I shall forever associate Cloud Atlas with three other books I read at the time; Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, On Beauty by Zadie Smith and Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel. All of these novels take different approaches to character and narrative. David Mitchell in Cloud Atlas takes the more complicated route, in that there are six interlocking stories, with six narrators that fuse together to make one narrative and eventually one story. The stories unfold chronologically rather beautifully, and if you know nothing of the book there are glorious surprises that appear from page to page.
The film of Cloud Atlas does not share the same structure. It takes the six stories and generally moves around in time more. I suppose this is for storytelling and structural reasons. The stories and time periods are introduced and then throughout the film the stories and characters develop until their conclusions. In a way this does enable the links between the stories to become easier to identify which is inevitable really seeing as the different amounts of time we invest in novels and films. It does have the advantage as well of not ending up like the Yellow Rolls Royce as well.
We see from pretty much early on that there is this theme of reincarnation in the film. The actors are reincarnated throughout the stories as well. What is clever though in the use of actors is how they are deployed as heroes and villains. Except that is for Hugh Grant, throughout time in this film, he plays horrible people; generally he’s the baddie in history. I don’t know how significant this is but if you were to plot Tom Hanks’s characters relative goodness, on a graph, it would be up and down through history. The downside of actors playing different characters of differing nationalities is that there are some curious facial prostheses on display in the film, and some questionable accents attempted as well. This is a shame because this takes attention away from the story and in once instance from a dramatic conclusion.
There is however good use of music in the film. The name Cloud Atlas comes from one of the characters writing the Cloud Atlas Sextet which permeates throughout the film and the stories, binding it together. It has been said that this novel was unfilmable because of the complexity of the novel. I at the very least admired parts of the film; some of the sentiments about the nature of the individual and the beautiful escape of the residents from the old peoples home for instance. The film doesn’t besmirch the novel either, but it could have been better.