It’s easy to imagine the walls of well-meaning filmmakers as being lined with bookshelves, each brimming with incredible novels that proved too big, too complicated, or maybe just too good to be turned into movies. Every year, stacks of new books are optioned; more rights are bought up than can ever be acted upon by movie studios with major money to burn. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was sold in 1969, and promptly deemed unfilmable – more than thirty years later it became one of the most successful franchises in the history of cinema. This October brings us the delayed release of another “unfilmable” novel of massive scope, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Will fans of the source material find as much to love this time around?
A book of monumental size and scope, Cloud Atlas clocks in at over five hundred pages and is comprised of six unique stories that take place over multiple centuries, beginning in the 1800s and eventually reaching the far-flung future. Each story is split in half and treated as a cliffhanger told to the main character of the following segment. Only after you’ve been introduced to the characters and settings of every story are you allowed to know their conclusions, which are told in reverse order until the book finishes with the end of the initial segment. If you said that all of this were more than any single filmmaker could possibly handle, you’d be right.
At the helm of these six stories are three directors, Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix Trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), who adapted it as a team and then shot subsequent portions of the film concurrently at different locations. Things kick off in 1849 with the tale of an American passenger on a ship travelling through the remote Chatham Islands off the coast of New Zealand. It then jumps to the 1930s, where we meet a young musician who has insinuated himself into the life of an aging composer living in Belgium. Next we’re off to California in the 1970s, as a journalist investigates the shady dealings behind the operation of a nuclear power plant. Then the setting moves again, to contemporary England, where a publisher is on the run from dubious debt collectors. Next, we jump into the future to follow a clone worker created to staff a fast food restaurant. Finally, we speed ahead to the future’s future, a post apocalyptic island world that resembles the tribal backdrop from the initial tale.
The recently released trailer for Cloud Atlas is appropriately dense, clocking in at over five-and-a-half minutes of non-stop imagery and rapid fire cuts between each of the various time periods and places. It’s easy to see how both the Wachowskis and Tykwer came to the material, as well as what they offer to it. From the former we see glimpses of grand technical achievement, as cameras move in impossible ways and futuristic sci-fi cityscapes stretch off into the horizon. From the latter we see sumptuous period details, notably wrapped around actor Ben Wishaw, who previously starred in Tykwer’s most successful – and expensive – effort to date, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.
Acting alongside Wishaw is an interesting mix of big names and small, with an international cast that reflects the novel’s rapidly changing setting. Tom Hanks pops as the most familiar face, even as he shifts between four different roles. Also hopping through time are Halle Barry, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon, and Keith David, among others.
After taking in the trailer, click over to Warner Brothers’ official Cloud Atlas website for help deciphering the scenes. They’ve got a great timeline featuring all of the major players throughout the years, including the many faces of Hanks, Berry, and Weaving in particular. And if you should be left with the feeling that some unfilmable novels are best left on the bookshelf, the filmmakers themselves would like to speak with you. Seemingly aware of the risk they’re running with such a massive adaptation, they’ve taken to the airwaves to speak on that topic for themselves.
For Fans Of: The Matrix, The Fountain, The Time Machine, big budget spectacle, mind-bending stories
Why We’re Excited: Tykwer’s artistic judgement, The Wachowskis’ technical prowess, an incredible ensemble cast and an epic tale to be told