"Cloud Atlas" author David Mitchell: Adaptation is Translation

We asked author David Mitchell what it was like to see his best-selling, award-winning novel being made into a movie. As with just about everything he writes, his answer was entertaining and illuminating.


Ten years have passed since I was hacking away on a manuscript that turned into my novel Cloud Atlas, and I can say hand-on-heart that back then my only film-related thought was a regretful "What a pity this novel is going to be the most unfilmable one I’ll ever write." This month, however, the movie version of my impossible-to-film book goes on general release in North America and the rest of the world shortly after. I’ve rarely been so pleased at being so wrong. What makes the film so successful, to my mind at least, is how the three writer/directors – Lana and Andy Wachowski (directors of The Matrix Trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) have approached the project not as recorders of a visual audiobook, but more as interpreters, or translators.

Take structure: my book resembles a nest of Russian Dolls. Each of the six novellas that make up the book is "interrupted" by its successor, not unlike The Arabian Nights. After the central story is told in its entirety the novel delivers the "Part Twos" of the interrupted novellas in reverse order, boomeranging back into the past. Novels being baggy, mercurial beasties, Cloud Atlas the book gets away with this structure, but a film that asked its viewers to begin six times – the sixth time over an hour into the story – would implode, and only the hardest core über-viewer could stay for the duration. Structurally, then, the directors have opted for a ‘mosaic’, which splices and intersperses the six narratives, set between the 1850s and the 24th century (roughly). The directors then glue this mosaic together with great ingenuity – for example, a question might be asked at the end of one scene, only to be answered at the start of another, many decades away and thousands of miles distant. Readers of the book will notice some small-to-medium-sized modifications of the plot, too. In the novel, Zachry is a goat-herding teenager on post-apocalyptic Hawaii, whereas the movie-Zachry is about the same age as the actor who plays him – Tom Hanks, as it happens. This age-jump permits a feasible love-interest with the off-island visitor, Meronym, which in turn completes a relationship-arc begun four worlds ago in the 1930s.


Do I mind? Where literal fidelity would result in a dog’s dinner, certainly not. Suppose my Chinese translator comes across this joke in my novel – "A wood termite walks into a pub and says, 'Hey! Where’s the bar-tender?'." Here a faithful translation into Chinese would kill the pun, stink of a clunky translation and pop the bubble of fiction. What my able friend in Shanghai does here is to substitute my joke for a completely different word-joke which works in Chinese, perhaps retaining only the bar-scenario. Function trumps fidelity. Similarly, in no way do I consider the changes made by the directors of Cloud Atlas to be travesties that have resulted in a ‘non-canonical’ version of my book; any more than I consider the Chinese translation of Cloud Atlas to be a rival of the English original. It’s a variation, a translation from prose into film – and to my mind, it’s a beautiful one.

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