Matthew Razak October 26, 2012
When “Cloud Atlas” was first published in 2004, it hardly screamed “adaptation!” With a deeply intricate structure and a narrative that intertwines six separate stories, it seemed unlikely that anyone could translate “Cloud Atlas” to a coherent piece on film.
The Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer accepted the challenge, working with author David Mitchell to turn his complicated prose into stunning cinema. Whether they succeeded completely is its own story, but it should come as no surprise that taking an un-filmable book to the screen involves some dramatic changes.
We’ve narrowed the list to 27 substantial differences between “Cloud Atlas” and its source material — but don’t let us stop you from actually doing the reading. The book may come in handy when you’re trying to figure out exactly what you’ve just watched. Read on, but beware: Book and movie spoilers abound.
In the Book: The book is structured so that you read the first half or so of each story chronologically and then the ending of each one in reverse chronological order.
In the In the Movie: The stories are interwoven together, building off each other as the film progresses. However, the first scene and the last are from Zachry’s story, not Ewing’s.
How Different Is It? Drastic. The entire structure of the film is different from the book.
Good or Bad? Good. The book has time to build and connect the stories with details and background, but the film needs to make those connections in a far more immediate manner. Even so, the movie clocks in at over two hours.
2. Actors Playing the Different Characters
In the Book: The only truly confirmed physical similarity between any of the characters is the comet-shaped birthmark that marks them as connected through time.
In the Movie: Most of the characters in the film are played by the same actors, albeit often in heavy makeup, to reinforce the main themes of the movie: the interconnectedness of all beings.
How Different Is It? Unclear. The book doesn’t really focus on physical descriptions of the characters, so it could be a drastic change. On the other hand, it’s an interesting way for the filmmakers to make it clear that the characters are intertwined.
Good or Bad? Good. Seeing the actors play different characters makes the theme of reincarnation and connectedness more obvious than in the book; it’s a useful visual shorthand.
In the Book: Rafael is a young sailor who commits suicide after being molested. Adam Ewing, one of the major characters throughout, feels guilty for not stopping him.
In the Movie: Rafael does not exist and none of his story slips into other characters.
How Different Is It? Big. It’s an entire character!
Good or Bad? Good. Rafael is arguably the least interesting part of the least interesting story in the book, so he’s not really missed in the movie.
4. Preacher Giles Horrox
In the Book: Horrox is the preacher on a remote island where the Prophetess lands. Once Captain Molyneux and his crew arrive, Horrox shares his theory that certain races were created in a hierarchy in which the white man is naturally the leader of all.
In the Movie: Horrox appears at the beginning of Ewing’s story and is the man with whom Ewing is inking a slave trade agreement on behalf of his stepfather. The race hierarchy theory is spoken by Horrox, but credit is given to Ewing’s stepfather.
How Different Is It? Large. Horrox is changed completely, and his section of the story is totally gone.
Good or Bad? Good. This part is simply expository, so getting the idea across is the most important part.
5. Autuwa’s Rescue of Ewing
In the Book: After Dr. Goose has stolen everything from Ewing, Autua saves him by forcing him to drink seawater and carrying him to a nunnery where he is cared for.
In the Movie: Autua gets in a fistfight with Dr. Goose to stop him from poisoning Ewing, but Dr. Goose pins him and strangles him. Ewing saves Autua by bashing Dr. Goose over the head.
How Different Is It? Minimal for the story, massive for the meaning.
Good or Bad? Terrible. Instead of Autua repaying his debt to Ewing for speaking up for him on the ship, he is once again saved by Ewing. In a story about how all humans are truly equal and interconnected, this change completely obliterates that ideal by having the white Ewing save the black Autua twice. Not to mention…
6. Edward Ewing’s Family
In the Book: Ewing’s family is referred to but never directly involved in the story.
In the Movie: At the end of the film, Ewing confronts his stepfather about the slave trade and we meet his wife who stands by his side.
How Different Is It? Bigger than you think. Because we meet Ewing’s wife, she becomes the central relationship at the end of the film instead of Ewing and Autua.
