David Mitchell, Novelist

Translating 'Cloud Atlas' Into the Language of Film

My 2004 novel "Cloud Atlas" opens in 1850, with a notary on an island-hopping voyage from the South Pacific to San Francisco. But that narrative gets interrupted by another story, set in the 1930s, about a young composer who finds a memoir written some decades earlier by the notary; which story in turn is interrupted by another, involving a journalist and a physicist, whose letters recount the 1930s narrative; and so on, for a total of six different time frames. In the novel's second half, the "interrupted" narratives are continued, and the novel ends with the conclusion of the 1850s memoir.

Warner Bros. Pictures

MAKING AN 'UNFILMABLE' NOVEL: Doona Bae and Jim Sturgess in 'Cloud Atlas.'

This "there-and-back" structure always struck me as unfilmable, which is why I believed that "Cloud Atlas" would never be made into a movie. I was half right. It has now been adapted for the screen, but as a sort of pointillist mosaic: We stay in each of the six worlds just long enough for the hook to be sunk in, and from then on the film darts from world to world at the speed of a plate-spinner, revisiting each narrative for long enough to propel it forward.

Thinking about how a novel's structure must be made "film-shaped" has led me to these habits of successful adaptations.

First, the bagginess of novels becomes cinematic tautness. A novel can afford to take its time; meandering is a virtue. Dickens, Thackeray and their contemporaries had magazine pages to fill and needed a scale as full-grown as that great 21st-century narrative format, the DVD box set. And who wants to read a novel that lacks fallow areas and downtime—and thought? By contrast, a film costs at least $100,000 per minute, and after 180 minutes, the human eyeball is in danger of melting, so it has to deliver the plot more quickly.

Second, suggestiveness in novels becomes exactitude in film. Too much detail clogs text like cholesterol clogs arteries, and three sentences of description per roof/landscape/face are normally ample. The trick is to "stroke" the reader's imagination into life and get it to do the work for you. In a film, however, detail cannot be suggested: It is either shown or it isn't. Something similar occurs to dialogue. There are no readers to "hear" a particular line in their own way. The take used by the director becomes the one final version.

The third habit of adaptation might be called "Honey, I Shrunk the Cast." Novels like "Bleak House" and "The Lord of the Rings" have room for dozens of characters and time for major ones to wane and minor ones to wax in importance. But an adaptation must perform triage on the novel's cast or else the viewer will lose track of who's who (and the characters won't be around for long enough to develop anyway). The "Cloud Atlas" film is near the outer limit, with about eight major characters.

Fourth, just add music. Musicality in novels is only figurative: Books don't (yet) have speakers, though e-books are working on it. Music is an extra character that can amplify emotion or subvert it or stitch a narrative together. A gifted score-composer can somehow transform the essence of a book into music and have it waft through, like the Holy Spirit.

Fifth, and last for now: All roads lead to closure. The unwritten contract between author and reader does not contain a clause saying, "I, the author, do faithfully promise to reveal the ultimate fates of the major characters," but films do, which is why so few of the films with four or five stars from the review of posterity end in uncertain futures for the principle players.

Adaptation is a form of translation, and all acts of translation have to deal with untranslatable spots. Sometimes late at night I'll get an email from a translator asking for permission to change a pun in one of my novels or to substitute an idiomatic phrase with something plainer. My response is usually the same: You are the one with knowledge of the "into" language, so do what works. When asked whether I mind the changes made during the adaptation of "Cloud Atlas," my response is similar: The filmmakers speak fluent film language, and they've done what works.

—Mr. Mitchell is the author of "Cloud Atlas," the film adaptation of which opens nationwide on Oct. 26.

A version of this article appeared October 20, 2012, on page C11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Translating 'Cloud Atlas' Into the Language of Film.

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