Message in a Bottle
Head in the Clouds

Those who know me well know that in my world “not bad” is a high compliment, and that wild enthusiasm is expressed without fist pumps or shouting. So if I say that a book is really, really good, that’s the equivalent of a normal person jumping up and down and turning somersaults. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is really, really good. It came out in 2004 and became an immediate favorite, and I’ve held that opinion ever since. It might be the best novel of the last ten or fifteen years. Sez me, anyway.

Cloud Atlas takes the form of a matryoshka doll—it’s a series of nested stories, each varying in style, that only gradually reveal their links. A young doctor keeps a journal while sailing the Pacific in the mid-19th century, but halfway through his account, the story is interrupted and leaps forward to the 1930s. A penniless European composer reads the journal and begins writing letters to a friend; these are later discovered by a crusading Californian journalist in the 1970s. Her account comes to the attention of a British publisher in the present day, and his blackly comic misadventures in a nursing home later become cinematic entertainment for a Korean woman living under an oppressive near-future regime. Her tale eventually becomes a legendary recitation for the members of a subsistence-level society in a distant, post-apocalyptic era. That central story depicts the decay of civilization along with the hope for its rejuvenation, and Mitchell uses language itself to embody this theme, employing a degraded yet muscular pidgin of his own devising.

Resolution follows in an almost symphonic fashion, as first the core story and then the rest conclude one by one. The fates of the various heroes and heroines going back into the past are revealed, and a plot that seemed ever-expanding proves to have been tightly tied together all along. Mitchell’s global reach and mastery of disparate styles (Melvillean sweep, Noel Coward-ly archness, Le Carre-worthy tension, etc.) serve a simple vision in the end, and Cloud Atlas leaves you focusing not on the dissimilarities but the interconnections between people, places, and times. It’s a tremendous novel that’s tremendous fun to read.

And now it’s been made into a movie. I’d heard some time ago that the project was afoot, but I’d strenuously avoided learning anything about it until today, when a trailer was released that at least shares the ambition of the book. It’s almost six minutes long (!) and accompanied by an introduction from the film’s three (!) directors. I had to watch it, but having seen it, I still don’t know what to expect. Will this be the most colossal cinematic train wreck in history or a film for the ages? It must be one or the other, right? Given the source material, I can’t imagine the results would be merely humdrum.

On the plus side, the directors (Tom Twyker, who brought us Run Lola Run, and the Wachowski siblings, who helmed The Matrix) have a solid track record with epic action and they have the clout to see their vision realized. Their respect and affection for the book certainly come through in their preview of the preview. They’ve assembled a cast of actors that includes four, count ‘em, four Academy Award winners. Today’s special effects might actually do justice to the creativity of the science fictional elements, too.

On the down side, isn’t it a terrible idea to use those stars? Aren’t they too recognizable (and possibly overrated)? Jim Broadbent, OK. Susan Sarandon, maybe. Halle Berry, getting iffy. Tom Hanks? Nice guy and admittedly talented, but at this stage of his career I can’t watch him and think anything but “Hey, there’s Tom Hanks.” As for the direction, FX are fine as far as they go, but isn’t the human element the most important thing? Doesn’t this story need someone with a strong visual sense but also a flair for the quirks and foibles of the everyday? Wasn’t Wong Kar-Wai available?

I’m torn, in other words. While I know that regardless of how the movie turns out, the book will never be ruined for me, I’d still like to know what I’ll be getting when I walk into a theater on October 26th. Unfortunately, I’ve watched the trailer three times and I still can’t judge it. My love for the book and my fears for how it might be treated have apparently created a mental fog that’s completely obscured my critical faculties. Is this ridiculous or awesome? Take a look and tell me what you think.

—James