This summer, when I was reading David Mitchell’s 2005 novel “Cloud Atlas,” someone saw the book lying open on my desk and asked what it was about.
“I have absolutely no idea,” I answered.
I was 250 pages into this 528-page book.
This would usually be a red flag other novels, but I was inexplicably in love with this literary rollercoaster.
“Cloud Atlas” spans over thousands of years and is told from the points of view of six different characters. Each character’s story has a completely different genre, writing style and time period assigned to it.
From a merchant ship traveling the islands of the Pacific in the 1800s to Hawaii in a very distant, post-apocalyptic future, each story is thinly woven together by subtle details that are not heavily apparent until more than halfway through the 500-page mammoth.
To the impatient reader, “Cloud Atlas” will appear disjointed and schizophrenic, skipping through time periods and character perspectives at the drop of a hat.
Mitchell takes his time with each character’s story, firmly establishing their world and motive. Just when you start to get comfortable, he quickly whips everything away to a new voice hundreds of years later.
The leapfrog nature of the narrative isn’t for everyone, but it’s also one of the most enjoyable parts of reading it. It’s as if it covers six genres in one novel, never allowing things to get dull.
One story is an Oscar Wilde-style epistolary novel. Another is a gritty 1970s crime yarn. One of the most memorable is a nod to sci-fi writer Phillip K. Dick, taking place in a dystopian Korea hundreds of years into the future, where robot-like clones form an uprising against their human masters.
It all sounds absolutely crazy – and believe me, it is – but it all makes something resembling sense towards the end, closing on a deeply poignant note that ties everything together.
For all the shifting time periods and voices, “Cloud Atlas” has a simple theme at its core. It’s a rumination on man’s addiction to power, the horrible things it drives some to do and the hope that man will overcome it to live in peace. It may sound cheesy in a description, but Mitchell carries it off gracefully.
Recently, The Wachowski Brothers, the duo behind “The Matrix” trilogy, and Tom Tykwer, director of “Run Lola Run,” teamed up to pen a film adaptation of “Cloud Atlas,” which began shooting earlier this month.
Just from reading the description above, you can imagine making the story into a movie isn’t going to be a walk in the park. The project has the potential to be a towering inferno that will buckle under its own weight. Even in book form, the story teeters on the brink of disaster.
Despite its riskiness, the film adaptation has attracted a surprising amount of star power. A-list actors like Halle Berry, Tom Hanks and Susan Sarandon have signed on along with rising stars like Jim Sturgess and Ben Whishaw, according to The Press Association, and just this past week, actor Hugh Grant joined the fold, making the film adaptation of Mitchell’s sci-fi opus into some sort of “Love Actually” style film.
All are reportedly playing multiple roles throughout the six interconnected stories, sometimes changing age, race and even gender.
It’s a massive undertaking and could turn out to be an interesting failure, but there’s the slight glimmer of hope that the filmmakers’ could pull it off.
Even if the movie completely bombs, there’s always the book. Its whiplash-inducing story and size may seem harrowing at first, but once you allow yourself to crawl deep into it, you’ll never want it to end. Don’t be afraid to pick it up and take a journey amongst the clouds and through the ages.