David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is an outstanding book — one of the best I’ve ever read. The Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas is a terrible movie. But quite aside from being confusing and even racist the movie’s biggest flaw is reducing the book’s complex themes to a simple, cheerful message.
In the movie, that message is delivered by Adam Ewing, a 19th-century plutocrat, who upon being told that he is just one drop in an ocean responds stirringly, “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” From the editing and the rising music we are clearly supposed to take from this slogan the lesson that so long as one does good (in this case, fighting to end slavery) then however futile an individual effort may be it will contribute toward the long-term fulfillment of justice.
To be fair, this dialogue is taken directly from the book. But in transposing Ewing’s words to the screen the Wachowskis have transformed what I took to be a fairly naive sentiment into the thundering lesson of the six interconnected stories. By my reading at least, that is not at all a lesson that the book supports.
Ewing’s story is Cloud Atlas‘s first, and in many ways the most optimistic. Every subsequent story takes us further into the future, and deeper into the barbaric variety of human oppression. Ewing’s “multitude of drops” leads not to freedom, but to a heartless corporate conspiracy, a high-tech totalitarian dictatorship, and ultimately to a devastated wasteland in which slavers once again hold the upper hand. True, in each story the individual in question ekes out a personal victory of sorts. But jump ahead a few generations and what we see is not that brave legacy carried forward, but a massive social regression in which the individual’s triumph is badly distorted, if it is remembered at all.
Unlike the movie, Cloud Atlas the book is ambiguous about what matters more: the little triumphs or the larger movements. Mitchell could be read as saying that each individual’s efforts spark an improvement in his or her present day — a positive social change that he perhaps deliberately does not recount — and that the spark persists as an inspiration for future generations when the arc of the moral universe reverts to injustice. In a way the structure of the novel supports that interpretation. The stories are nested together like Russian dolls, so that we get six beginnings in a row, chronologically, and then six endings, reverse-chronologically. It could be that the reverse order of the last half of the book is meant to provide a lineage of sorts to the ideas about freedom, and resistance to oppression, that are repeated to each successive character.
But Mitchell never outright says so. And in a way I think it’s more plausible to read Cloud Atlas as a bleaker story about the futility of fighting humanity’s worst tendencies. However courageous Ewing, or Luisa Rey, or Sonmi-451 may be, the world still ends in nuclear disaster and generations dying in captivity. It’s this harsher interpretation that gives the book its edge, an undercurrent of unease and even skepticism about the tidy genre stories Mitchell tells. The movie mostly ignores this darker reading — and suffers for it.