Adaptation Integrity and Reincarnation in Cloud Atlas

Warning: Some spoilers ahead for both the book and movie version of Cloud Atlas.

The tagline for the film adaption of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas reads: “Everything is Connected.” These three words succinctly communicate the theme of both the book and film version of the story. However, while the theme of connection is generally the same in both the movie and the book, the film’s specific treatment of it results in a vastly different presentation of reincarnation.

The book version of Cloud Atlas certainly hints at the idea of reincarnation, most explicitly (and ironically) through publisher Timothy Cavendish’s decision that The First Luisa Rey Mystery should be edited to remove the implication that Luisa Rey is the reincarnation of Robert Frobisher. Connections and similarities between other characters are also drawn, but never so overtly that reincarnation is certain.

On the other hand, the directors of the film adaptation chose to use the same actor or actress to portray different characters in different stories across different time periods and even different races. This artistic choice indisputably asserts that reincarnation takes place in the story, even though this was never evident in the book, tampering with the novel’s original theme. Moreover, the choice to use makeup and prosthetics in an attempt to chance the race or gender of the actors and actresses actually distracted from the movie’s story and generated considerable controversy besides.

Obviously, writing and film are two different mediums, and certain changes must be made when adapting any book to the screen. Furthermore, the directors’ choice to use the same actors and actresses was in line with the spirit of the themes of Cloud Atlas. However, “Everything is Connected” does not mean the same thing as “Everyone is Connected,” and the first phrase most certainly does not translate into “Everyone is Reincarnated.” It is choices like these that cause fans of popular books constantly complain when their beloved story is adapted as a movie, grumbling that “it wasn’t as good as the book.”

The film adaption of Cloud Atlas therefore prompts the question: how much leeway can screenwriters and directors justifiably take when it comes to changing fundamental elements of a story in order to adapt it to the screen? This answer will vary from adaptation to adaptation, but one thing is for sure: the directors of Cloud Atlas took the theme of reincarnation too far in the movie as compared to the book.

—Kara Sherrer

~ by ksherrer on March 26, 2014.

2 Responses to “Adaptation Integrity and Reincarnation in Cloud Atlas”

  1. I definitely agree with you that the reincarnation theme in the movie was overdone by using the same actors to play multiple roles across races. However, I can see the reasoning behind some of the other choices to emphasize reincarnation so heavily, particularly when you consider that a significant portion of the audience that the movie was geared at probably had not read the book. I think our prior knowledge of the storyline might have made some things seem overly obvious that were actually well done if you considered the movie as its own independent piece of art.

  2. In this post you touch on what I consider the most interesting aspect of the film; actors playing more than one role. While I certainly agree that this element of the film emphasizes the theme of reincarnation, I think that it does much more than just that. In film studies we always try to find at least two motives for any decision made in the film. In terms of different actors playing different characters, I think this decision has the effect not only to emphasize the theme of reincarnation but also to show how similar we all are, regardless of time period, race, or gender. For example, research shows that the genetic difference between humans today is a mere 0.1 percent. So while an actor may be vastly transformed in terms of hair, makeup, and costume, the fact that they are still the same person underneath it all serves as a reminder of how similar we all are. I thoroughly enjoyed your post and love how you challenge the film.

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