112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

The Cloud Atlas Duet: Filming the Unfilmable

Nicole Kenley, Simpson University

This paper reads David Mitchell's 2004 novel and the Wachowski's 2012 film against each other to interrogate the notion of the unfilmable. The paper argues that the film's cinematic interpretations of the novel's formal elements intersect with the book on a thematic level that ironically both connects and separates film from text.


Of the many novels described as “unfilmable,” David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is among the most recent to appear onscreen. The novel’s potential unsuitability for film stems, in part, from its obsession with bookishness: the text’s six sections are presented as manuscripts, diaries, and novels nested within and interrupted by each other. Further, one of the novel’s chief joys comes from its interrelated form; the sections successively interrupt each other, and it remains unclear to the reader until over halfway through the text that the earlier stories will return to resolve themselves. The 2012 Wachowski adaptation ingeniously represents the interconnectedness, if not the textuality, of the novel by casting the same actors in multiple roles across the six stories. In essence, the filmmakers invent a new conceit to emulate a theme that the novel expresses primarily through a formal textual device. This technique comes fraught with its own set of complications, creating a version of Cloud Atlas that, as a result of casting the same actors across different ethnic groups, is either post-race or regressively racist. In this paper, then, I interrogate the notion of the unfilmable using Cloud Atlas the film and Cloud Atlas the novel as case studies. Ultimately, the paper concludes that the filmic Cloud Atlas, as a result of its simultaneous expansions and reductions of its hypotext, is itself thematically interconnected with Cloud Atlas and yet interruptive of the novel, thereby re-emphasizing the latter’s unfilmability.