Pure cinematic ambition is so rare, I’d have applauded this literary print-to-screen adaptation just for attempting the seemingly undoable – after all, author David Mitchell himself has called Cloud Atlas, “the most unfilmable one” of his books.
Critical and popular response to the almost-three-hour epic has been mixed. If audiences at the Toronto Film Festival gave it a 10-minute standing ovation, it flopped badly at the US Box Office.
Me, I have to stand up and be counted among the standing ovation category. It’s a stand that has involved me in many heated debates – yeah, it’s that kind of film, the sort that provokes admiration or vitriol, but rarely indifference.
Hanks is quoted as saying how impressed he was that Cloud Atlas’ moviemakers had “voluntarily made a dense, complicated screenplay”. Of course, your interests may not lie in the complicated and literary, just as it may not lie with the historical film or the sci-fi thriller. That question of taste legitimately varies from person to person.
My quibble lies elsewhere. I’ve noticed that it’s become much more acceptable to get upset over a director’s desire to tackle big themes, than over the nth version of a franchise film that only had one idea to begin with. And that too, stretched pretty thin even in its first iteration.
Sure, Cloud Atlas is complex literary celluloid with six storylines situated in different time periods that rapidly intercut with each other; a few actors assuming multiple roles and donning outlandish costumes; and with profound themes of slavery and redemption, love and karmic evolution.
But that’s what makes it a “wow-whee!” ride.
One of my favourite Dilbert books is titled: “When did Ignorance become a point of view?” The movie equivalent would be called: “When did “It’s a complex film” become valid cinematic condemnation?”
While the written word has traditionally provided rich source material for films, conventional wisdom argues that complex literary novels do not fall into this category. Still, we seem to be doing rather well in the “unfilmable books to screen” department currently, first with Cloud Atlas – and now, Ang Lee’s directorial take on Yann Martel’s Life of Pi opening in theatres.
Earlier this year, we saw other brave attempts: the David Cronenberg adaptation of Cosmopolis, Don DeLillo’s cautionary tale of hypercapitalism; and Walter Salles’ take on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
And before the year finishes, we are promised Tom Hooper’s screen adaptation of Les Miserables as a musical, where the actors sing every line, live, during the shoot, much as they would have spoken dialogue; and not forgetting The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
The prequel to Lord of the Rings may seem squarely placed in the camp of The Film-able Novel, given the trilogy’s triumph. But when Peter Jackson embarked on the latter, colossal project, many naysayers questioned its feasibility.
Jackson’s success reaffirmed that the transformation of complex novels to screen has to be a leap of faith, an act of risk-taking, if it is to succeed in capturing the spirit rather than the detail of the source material.
For the other criticism levelled at literary films is that they tamper with the text. In reality, the successful adaptations are those that do rearrange the original. While characters and the overall narrative are transportable between the mediums, in most other respects, the storytelling demands are so different.
The written word, for example, allows metaphor, narrators, descriptions of time, place and emotions, while a film relies on such techniques as associative imagery, camera angles, music and lighting. Technology increasingly comes into play in movies, and has allowed a book such as Martel’s Life of Pi to be filmed– which calls for a Bengal tiger and a young lad to be placed together on a boat in open seas.
The Booker Prize contenders are great candidates for difficult literary print to screen: Cloud Atlas was shortlisted, while Martel’s clever 2001 novel won the Prize. As did The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje that went on to become an acclaimed film that spanned multiple times, places and storylines, as conceived by writer-director Anthony Minghella and brilliantly edited by Walter Murch.
Even The English Patient, however, was often served the sting at the end of the tail about it coming together more in the intellect than the heart. It is a complaint you often hear directed at complex films, as though emotion plus intellect is a zero sum game.
The pleasures of the intellect do make for deep emotions as well. So finally, risking yet more battle, I must stand up for those who find it enormously satisfying when a creative work engages on multiple levels. When, beyond the immediate emotional takeaway there is an intellectual puzzle to unravel, fragments that must be put together to reveal the larger arena in which the story of the film exists.