As the adaptation of David Mitchell’s so-called ‘unfilmable’ book, Cloud Atlas, makes its big screen debut, Lee Curtis charts the rise of a mind-bending and time-bending epic
The Wachowskis became a household name in 1999 when their groundbreaking science fiction film The Matrix stunned critics and audiences with its innovation and game-changing craft. After the release of the sequels five years passed before fans were delivered a follow-up film, the high-octane, family-oriented adaptation of Speed Racer. The Wachowski siblings are filmmakers who prefer to take time between projects, though they are often involved with producing or writing roles during their periods away from directing. But it’s now been four and a half years since their last film and in that time the duo has somewhat slipped off of the radar.
When it was announced that the time since Speed Racer had been devoted to a collaboration project with Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer to adapt the seemingly unadaptable and unfilmable Cloud Atlas, fan message boards erupted with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The filmmaking duo had returned, and armed with heaps of enthusiasm and the vision of their combined creative minds the trio (pictured below) embarked on their most ambitious film project ever.
British author David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas was released in 2004 and generated an enormous amount of critical acclaim, winning both the British Book Awards’ literary fiction award and the Richard & Judy book of the year. Its popularity was largely due to its unique style and creative narrative approach. The novel presents six separate but inter-linked narratives that span five-hundred years, several genres, and many very different locations. But Mitchell’s novel is also a book about books and writing, blending a range of writing and typographical styles on the page. In addition to the typical challenges faced in any major movie production, which are explained below, the Wachowskis’ and Tykwer’s adaptation also faced a more paramount challenge; how would they adapt something that is so fundamentally linked to the written word?
The filmmakers have explained that they were immediately inspired by the book and naturally wanted to translate it to cinema, but recognised that a straight book to film adaptation would be impossible because the source material is so inherently linked to its original format. Throughout the novel Mitchell follows one plot-line for multiple pages before suddenly jumping to another character in a different setting and time period, whether from 19th century South Pacific Islands to a post apocalyptic future Seoul, Korea. The filmmakers accepted that they could not replicate this style because of the demands of a modern screenplay, which requires a more linear approach. This resulted in one of the most significant decisions the filmmakers made, to create their own interpretation of the novel rather than slavishly following its original form.
In order to achieve this, the filmmakers broke the novel’s narrative down into scenes and wrote the major plot developments on index cards. These cards were then placed on the floor of their script-writing hideaway, in order to visualise the narrative. They took the pieces of Mitchell’s puzzle-like narrative and rearranged them to create their own unique telling of the story.
Mitchell’s novel is commonly regarded as a noteworthy piece of postmodern fiction, due to its meta-narrative and close examination of an abundance of themes. The narrative tackles many subjects, including identity, gender, reincarnation, futurism, society, relationships and politics, among others. But portraying these themes within a book is very different to presenting them within a film. While Mitchell was able to subtly hint at them within the text, as filmmakers they were required to portray them as a visual image. One of the main themes the filmmakers took and expanded upon is gender, and this could have been a reflection of a close personal connection for one of the Wachowskis. During production, the Wachowski brothers actually became a brother and sister team, as Larry Wachowski underwent gender reassignment surgery and became Lana Wachowski; perhaps contributing to their decision to cast male actors in female roles and female actors in male roles.
In addition to these directorial puzzles, the project also faced more than its fair share of production problems. Despite their iconic status as filmmakers, and previous successes with multi-layered narratives and ambitious projects, they really struggled to obtain enough funding. Over the course of the four and a half years of production the project was abandoned on several occasions. Ultimately, when no major film studio was willing to give it adequate support, Cloud Atlas became the largest scale independently financed film ever, garnering investment from across the globe. In addition to outside investment, the directors themselves put in 10% of the overall budget (which was approximately £63.5million) to make it happen.
From the tricky task of adapting the novel to the enormous financial struggles, Cloud Atlas looked set to remain on the page. However, through sheer determination, enthusiasm and creative skill the three filmmakers overcame each challenge they encountered and have delivered a triumphant, long-awaited return to cinema.