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Reflections Upon Seeing Cloud Atlas

"If I had remained invisible, the truth would stay hidden, and I couldn't allow that." --Somni 451, Cloud Atlas

It is a pattern that, sadly, has repeated again and again throughout human history. Society adopts as true notions that are deeply false, allowing one segment of society to maintain power over another. To question these notions is often to draw the wrath of the oppressor, to face imprisonment or exile, torture or death.

It didn't occur to me when I fell in love with the novel some years ago that it might be my experiences as a transgender woman that made Cloud Atlas resonate so deeply with me, but now that a film based on the book is out, directed by, among others, Lana Wachowski, I'm forced to consider that perhaps this is no small part of it.

The film, by using actors again and again in each of the its interwoven stories that take place over a period of hundreds of years, drives home the notion of reincarnation, of souls resurfacing, the notion that, as one character puts it, "we do not stay dead long." This notion, handled so poetically by author David Mitchell in the novel, was a stirring and vital aspect of the book's power, though I don't happen to believe in it. I do believe, however, that our actions can have a kind of immortality, that the effects of our choices can ripple out through time. As a transgender woman, I'm the beneficiary of such actions by people I've never met, people who have risked everything and often paid dearly in pursuit of the freedom to live an honest life as respected, equal participants in our society. Tragically, the struggle is far from over. Some, like myself, can feel relatively safe, though I often dress androgynously out of a fear of attracting hostile attention on the street. (Idiots and bigots in online comments are one thing. Idiots and bigots in your face are something else entirely.) But still, I have it very, very good. Many trans women--particularly trans women of color--are attacked and killed throughout the United States (and even here in the supposedly LGBT-friendly Bay Area) with staggering, shattering frequency.


The novel remains, for me, the definitive version of Cloud Atlas, and I hope that people seek it out and read it before seeing the film. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, joint directors of the film, create such powerful imagery, and the faces of actors like Tom Hanks and Halle Berry are so familiar to us, that I doubt any viewing of the film can leave any subsequent reading of the novel unaffected. Some pleasures of the novel cannot be translated into film, such as the way in which the narrative voice and the structure of each segment of the story are so different from every other that it's hard to believe that it is all the work of the same author. Mitchell's use of language is nothing short of musical at times, and nothing in the film can duplicate the power of hearing Zachry's voice in my head as clearly as if I were sitting at a fire with him listening to him tell his tale. And though the motif is still present in the movie, I also missed one of the novel's most memorable explorations, removed from the film, of how the power of stories can be used for good or evil.

Although anyone who has seen even a trailer for the film knows far more about the story than I did when I went into the novel, I still think that the story's surprises are best discovered in the pages of Mitchell's novel. The film seems to be baffling some viewers who haven't read the book, but for me, it was quite easy to follow, and I felt that the huge changes made by the screenwriters to the story's structure were sensible ones that helped emphasize the similarities between the societal struggles each central character finds herself or himself facing. Which in turn are the same societal struggles that many of us face to greater or lesser degrees.

In a reaction I wrote to the novel upon finishing it some five years ago or so, I wrote, "I had this bizarre, unshakable feeling of being more connected than I was before I'd read it, not just to the people around me, but to those who'd gone before me, and those who will come after me as well." The film gave me goosebumps. It broke and repaired my heart. It reignited in me this sense of awareness that everyone I saw on the street was the result of choices dating back for centuries, and might through their own actions impact, in ways minuscule yet meaningful, the state of the world centuries from now.

"Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future." Yes, this notion may seem like a no-brainer, so evident as to not even be worth stating. Some may find the novel's or the film's exploration of this theme pointless, or the way its repeatedly presented in such momentous contexts pretentious. But for me, as written in Mitchell's novel and presented in the new film, it takes on a spiritual power, one that I, as an adherent of no faith, find much truth and comfort in.

I am not a Somni. I am not a revolutionary, risking everything to change the world. But my actions matter, and so do yours. You may feel insignificant at times, like just one drop in an immeasurable ocean. Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops? I am riding the waves created by those who came before, and I can have some small part in shaping the waves for those who come after. And so can you.


Cloud Atlas Co-Director Lana Wachowski gave a wonderful speech recently upon accepting the HRC's Visibility Award. You can watch it here.