Good or Bad? Mixed. This drives home the film’s stronger focus on relationships, reincarnation and love, but at the cost of the connection between Autua and Ewing.
7. Ayrs’s daughter
In the Book: Vyvyan Ayrs has a daughter, Eva, whom Frobisher at first loathes, but eventually falls in love with.
In the Movie: Eva does not exist, and most details of her story are missing.
How Different Is It? Another character missing.
Good or Bad? Again, mixed. It was a cut that seems like it had to be made; a film can only be so long. The Ewing/Ayrs story is fine without her.
8. Frobisher Tries to Kiss Ayrs
In the Book: There is never any sexual relationship between Ayrs and Frobisher.
In the Movie: Frobisher tries to kiss Ayrs with humiliating results.
How Different Is It? Eh, not that different, but it does change the tone of Frobisher’s departure dramatically and sets up the shooting of Ayrs.
Good or Bad? Neutral. It definitely changes Frobisher’s character dramatically and strengthens his relationship with Ayrs, which is far more robust in the film. It’s not a good change for the book character, but it works in the movie.
9. Frobisher Shoots Ayrs
In the Book: Frobisher leaves the chateau without incident after stealing Ayrs’s gun and leaving a letter for Eva.
In the In the Movie: Frobisher non-fatally shoots Ayrs with Ayrs’s own gun before leaving the chateau and going into hiding.
How Different Is It? Very. It redefines their relationship.
Good or Bad? A good, necessary change. Considering the removal of Eva from the story and the toned back nature of Frobisher’s affair with Ayrs’s wife, this was a necessary change to propel the relationship along.
10. Sixsmith’s Role in Ewing’s Story
In the Book: Since the entire story is composed of letters written to Sixsmith, he doesn’t show up until the very last one. We only know him through the eyes of Frobrisher.
In the Movie: We see Sixsmith several times reading and reacting to the letters.
How Different Is It? Small to insignificant.
Good or Bad? Very good. Sixsmith’s increased involvement not only increases the dramatic action, but also ties the story more firmly to Luisa Rey’s.
11. No Hitchcock Discussion Between Rey and Sixsmith
In the Book: While stuck in the elevator, Sixsmith and Rey have a discussion about Hitchcock. This is a detail that Rey later uses to prove her identity to Megan.
In the Movie: The discussion does not occur, but Sixsmith does show Rey a photo of his niece.
How Different Is It? Small. It’s a fantastic conversation, but its effects are minimal.
Good or Bad? Good.
12. Alberto Grimaldi
In the Book: Alberto Grimaldi is the CEO of Seaboard, the company behind the flawed nuclear reactor. He is eventually killed in a coup d’état by Lloyd Hooks.
In the Movie: Grimaldi doesn’t exist. Hooks is the CEO.
How Different Is It? And another character bites the dust with little to no fanfare.
Good or Bad? Fine. It simplifies the plot and works well with other changes in the adaptation.
13. Joe Napier Doesn’t Die
In the Book: Joe Napier dies after being shot by and shooting Bill Smokes.
In the Movie: Napier lives after the unnamed Mexican woman kills Smokes by bashing his head in.
How Different Is It? Mixed. It’s a big change for Napier’s character, but it’s a small change for the story since Napier’s character is already minimized in the adaptation.
Good or Bad? Good.The Napier of the film is far less deserving of death so keeping him alive is decent. Besides, they already cut so many characters, what’s the harm in leaving one around?
14. Sachs and Rey’s Conversation
In the Book: Isaac Sachs and Luisa Rey have an in-depth conversation at a party where Sachs gets drunk and tells Rey more information about the nuclear generator.
In the Movie: Sachs and Rey meet and have a sober conversation in front of a gorgeous sunset. They discuss love, life and philosophy in very general terms before veering back to the story.
How Different Is It? Small.A minimal conversation change that shifts the focus of the scene in a big way.
Good or Bad? Mixed.The film’s overtness about these souls meeting before is fine, but Sachs’s talk here is a little too obvious.
