Cloud Atlas: Book vs. Film (Spoilers)

I’m about to very thoroughly spoil Cloud Atlas - both the book and the film. If you don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading here.

(Cloud Atlas,

A year and a half ago I became aware of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I knew very little about it other than it’s century spanning timeline and varying written style. I found out about the upcoming film adaptation shortly thereafter and promised myself that I would read the book prior to seeing the film.

Fast forward to last week and me struggling to finish reading the book prior to the screening I attended on Saturday, September 15. I managed to finish the book on Friday and went into the film with armed with the source material in mind. I’m still working on forming an opinion on the film (though the book is fantastic and I heartily recommend it), but since both book and film are fresh in my mind, I thought I would outline some of the major differences between the two.

It’s worth noting that Tykwer and the Wachowskis did an amazing job with the setting and look of the film (with the exception of some questionable makeup on certain characters). It’s gorgeous to watch regardless of the story.

Spoilers begin below.

I’ll start with the overall differences in story structure. Then I’ll list the major differences in each story (there are too many minor differences to list). Large chunks of the novel have been cut out from the film and only one survives mostly unscathed (Timothy Cavendish). Wherever it’s not specified, I’m talking about the film.

The story as a whole:

  • The stories in the book are nested and presented in chronological order starting with the first half of the Adam Ewing story being suddenly interrupted with the first half of the Robert Frobisher story, and so on. This continues until Zachry’s story is presented unbroken and ends by leading into the second half of Sonmi’s story and so on until the second half of the Ewing journal closing the book. The film intercuts all of these stories so that you have to follow all six simultaneously. Voiceovers from Zachry begin and end the film over montages from all six stories.
  • The concept of souls being reincarnated is presented with much less subtlety in the film. In the book, five major characters (Adam Ewing, Robert Frobisher, Luisa Rey, Sonmi-451, and Meronym) have the same comet-shaped birthmark on their shoulders. In the film, the six primary protagonists (Adam Ewing, Robert Frobisher, Luisa Rey, Timothy Cavendish, Sonmi-451, and Zachry) have the same birthmark, but located on different parts of their body. The problem with this is that Luisa Rey and Timothy Cavendish would both have been living at the same time since Luisa’s story takes place in 1974 and Timothy is in his 60s in 2012. (Edit: As Peter points out in the comments, the reason this is not an issue in the book is that the Luisa Rey story is presented as purely fictional and the Timothy Cavendish story may also be fiction as well, though that is not clear. In the film, all 6 stories are presented as actually occurring, so the lives of Luisa Rey and Timothy Cavendish would have overlapped.)
  • The same actors in the film are used to portray various characters during the different time periods. One can draw the conclusion that those characters are the same souls reincarnated. However, that also makes no sense due to the time overlap between the 20th century stories and also conflicts with the birthmark/soul interpretation (since the birthmarked characters are all different actors). My preferred interpretation for the actor re-use is that they exemplify certain aspects of humanity and how they change or do not change over the course of history (Tom Hanks is a swindler/scoundrel, Halle Berry is inquisitive and searches for the truth, Doona Bae fights against racism and opression, Hugo Weaving is ruthless, and so on).
  • The linking elements found in the novel are all pretty much present in the film. Frobisher finds Adam Ewing’s journal at Zedelghem, Luisa Rey finds Frobisher’s letters, etc. Due to the structure of the film, the linking elements are found all at once (as opposed to being in two parts) with the exception of Adam Ewing’s journal, half of which is found on a shelf and half propping up a bedcorner, as in the book.

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing:

  • In the film, we see Ewing and Dr. Goose meeting on the beach, Autua’s lashing, Ewing meeting with Reverend Horrox to arrange a trade deal with his father-in-law, Autua’s reveal and joining the crew on the Prophetess, and an extended focus on Dr. Goose slowly poisoning Ewing and subsequent rescue by Autua.
  • Major parts of the book which are missing in the film relate to Ewing’s time on the Chathams (including his discovery of the dendroglyphs) and Raiatea. Autua’s background story and the history of the Moriori have also been removed.
  • Ewing and Goose’s dinner with Mr. D’Arnoq on the Chathams and Reverend Horrox on Raiatea have been combined.
  • To summarize: Adam Ewing’s story in the film has been trimmed down to only those plot points relating to his false trust in Dr. Goose and relationship with Autua.

