Film v. Literature
I find it interesting to think about how far film has come as our day and age’s major artistic medium—now, I can make no generalization, but it at least seems like a good number of people especially from our generation spend more time watching a screen than reading a book (although that does include television which is a whole different story). And yet literature an the written word has lasted as an art form for thousands of years. I guess this sort of necessitates the question as to which form is more effective (if such a sweeping gesture can be made (which I doubt it can))?
What better piece to start with than Cloud Atlas considering its status as a major work of literature from the past decade and its respective film adaptation (which I will go against what the box office proclaims and claim for myself that I thought it was a wonderfully done film). What is so interesting about Cloud Atlas the novel is Michell’s attentive writing towards reader response theory—this notion that what is primordial when it comes to art is the way in which it is viewed. This informed his unique structure, lexicon and use of internal form, adopting multiple narrators, perspectives and styles—from a sort of interview, to a series of epistles, to a dystopian world, post apocalyptic work, action thriller, goofy British comedy and abolitionist travelogue. What the film didn’t have to work with (as much) was the obvious and intensive focus on language and the way that words work in effect on the reader. The novel had a whole lot of artifice and was subtlety aware of such aspects, I think, and worked well to key the reader into such elements as well.
On the other hand, unlike reading a book, the film version will continue on without you, whether you’re “with it” or not (converse to the way reading goes where things move at one’s own (in my case, glacial) pace. This to me is the inherent drawback of film as an artistic medium—the fact that there is this level of detachment that one runs the risk of experiencing as a viewer and artist. On the other hand, there is obvious credence in the use of visuals—which Tykwer and the Wachoski’s version had in spades. Truly wonderful art direction and cinematography I thought, considering I do genuinely think that this visual aspect is important, vastly valuable and something that most literature does not make any use of (for an example of some that does, see some of Kurt Vonnegut’s drawings from his novels). And visuals aside, what Cloud Atlas the movie had going for it was the power of music as well—which when used correctly does perhaps more powerfully what good literature often gestures towards trying to achieve—that is, creating a feeling for something that is otherwise completely indefinable (it’s spectacular, isn’t it, how much a wordless song can move one).
So I suppose in the end (and perhaps this is in part because both Cloud Atlas pieces were quite well done) I still am not sure about which medium I find to be more compelling. Nevertheless if anyone ever asked me, I’d recommend reading the book before the film, both because it probably made a lot more sense and because it is obviously the original, the purest form of this great interconnected story.