15. The Conspiracy
In the Book: Various characters keep the flaws of the nuclear reactor covered up because Seaboard would lose a lot of money if the reactor was shut down.
In the Movie: The cover-up is orchestrated by big oil so that nuclear power will fail.
How Different Is It? Noticeable, although it has little to do with the parts of the story that keep you hooked.
Good or Bad? Somehow making nuclear power the victim doesn’t seem like a good idea.
16. The Cat Incident
In the Book: Timothy Cavendish reminisces about his first sexual encounter with Ursula only to reveal that he was too drunk and nervous to perform.
In the Movie: Cavendish and Ursula are caught naked by her parents. Cavendish grabs the cat to cover himself, and it promptly latches onto his nether regions. In his panic, he falls out of the window.
How Different Is It? There’s a cat instead of ED.
Good or Bad? Cat + Groin + Comedy = Good.
17. Cavendish’s Phone Call
In the Book: While trapped at Aurora House, Cavendish manages to get a phone call out to his brother, only to find that his brother has died and his sister-in-law has gone insane.
In the Movie: Cavendish calls his brother and speaks to him, at which point his brother explains that his imprisonment at Aurora House is revenge for sleeping with his wife.
How Different Is It? Medium. It’s a small change that changes the brothers’ relationship for the worse.
Good or Bad? Fine. While it makes Cavendish’s brother seem truly cruel, the comic effect is worth the change.
18. Mr. Meeks’s First Words and Escape
In the Book: Mr. Meeks first says something other than, “I know, I know,” at the pub when he gives a speech to rally the Scots against Nurse Noakes and company. He also rescues himself by hiding in the back of the Range Rover.
In the Movie: Mr. Meeks first new words are “Don’t leave me,” before the escape plan ensues. He has to be rescued after Cavendish has driven off.
How Different Is It? Small.
Good or Bad? Bad.It takes the surprise punch out of his rousing speech and the surprise joke out of him popping up in the back of the Range Rover.
19. Cavendish Reunites with Ursula
In the Book: At the end of the story, Cavendish returns home to find his book has been optioned for a film and he’s fabulously rich.
In the Movie: Cavendish and Ursula are reunited.
How Different Is It? Tiny.
Good or Bad? Great. Since they don’t have time to explain the film option, this is the best way to give Cavendish a quick happy ending.
20. Sonmi-451’s Story’s Beginning
In the Book: Sonmi-451 spends a good chunk of the first half of her story as the supposed subject of a lazy graduate student’s thesis at a college on Mount Taemosan. Eventually, she’s rescued by Mephi, a board member at the college, who educates her and introduces her to Hae-Joo Im. Hae-Joo and Sonmi-452 run away when Mephi and the rest of Union on campus are discovered. (It’s a pretty sizeable part of her story, so this is just the gist of it.)
In the Movie: None of this occurs. Hae-Joo Chang rescues her from the restaurant Papa Song’s and educates her. The story basically jumps directly to the second half. Even then, this is the story that changes the most from the books.
How Different Is It? Huge!This isthe biggest character massacre of them all. You’re missing half a story here along with a ton of character and world development.
Good or Bad? Begrudgingly good. While the film misses out on a large chunk of her story, it’s already a long film and making it any longer to squeeze more in would have just gotten ridiculous.
21. Sonmi-451’s Story’s Ending
In the Book: It turns out that Sonmi-451’s entire adventure was a set up by Unanimity to create a fantastic story that confirms to the public that fabricants (clones) are dangerous. Sonmi-451 goes along with the charade because it allows her to create her Catechisms and influence the world with them.
In the Movie: Only part of her adventure is a charade. Union is not made up, but it wants Sonmi-451 captured in the end because her going public is the only way to truly get the word out.
How Different Is It? Decent. While the plot is changed, the end result does not.
Good or Bad? This one is very good. There’s no way the movie could explain the intricacies of the sci-fi world enough to pull off the book’s twist.
