately succeeds.
The greatest weight.– What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
–From Nietzsche’s The Gay Science.
In his early writings, Thoreau called the alphabet the saddest song. Later in life he would renounce this position and say it produced only dissonant music.
Letters, Montaigne said, are a necessary evil.
But are they? asked Blake, years later. I shall write of the world without them.
I would grow mold on the language, said Pasteur. Except nothing can grow on that cold, dead surface.
Of words Teresa of Avila said, I did not live to erase them all.
They make me sick, said Luther. Yours and yours and yours. Even sometimes my own.
If it can be said, then I am not interested, wrote Schopenhauer.
When told to explain himself, a criminal in Arthur’s court simply pointed at the large embroidered alphabet that hung above the king.
Poets need a new instrument, said Shelley.
If I could take something from the world, said Nietzsche, and take with it even the memory of that thing, so that the world might carry on ever forward with not even the possibility that thing could exist again, it would be the language that sits rotting inside my mouth.
I am a writer, said Picasso. I make my own letters.
Shall I destroy this now, or shall I wait for you to leave the room, said his patron to Kadmos, the reputed inventor of the alphabet.
Kadmos is a fraud, said Wheaton. Said Nestor. Said William James.
Do not read this, warned Plutarch.
Do not read this, warned Cicero.
Do not read this, begged Ovid.
If you value your life. Bleed a man, and with that vile release spell out his name in the sand, prescribed Hippocrates.
No alphabet but in things, said Williams.
Correction. No alphabet at all.
The entirety of Chapter 35 of Ben Marcus’s novel The Flame Alphabet. It’s a departure of style from the novel that seems to owe more than a passing nod to David Markson’s notecard novels.
Numberless things which humanity acquired in its earlier stages, but so weakly and embryonically that it could not be noticed that they were acquired, are thrust suddenly into light long afterwards, perhaps after the lapse of centuries: they have in the interval become strong and mature.
In some ages this or that talent, this or that virtue seems to be entirely lacking, as it is in some men; but let us wait only for the grandchildren and grandchildren s children, if we have time to wait, they bring the interior of their grandfathers into the sun, that interior of which the grandfathers themselves were unconscious. Often, the son already betrays the father and the father understands himself better after he has a son. We have all hidden gardens and plantations in us; and by another simile, we are all growing volcanoes, which will have their hours of eruption: how near or how distant this is, nobody of course knows, not even the good God.
—Fragment nine of The Gay Science by Friedrich Nietzsche.
104 Self Defence.—If self defence is in general held a valid justification, then nearly every manifestation of so called immoral egoism must be justified, too. Pain is inflicted, robbery or killing done in order to maintain life or to protect oneself and ward off harm. A man lies when cunning and delusion are valid means of self preservation. To injure intentionally when our safety and our existence are involved, or the continuance of our well being, is conceded to be moral. The state itself injures from this motive when it hangs criminals. In unintentional injury the immoral, of course, can not be present, as accident alone is involved. But is there any sort of intentional injury in which our existence and the maintenance of our well being be not involved? Is there such a thing as injuring from absolute badness, for example, in the case of cruelty? If a man does not know what pain an act occasions, that act is not one of wickedness. Thus the child is not bad to the animal, not evil. It disturbs and rends it as if it were one of its playthings. Does a man ever fully know how much pain an act may cause another? As far as our nervous system extends, we shield ourselves from pain. If it extended further, that is, to our fellow men, we would never cause anyone else any pain (except in such cases as we cause it to ourselves, when we cut ourselves, surgically, to heal our ills, or strive and trouble ourselves to gain health). We conclude from analogy that something pains somebody and can in consequence, through recollection and the power of imagination, feel pain also. But what a difference there always is between the tooth ache and the pain (sympathy) that the spectacle of tooth ache occasions! Therefore when injury is inflicted from so called badness the degree of pain thereby experienced is always unknown to us: in so far, however, as pleasure is felt in the act (a sense of one’s own power, of one’s own excitation) the act is committed to maintain the well being of the individual and hence comes under the purview of self defence and lying for self preservation. Without pleasure, there is no life; the struggle for pleasure is the struggle for life. Whether the individual shall carry on this struggle in such a way that he be called good or in such a way that he be called bad is something that the standard and the capacity of his own intellect must determine for him.
From Human, All Too Human by Friedrich Nietzsche
158. Little or no Love. —Every good book is written for a particular reader and men of his stamp, and for that very reason is looked upon unfavourably by all other readers, by the vast majority. Its reputation accordingly rests on a narrow basis and must be built up by degrees.—The mediocre and bad book is mediocre and bad because it seeks to please, and does please, a great number.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, Part II.
127. Against the Disparagers of Brevity. —A brief dictum may be the fruit and harvest of long reflection. The reader, however, who is a novice in this field and has never considered the case in point, sees something embryonic in all brief dicta, not without a reproachful hint to the author, requesting him not to serve up such raw and ill-prepared food.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, Part II.
From Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, Part II:
58. Dangerous Books. —A man says: “Judging from my own case, I find that this book is harmful.” Let him but wait, and perhaps one day he will confess that the book did him a great service by thrusting forward and bringing to light the hidden disease of his soul.—Altered opinions alter not at all (or very little) the character of a man: but they illuminate individual facets of his personality, which hitherto, in another constellation of opinions, had remained dark and unrecognisable.
