A Walk in the Clouds of Cloud Atlas, Part 2

The film version of Cloud Atlas—directed by Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola Run) and the Wachowski siblings of The Matrix fame—has a scene that does not appear in the novel, featuring Hugo Weaving as Boardman Mephi of the Corpocracy, played with the same insouciant malevolence Weaving brought to the Agent Smith role in The Matrix. Mephi tells Sonmi 451, “The problem you create is a political one.” Her “thoughts terrify the whole of Unanimity,” and thus she must be summarily “excised,” the term “canceled” apparently having fallen into disuse in this future dystopia, though the logic is identical with our “unanimities” today.

The moral-political teaching as it appears in the six disparate story lines of Cloud Atlas is impossible to summarize at any reasonable length. But it is not necessary. Despite their different timelines, circumstances, characters, literary genre, and plot, all six are the same story on the level of thought.

It suffices to summarize the moral-political arc of the full novel with Adam Ewing, the character who begins and ends the book and summarizes its teaching in the final installment of his journal. Confronting the prospect of barbarism overtaking civilization (and his specific experience of nearly falling victim to a seemingly civilized man who turns out to be a homicidal maniac) that runs throughout the novel summons to mind John Stuart Mill’s observation in On Liberty that the process of ascending from barbarism to civilization is not irreversible:

If civilisation has got the better of barbarism when barbarism had the world to itself, it is too much to profess to be afraid lest barbarism, after having been fairly got under, should revive and conquer civilisation. A civilisation that can thus succumb to its vanquished enemy, must first have become so degenerate, that neither its appointed priests and teachers, nor anybody else, has the capacity, or will take the trouble, to stand up for it.

The final entry in Ewing’s journal notes: “Scholars discern motions in history & formulate these motions into rules that govern the rises & falls of civilizations. My belief runs contrary however. To wit: history admits no rules; only outcomes. What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts & virtuous acts.”

Each of the six stories involves involuntary servitude or violent domination of some kind, leading up to the other half of Ewing’s tale, where he makes arrangements in the South Pacific to expand trade from island slave plantations. A cynical European expat tells him early on that “If there is no God west of the Horn, why there’s none of your constitution’s All men are created equal neither, Mr. Ewing.” The final scene of the book finds Ewing, back in a paneled San Francisco drawing room and having survived the attempted homicide against him with the help of “a self-freed slave,” reversing course and announcing his decision to move east and join the Abolitionist cause. This aspect of the book’s message reminds of Jefferson’s famous line:

The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view, the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others.

Ewing chooses virtue and the path of justice, which he asserts as a matter of belief, but admits “I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real.” The suggestion that constitutional government the best possible answer we’ve ever come up with for the profound problems vividly portrayed in Cloud Atlas would land with a thud in a literary work of this grand sweep (though Mitchell does invite this observation with Ewing’s line, "The nation-state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions”). The mood of Cloud Atlas, which as noted references Solzhenitsyn several times, is closer to Solzhenitsyn’s remark in his Nobel Prize speech: “Who else but writers shall condemn their incompetent rulers . . . Lies can prevail against much in this world, but never against art.” Cloud Atlas certainly qualifies as high art, of the kind Dostoevsky had in mind with his statement that “Beauty will save the world.” Cloud Atlas is an extraordinarily beautiful novel.

Equally beautiful is the three-hour film version released in 2012. It is amazing that anyone would back a film version (several financial backers backed out along the way). The movie bombed at the box office when it came out in 2012, but perhaps like the original Blade Runner, another poor performer on initial release, Cloud Atlas will yet be recognized for the masterpiece it is. (Curious fact: the five-minute trailer on YouTube shown above has drawn 22 million views, far more than ever saw the movie in a theater.)

Like any film adaptation of a complicated story, the filmmakers had to compress and modify the novel in significant ways. There was no way the film could follow the book as written. It would make no sense. And as a practical matter, casting top actors for roles in six separate stories would have been prohibitively expensive. So the filmmakers chose not only to interweave all six stories at a pace that can be hard to follow at times, but decided to cast the actors in the different lead parts of all six stories.

You have to pay close attention to spot the actors in the whirling, shifting story lines. Hugh Grant’s heavy makeup and prosthetics in one scene makes him look like James Caan. Halle Berry’s main role is an investigative reporter in the 1970s thriller-mystery sequence, but she also plays a German-Jewish woman in another story, and is completely unrecognizable in a third story in the minor role as an elderly Asian male doctor. Korean actress Doona Bae plays the pivotal character Sonmi 451, but also portrays a Hispanic woman in the 1973 sequence, and Adam Ewing’s American wife in the closing scene. Several male actors briefly play female roles (Hugo Weaving makes a convincing Nurse Ratched figure).

This casting scheme led to predictable complaints from some of the usual identity grievance groups, chiefly about white actors playing Asian roles (James D’Arcy, Jim Sturgess, Grant, Weaving), showing the unerring and clueless instinct of the stupidly politicized for missing the point of mixing the races in the story lines. This technique of having the same actors appear in all six stories transforms the overall effect and adds a filament of continuity and unity that would have been impossible with separately cast actors.

What is coincidence or happenstance in the book becomes reincarnation and karma in the movie. Rather than reincarnation, though, it can still be seen as Nietzsche's "eternal recurrence" of human types, despite widely different historical settings and circumstances (again an anti-historicist point that rejects the malleability of human nature). Grant and Weaving play the widest spread of characters—all of them evil, reminding us that some human types are always irredeemable. Tom Hanks’s character range is mixed as are all human beings: an cold-blooded murderer in one, a murderous street thug in another, an earnest do-gooder in the third, a coward turned hero in another, and the sage narrator of the whole story at the end. Hanks’s odyssey reminds us that the capacity for good and evil runs through every human heart, and thus exalts the centrality of choice over all the determinist axioms of modern times.

Like the book, the film rewards patience and demands close (and definitely repeat) viewing. Timothy Cavendish, the central character of the third story, tries to overcome the natural suspicion of such a complicated structure at the opening of the film version. Admitting “a disdain for flashbacks and flash-forwards, and all such tricksy gimmicks, I believe that if you dear reader can extend your patience for just a moment, there is a method to this tale of madness.” A careful reader and attentive moviegoer will be amply rewarded.

And even if the book, as usual, is superior to the film, here and there the film—in many ways, a gloss on the novel, giving Mitchell's book its own karmic recurrence—adds an original touch that captures its essence with the succinctness film requires. At the end of Sonmi 451’s “interview” right before her execution, which she accepts with the equanimity of Katow at the end of Malraux’s Man’s Fate, the Archivist asks his final question: “And what if no one believes this ‘truth’?”

Sonmi looks knowingly at the plainly shaken Archivist (superbly acted through thick prosthetics by James D’Arcy), and answers: “Someone already does.”

I do.