For a playwright or screenwriter, this is a normal day at the office, but the first read-through of the “Cloud Atlas” script will stay with me forever. With three or four actors unable to attend, the film’s directors — Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski, who also wrote the screenplay — divvied up the spare roles. It seemed rude not to volunteer. I hadn’t been in a group-reading situation since my high-school English class, but instead of my 17-year-old classmates slogging through “A Passage to India,” here were Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant and Jim Broadbent delivering lines that sounded uncannily familiar. The whole experience felt rather like finding Gandhi playing Connect 4 with your plumber in the cupboard under the stairs — it wasn’t so much the individual elements of the scene that were surreal but their juxtaposition.
Yet it soon sinks in that you’ve morphed from being the Creator to the guy who happened to write the original novel. How this makes you feel depends, I guess, on how you feel about the adaptation itself. I’ve never experienced much anxiety in this quarter. I met the three directors in 2008, and their plan to foreground the novel’s “transmigrating souls” motif by having actors perform multiple roles (each role being a sort of way station on that soul’s karmic journey) struck me as ingenious. Some changes to plot and character were inevitable, so that the book’s six worlds could be coaxed into a film-shaped container: the love interest between the (now) middle-aged Zachry and Meronym on postapocalyptic Hawaii, for example, or Cavendish’s epilogue, which appears in the film but not the book. Moreover, the novel’s Russian-doll structure has become more of a mosaic — you can’t ask a viewer to begin a film for the sixth time after a hundred minutes.
Wherever the “Cloud Atlas” screenplay differed from “Cloud Atlas” the novel, it did so for sound reasons that left me more impressed than piqued. (At the read-through, I sat next to Lana Wachowski, and when a line earned a particularly strong response, I’d whisper, “Was that one of yours or one of mine?” The tally was about 50-50, I think.) Anyway, film adaptations of novels are prone to failure not because they are too faithless but too faithful: why spend all that effort producing an audiobook with pictures?
I love the process of adaptation and doing it for Cloud Atlas is just fascinating. I was skeptical at first but now I can’t wait to see how they translated one of my favourite books for the screen because it really sounds like a work of great care and promise.
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