(Click the CC button for English subtitles).
Friedrich Nietzsche. From Mixed Opinions and Maxims:
(168) Praise of aphorisms.— A good aphorism is too hard for the tooth of time and is not consumed by all millennia, although it serves every time for nourishment: this it is the great paradox of literature, the intransitory amid the changing, the food that always remains esteemed, like salt, and never loses its savor, as even that does.
Friedrich Nietzsche. From Mixed Opinions and Maxims:
(138) Marks of the good writer.— Good writers have two things in common; they prefer to be understood rather than admired; and they do not write for knowing and over-acute readers.
Friedrich Nietzsche. From Mixed Opinions and Maxims:
(137) The worst readers.— The worst readers are those who behave like plundering troops: they take away a few things they can use, dirty and confound the remainder, and revile the whole.
Some of the good people at Hyperion, the journal of the Nietzsche Circle, have begun a new publishing venture: Contra Mundum Press. Their first project is a new translation of the Gilgamesh epic by Stuart Kendall; it should be ready next month. In December, CMP is planning to release the first English language translation of Nietzsche’s “Greek Music Drama.” Their list of future titles looks quite promising, and it’s always great to see a new indie publisher making a go of it in an era where print books are being eulogized (with no small level of hyperbole) on what seems to be a weekly basis.
Trudging through a very long book the other night–never mind the title, at least now anyway–it occurred to me that I’d rather be reading from 2666; that, at that particular moment, I’d rather re-read from “The Part About the Crimes.” I don’t know if it was the effete dullness of the first volume that made me want to pick up Bolaño’s epic, perhaps trying to zap some life into my waning eyeballs; perhaps it was just the sense that I was wasting my time with the merely good, which, after all, is mediocrity when set against genius (yes, these are subjective terms).
Anyway, I didn’t have to go looking for 2666 — I have a copy (yes, I have two) right there jammed into my nightstand, along with a few other books that I realize that I’m always reading. Furthermore, I’m always reading these books in the most discontinuous, stochastic fashion, often picking them up at random and thumbing through them. I think I use these books to clear my literary palate, to get a bad (or worse, boring) taste out of my brain, to inspire me, to suggest another book. Some of these books, like 2666 are big, fat volumes, volumes that I set close at hand in the hopes of rereading in full. Sometimes I’ve met this goal; in the case of Moby-Dick, I’ve read the book through at least three times now, and yet never tire of it. I’m always picking it up again and again, sometimes to find Elijah’s rant or to dip into Ahab’s mad monologue or perhaps just to hear Stubb comment on the proper preparation of shark steaks. Of a piece with those big novels is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which I turn to repeatedly, reading over a riff or two at a time, perhaps still trying to figure out the ending, or some clue of the ending, perhaps trying to figure out why Hal can’t speak (you know, beyond like, a a metaphorical level).
There’s also Blood Meridian.
A book I always keep proximal is D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, which, if this were a dictatorship under Biblioklept might replace the Constitution (jaykay, Tea Partiers!). Tellingly, I’ve never managed to finish one of Lawrence’s novels (I even struggle through his much-anthologized piece, “The Rocking Horse Winner”), but I consider his dissertations on Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville indispensable (and creative in their own right). I guess I just like lit crit; Harold Bloom’s too-huge volume The Western Canon is a book I return to again and again. Sometimes I find myself throwing it to the ground, quite literally (if I’ve enjoyed a drink or two, that is), in disgust. Bloom’s battle with “The School of Resentment” can be maddening, especially when he’s so up front about essentially making Shakespeare God. Still, Shakespeare doesn’t seem like a bad God to have.
I should point out that I’ve made no attempt to read The Western Canon the whole way through; in fact, I’ve never made a single attempt to read it systematically. I just sort of pick it up, thumb through it, occasionally plumb the index. There are several books that I am always rereading in this category: Books That I Am Always Reading and Yet Have Never Finished. Foremost among these is Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human, a book that I probably, at this point, have read in full, but never fully through. Its aphorisms beg to be read discontinuously; I think Nietzsche wet-dreamed about his fragmentary works being literally fragmented and then later found, read piecemeal against some newer, more garish culture. Or perhaps that’s just my metaphorical wet dream.
Other Books That I Am Always Reading and Yet Have Never Finished — The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman stands out, as does Finnegans Wake. Sterne’s book is such an oddity: I remember picking it up in a stack of books to be shelved at my college library, thumbing through it, bewildered, thinking that it must be contemporary with John Barth. A bit of research left me even more perplexed. Like Tristram, who can’t seem to finish his story, I can’t seem to actually finish it, but I’m okay with picking it up again and again. Similarly, Finnegans Wake strikes me as an unfinished-unfinishable volume (I do not mean this literally; I know that Joyce “finished” the book as an infinite strange loop, just as I know that the book can be read). I have an audio recording of Finnegans Wake that I like to listen to occasionally (especially while driving), as well as William York Tindall’s guide (which is fun), but I’d rather just sort of grab the thing at random and read a page or two. I know, in an intellectual sense, that is, that I could easily read the book in a calendar year by committing to three pages a day (plus a few pages of Tindall), but I don’t think that I can read books in an intellectual sense. I think, at the risk of sounding unbearably corny, that books have to call to their readers in an emotional and perhaps even spiritual sense. Otherwise, what’s the point?