Ok, David Michell fans, it may be safe to unclench your jaws, unfold yourselves from the crouch position and come out from under your desks. Recent news that the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer plan to divide up the disparate segments of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas — and not direct everything as a three-headed hydra — resolves some of our grave concerns about the book’s prospects for surviving its translation to film in some recognizable form.
Up until now, we’ve had a hard time imagining what good could come of such a mismatched and crowded union of filmmakers — best known, individually and collectively, for their kinetic, existentially inflected take on the action film — setting out to adapt a decidedly cerebral and low-octane book that leap-frogs across genres, time periods and continents. But now that we have a better sense of the division of labor among the directors, we’re beginning to see the method behind the madly ambitious project. It makes sense, for instance, that the Wachowskis plan to tackle the book’s three passages set in the near and distant dystopian future. One centers around a 21st Century book publisher being held against his will in a nursing home. Another involves an interview with fast food serving clone due to be executed for revolting against her totalitarian overlords. The last takes place around a campfire in post-apocalyptic Hawaii.
Tykwer, the German filmmaker who made interesting use of real-time suspense with his breakthrough film, “Run, Lola, Run,” has yet to deliver on his early promise in any of his subsequent studio films, including an 2006 adaptation Patrick Suskind’s beloved Proustian caper, “Perfume: The story of a Murder.” Even though “Perfume” failed to capture the novel’s essential appeal, the process presumably prepared Tykwer for the challenges specific to navigating complex literary material that spans multiple genres and historic periods. Shooting concurrently with the Wachowskis, Tykwer will head up a separate crew to wrestle the novel’s three disparate period pieces to the screen. One involves an American notary’s account of his journey home across the Pacific from New Zealand. Another follows an impoverished musician efforts to survive in 1930′s Belgium by taking a menial job working for a composer. The last piece centers around a journalist investigating a nuclear power plant in 1970′s California.
Further complicating matters, the filmmakers have stocked the film with a high-wattage cast, whose iconic personae will be, at best, difficult to shake, and at worst, could upset the delicate balance of the ensemble. Tom Hanks plays Dr. Henry Goose, the ship physician charged with tending the ailing notary during his trans-Pacific voyage. Halle Berry will appear in the Wachowskis’ Hawaii segment the last member of a technologically advanced tribe of survivors. Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, and Hugo Weaving will also pop up at various points in the film as characters yet to be revealed.
We suspect we haven’t been alone in girding for disaster. But it’s been hard to judge the level of dread, given that most avowed David Mitchell devotees responded with an eery silence to all the above news. Mitchell’s readers are ardent about the finely etched characters that and cogent observations that animate his vivid storytelling. But hey tend to be a more reserved in their literary idolatry than, say, the die hard readers who take it upon themselves to ensure the works of Stieg Larsson, Suzanne Collins, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King arrive on screen with their integrity intact. They hold virtual vigils on legions of websites, ready to pounce on a filmmakers’ every iffy casting call or dissonant choice of music.
Any of the disparate ingredients clouding up the cinematic iteration of Cloud Atlas would have surely ignited a outcry among a more populist group of fans. But now that the situation has neutralized, we’re hoping the books supporters will be more forthcoming about the state of the strange film that’s being fashioned from one of the most brilliant books of the past decade. Is there any possibility that this motley crew of directors and actors can turn out a film that’s both true to the source material and cinematically compelling and coherent. Right now, we’re keeping our expectations in check and hoping for a strange but interesting mess that bears a slight resemblance to Mitchell’s work. What’s your forecast for Cloud Atlas?