Letters from Zedelghem:

  • Robert Frobisher’s story is probably the one most changed from the book, with the character of Eva completely missing and Jocasta only appearing in one scene.
  • In the film we see Frobisher escape from the Imperial Hotel (where he was staying with Sixsmith), travel to Zedelghem, begin collaborating with Ayrs, make a romantic advance toward Ayrs, steal Ayrs’ luger, escape from Zedelghem, and complete his Cloud Atlas Sextet before killing himself.
  • Frobisher’s affair with Jocasta and romantic advances toward Eva are not present in the film and have been replaced with a scene where Frobisher attempts to seduce Ayrs.
  • Frobisher’s story is introduced with the first line from the final letter in the novel (about shooting himself through the roof of his mouth with the Luger), removing the slow buildup to that event found in the novel.

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery:

  • Luisa Rey’s story is shortened, but relatively intact.
  • In the film, we see Luisa meet Sixsmith, Sixsmith’s death at the hands of Bill Smoke (though it’s a straight murder, not a suicide setup), Luisa inquiring for Sixsmith at Swannekke, Luisa meeting Isaac Sachs, Isaac’s death, Luisa’s car crash, Joe Napier helping Luisa escape from Bill Smoke, Smoke’s death, and Luisa meeting Megan Sixsmith, who gives her a copy of the reactor safety report.
  • The characters of Fay Li and Lloyd Hooks are missing from the film.
  • In the film, the safety cover-up at Swannekke was arranged by the oil industry in order to cause an accident and increase reliance on fossil fuels. In the novel, it is simply to sell more reactors overseas.
  • No elements of the protestor camp are included in the film.
  • Sixsmith stashing the report in a safety deposit box, Napier being fired and going to his cabin, and the report finally being found on Sixsmith’s boat are all not included in the film.
  • Unlike the novel, in which Half-Lives was written by Hilary V. Hush, the film has Half-Lives written by Javier, Luisa’s young neighbour.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish:

  • Timothy Cavendish’s story is the least changed in the film. It plays out very similarly to the novel.
  • Missing from the film is most of Timothy’s escape from London (though his stop at Ursula’s house is included) and his stroke and subsequent recovery at the Aurora House.
  • Unlike the novel, Timothy’s brother Denny does not die and in fact maliciously sends Timothy to Aurora House for his past transgressions.
  • In the film, Mr. Meeks speaks his first words other than “I know, I know” during the escape from Aurora House, pleading to Timothy: “Take me with you.” His later speech at the pub is intact.
  • Timothy’s story in the film ends with him reunited with Ursula.

An Orison of Sonmi-451:

  • In the film, we see Sonmi recounting to the Archivist her ascension, her escape from Papa Song’s with Hae-Joo, lots of flashy escape scenes from Unanimity, her capture by Unanimity and subsequent escape assisted by Hae-Joo, visiting Papa Song’s Xultation ship, the broadcast of her Declarations and her arrest.
  • In the film, it is Yoona-939 who shows Sonmi the film version of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.
  • Unlike the book where Chang and Boardman Mephi removed Sonmi from Papa Song’s, Hae-Joo does this in the film.
  • Sonmi spends no time in Boom-Sook’s lab in the film, proceeding directly to her encounters with Hae-Joo.
  • Sonmi is captured by Unanimity in the film once prior to writing her Declarations. This doesn’t happen in the book and seems to have been done to add some more action scenes to the movie.
  • In the book, Sonmi reveals that Union is just a provocateur organization created by Unanimity to create an artificial threat in order to unite the people. In the film, Union is a legitimate organization.

Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After:

  • Zachry is portrayed as an adult (by Tom Hanks) in the film, whereas his story takes him from age 9 to age 16 in the novel.
  • In the film we see the events at Sloosha’s Crossin’, Meronym’s arrival, Catkin’s illness after stepping on a scorpionfish, Zachry and Meronym’s ascent of Mauna Kea, and the slaughter of the Valleysfolk by the Kona.
  • In the film, Zachry witnesses his brother and nephew being slaughtered at Sloosha’s Crossin’ as opposed to his father being killed and brother kidnapped in the book.
  • concept of growing into adulthood not in film. Abbess has augurin’s - no dream from Zachry
  • Zachry’s distrust of Meronym is downplayed in the film and by the end of they story they have fallen in love.
  • Unlike the book where Meronym’s reasons for ascending Mauna Kea are not totally clear, in the film she is attempting to access the observatory in order to contact Old’Uns who have escaped the planet. She is apparently successful in this, as we discover at the very end that Zachry has been recalling his story to his grandchildren (with Meronym) around a campfire on another planet.
  • The dialog during these parts of the film are totally true to the novel. It may actually be difficult for your average filmgoer to understand.