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  • From Time’s Boomerang to Pointillist Mosaic:Translating Cloud Atlas into Film
  • Jo Alyson Parker (bio)

Perhaps a novel contains as many versions of itself as it has readers, whereas a film’s final cut vaporizes every other way it might have been made.…

––David Mitchell, “Based on the Novel by”

While my extensive experience as an editor has led me to 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, you will find there is a method to this tale of madness.

––Timothy Cavendish in Cloud Atlas (the film)

Surely [Cloud Atlas] is one of the most ambitious films ever made. … And what a leap by the directors, who free themselves from the chains of narrative continity.

––Roger Ebert

In a Wall Street Journal article appearing prior to the U.S. premiere of the film Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell addresses the challenges of turning his complex novel into a film. Revealing that he considered the novel’s “there-and-back” structure as “unfilmable,” he comments favorably on the new structure devised by the screenwriters/directors Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy, V for Vendetta) and Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run; Heaven): “It [the novel] has now been adapted for the screen, but as a sort of pointillist mosaic: We stay in each of the six worlds just long enough for the hook to be sunk in, and from then on the film darts from world to world at the speed of a plate-spinner, revisiting each narrative for long enough to propel it forward” (Mitchell, “Translating”). Significantly, whereas the “there-and-back” structure—or “Time’s Boomerang,” as Mitchell calls it in a sly self-referential section of the novel (147)––suggests a dynamic state of affairs, the pointillist mosaic metaphor suggests a quasi-static one.1 I would argue that, through its restructuring, the film shifts its emphasis from a future in flux to a future that is fixed––as in a frame. The film certainly works on its own terms, the filmmakers deftly managing the mind-boggling task of tying together the six separate storylines of Mitchell’s novel through cinematic means. The changes in key plot points and in temporal structure, however, transform the novel’s theme that one can change the future (a “virtual future,” in Mitchell’s terms) to a theme [End Page 123] that the future is fixed (an “actual future,” again in Mitchell’s terms), entailing a conclusion that is both less and more hopeful than Mitchell’s and that shifts the emphasis from global to local concerns.


Mitchell’s “unfilmable” novel features six separate but thematically and imagistically linked stories: a travel diary written by good-hearted, naïve estate-agent Adam Ewing, set in the South Pacific of the 1850s; an epistolary narrative written by the unscrupulous, charming, and artistically gifted composer Robert Frobisher, set in Brussels in 1931; a mystery/suspense page-turner featuring intrepid investigative reporter Luisa Rey in 1970s California; the somewhat farcical memoirs of Timothy Cavendish, the venal owner of a vanity press, set in what appears to be contemporary Britain; the transcription of an interview with the “ascended fabricant” Sonmi-451, set in a near-future Korean “corpocracy”; and an oral account by Zachry, one of the few surviving humans, set in the Hawaiian Islands several hundred years in the future after a “Fall” has wiped out civilization. Each of the first five stories breaks off partway through at a particularly suspenseful juncture and is then embedded in a subsequent story (the first embedded in the second, the second embedded in the third, and so on). As Mitchell explains, “the preceding narrative appear[s] as an ‘artefact’ of the succeeding narrative” (Mitchell, “Silver Daggers”)—artifacts, I might add, that in various ways impact on their readers/viewers. So, for example, Robert Frobisher finds the first half of Adam Ewing’s journal and begins reading it during the first part of his story, but, like the reader, is frustrated when it cuts off in mid-sentence. The sixth, chronologically last story (Zachry’s) is complete in...


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pp. 123-135
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