22. Hae-Joo Chang is Not a Kung Fu Master from ‘The Matrix’
In the Book: Hae-Joo Im is an adept spy for Union and Chang is a driver/bodyguard for Mephi. The former keeps Sonmi-451 hidden using cunning and his ability to blend in with anyone. The latter drives Sonmi-451 around.
In the Movie: Hae-Joo Chang (a combination of Hae-Joo Im and Chang) is a ninja master who can take out multiple armed men and pull off spectacular stunts. Massive action sequences dominate the parts of Sonmi-451’s story he is involved in.
How Different Is It? “I know kung fu.”
Good or Bad? Hit and miss. In order to really differentiate the genres of the stories for the movie, this had to be the action set piece. Whereas in the book a shift in writing style sufficed, the film had to turn the story into a genre convention. It works as an action movie, but if you’re looking for loyalty to the book, it will sting.
23. Corporate Control
In the Book: In Sonmi-451’s story, the world (as far as we know) is controlled by corporations. Everything is driven by profit and corporate greed, and it is believed that this is man’s natural order. Everything is incorporated including names (eg. coffee is called “starbucks” [sic]).
In the Movie: The corporate control is toned way back, replacing it instead with a generic evil government.
How Different Is It? Sizeable.
Good or Bad? Definitely bad. It’s one of the cooler ideas presented in the book and would have made for some good jabs at mega stores like Starbucks and McDonald’s. It could have been easily worked into the story.
24. Meronym’s Motivations for Climbing the Mountain
In the Book: Meronym is a scientist, and her reasons for climbing the mountain are academic. She is looking for a new home for the Prescients on Earth, but the top of the mountain is only part of her scouting as all that is up there are observatories.
In the Movie: Meronym believes that she can contact the humans who left Earth by reaching the machines at the top of the mountain.
How Different Is It? Pretty drastic in terms of character motivation.
Good or Bad? Good, because it gives Meronym a more pressing reason to risk her life to get up there.
25. Zachry’s Age and Family
In the Book: Zachry is introduced in the book as a teenager who lives with his family; he inadvertently causes the deaths of his father and brother by accidentally leading the Kona to them. His sister also becomes ill and nearly dies, and when the Kona attack, he doesn’t find out if his mother and siblings are alive or dead.
In the Movie: Zachry is a middle-aged man who lives with his sister and niece. He causes the death of his friend and his friend’s son by hiding from the Kona. His niece becomes ill and nearly dies, and when the Kona attack, he rescues her and sees his dead sister.
How Different Is It? Grand.
Good or Bad? A necessary one because of the casting of Hanks in the role. All the other character changes tumble from that.
26. Sonmi’s Advice
In the Book: Sonmi gives this advice to Zachry: “Hands are burnin’, let that rope not be cut. Enemy’s sleeping, let his throat be not slit. Bronze is burnin’, let that bridge be not crossed.” The instances in which that advice is used come up in the order it is given.
In the Movie: Sonmi’s advice: “Bridge a tremblin’, go below. Hands are bleedin’, don’t let go. Enemy sleepin’, don’t slit his throat.” Ditto for the order used.
How Different Is It? Noticeable restructuring.
Good or Bad? Fantastic. This is one of the few instances where something that works well in the film would have also improved the book. The order of the advice in the movie allows for Zachry to break the rules at the end instead of in the middle, which makes for a stronger narrative.
27. Leaving Earth
In the Book: Zachry and Meronym escape the Kona conquest of the island by sailing to another island.
In the Movie: The two escape to another planet eventually.
How Different Is It? Minimal since the planet looks like Earth.
Good or Bad? Bad as it changes the book’s themes. The escape from Earth puts an end to the cycle of humanity that the book is about. While it ties the movie in a nice bow, it destroys a lot of the meaning it was striving for.
Categories: FeaturesTags: Andy Wachowski, Ben Whishaw, Book, Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell, Doona Bae, Halle berry, Hugh grant, Hugo Weaving, James d'arcy, Jim broadbent, Jim sturgess, Lana Wachowski, Movie, Susan Sarandon, Tom hanks, Tom Tykwer