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David Mitchell at Symphony Space in New York last week. (Symphony Space)
David Mitchell at Symphony Space in New York last week. (Symphony Space)

British author David Mitchell says he never imagined anyone would make a movie out of his novel Cloud Atlas.

“I can honestly say that the only film-related thought I had when I was writing this was: what a shame nobody will ever film this,” he told an audience at New York’s Symphony Space last week. “It’s not only one of the most ‘unfilmable’ books I’ve ever written, this is also one of the most ‘unfilmable’ books I’ve ever read.”

“Unfilmable” or not, the movie version of Cloud Atlas has been filmed, and it’s opening tomorrow (Oct. 26).  Written and directed by Tom Twyker (Run, Lola, Run) and Andy and Lana Wachowski (the Matrix trilogy, V for Vendetta), the nearly three-hour movie stars Tom Hanks and Halle Berry – and an impressive roster of British actors, including Jim Broadbent, Brit/Aussie Hugo WeavingBen Whishaw (of The Hour and now the new Q in Skyfall), Jim SturgessJames D’Arcy and Hugh Grant.

Mitchell’s 2004 novel is a complex, cocoon-like series of nested stories, the literary equivalent of a Russian doll. The initial narrative starts in 1850 but it is broken off, and the novel continues with a second story set in the 1930s that picks up on elements that are in the first. This continues over five stories, until the middle of the book, where a centerpiece, and unbroken, story is told, after which the first five stories, in reverse order, are once again continued.

“I knew that they would be changing the structure of it, and what I felt, really, was relief because if somebody filmed it with the same structure as the book, it would suck,” Mitchell said, getting a big laugh from the Symphony Space audience.

“It turns out, luckily for me, that you can ask a reader to begin a book six times, the sixth time being in the middle,” said the 43-year-old writer, who pointed out that it’s not the same kind of artistic request you can make of a typical moviegoer.

“The switch in the film is that of a mosaic,” explained Mitchell. “It’s smashed, you’re introduced to each world in order, in the beginning, long enough for the hook to be sunk in, and when all six hooks are in, then they switch from world to world to world quicker.”

Mitchell said the approach was the “ingenuity” of the movie, or as he also called it, “the on-board motor of the film” that maintains a continuity through six different stories set in different times and places.

“There’s always a logic, sometimes it’s explicit,” he said. “One scene ends with a question being asked and then the next scene several hundred years earlier or later, thousands of miles away, begins with that question being answered.”

The Wachowskis and Twyker also used “subtle” devices, like employing the “same odd-shaped room” as a location to bridge segments in a way that creates continuity, says Mitchell, who believes that it’s all part of understanding the differences between books and movies. “Each art form does bring certain limits to the table,” Mitchell said, and those making adaptations ignore them at their own peril.

In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal called “Translating Cloud Atlas Into the Language of Film,” Mitchell even came up with a list of five “habits of successful film adaptation.”

First, “bagginess” is great in a novel, but a movie has to “deliver plot more quickly.”

Second, details and atmosphere can be “suggested” in a novel; in a movie, “it’s either shown or it isn’t.”

Third, novels can have dozens of characters, but movies have to pare them down, or most viewers will be confused. He gives this habit the name, “Honey, I Shrunk the Cast.” Mitchell views the upper limit of major characters somewhere around eight.

Fourth, never underestimate the power of music. Novels may have figurative music, but the actual music of movies is transformative.

Fifth, books can leave lots of aspects open-ended. In movies, as a general rule, “all roads lead to closure.”


What do you think are the most important requirements for good screen adaptations?


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By Paul Hechinger