There’s some major movement on Cloud Atlas, the adaptation of David Mitchell‘s ambitious novel that Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski are writing and planning to direct together. The project has been crawling forward for some time, and was recently announced as a definite ‘go’ with Tom Hanks in one of the key roles. Quite a few other people have been discussed as possible cast members, and the news today confirms Halle Berry and Hugo Weaving and adds Ben Whishaw. Much more info, including a long casting/character breakdown, is after the break.

The big news, via THR, isn’t necessarily that those actors are now firm additions to the project, but that all the actors cast will play multiple roles.

So, first, for the uninitiated, let’s hit the major question: What is Cloud Atlas?

The novel is difficult to quickly summarize, as it is made up of six nested stories that take place in divergent locales and time periods and are written to emulate a variety of popular and literary styles. The first story is set in the mid-1800s, and the final one takes place hundreds of years in the future, when most civilization has been reduced to nothing.

The structure of the book is strange, too, and could be mapped out like so: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. You get the first half of the first story, which breaks off abruptly, then goes to the first half of the second, which references the first, and so forth until the sixth tale, which is presented in its entirety. Then the second half of the fifth tale takes place, and so forth until the novel ends with the completion of the first story.

Right now we’ve got Tom Hanks, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw and Helle Berry confirmed, with Natalie Portman a vague possibility. James McAvoy and Ian McKellen were once bandied about as possible actors for the project, but with both busy for the latter half of this year and Cloud Atlas hoping to start in September, they’re very likely out. (Ian McKellen has that little pair of films, The Hobbit, to shoot. If Cloud Atlas shoots partially in Australia or New Zealand, could he flip back and forth between projects? Possible, but seems unlikely.)

So who would the cast be? This is pure speculation, but to a certain extent there are only a few roles that most of the announced and mentioned cast could play. (And I’m not even going to get into the actual thematic content and connections of these characters and stories, because that’s enough to fill a couple of feature-length articles alone.)

Tom Hanks‘ primary role would very likely be Adam Ewing, the character whose journals, dated around 1850, open and close the novel. He’s an American notary who has journeyed to the South Pacific on a job-related errand, and undertakes a sea voyage with a grimy crew. Written in the language of the time, this is not the most racially-sensitive story, and (like Will Smith in Django Unchained) would be a break from the usual Tom Hanks image.

Ben Whishaw would be my pick for Robert Frobisher, the lead character in story #2, ‘Letters from Zedelghem.’ He’s a brash young con man and apprentice musician who journeys to Belgium, circa 1931, in an attempt to find work with an aging, irascible composer. This is probably the role for which James McAvoy was initially sought, too.

Natalie Portman was likely in mind for Luisa Rey, a young journalist in the mid ’70s who finds trouble when she investigates the manipulation of political power at a new nuclear power plant. Her story, ‘Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,’ is the third in the book, and the most pulpy and straightforward. Tom Hanks could fill out one of a couple possible supporting roles in this story (nuke power plant CEO Alberto Grimaldi, perhaps, or more likely the politician Lloyd Hooks) and Ben Whishaw could be the young engineer Isaac Sachs.

Hugo Weaving could be one of many people, starting with Dr. Henry Goose, a primary supporting character in the Adam Ewing tale. He could also possibly play Robert Sixsmith, a friend of Robert Frobisher, who takes an active role in Luisa Rey’s tale. (But probably not, for reasons I go into next.) Other likely options include Joe Napier, head of security for the power plant in ‘Half-Lives,’ or Bill Smoke, a contract killer in that same story.

If Ian McKellen could participate,  his primary role would be Timothy Cavendish, a vain publisher who finds himself in trouble with an author’s family and ends up confined against his will in an unlikely prison. He’s the lead of the fourth story, ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Canvendish,’ which is set more or less in the present day. The Hobbit may rule him out, however. An actor of similar age will have to take the role, unless the story is being significantly rewritten. In all likelihood the same actor that plays Timothy Cavendish would also play Robert Sixsmith, if that’s the way the multi-role casting is being set.

Halle Berry has to be the choice for Meronym, one of two main characters in the sixth tale, ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After.’ This is the story that kind of wraps the tale around to the beginning, in a way, as it takes place on Hawaii hundreds of years in the future after most civilization is gone. The dialogue is a sort of Road Warrior-style affected/reduced English. Meronym is a woman from a traveling tribe of ‘Prescients’ who comes to stay with a small island civilization. She is essentially paired in the tale with the tribesman Zach’ry, and their story is the most action-oriented of the six. Zach’ry could be played by Ben Whishaw, too, though that doesn’t seem as likely.

So who’s missing? Well, many supporting characters. But paramount will be choosing a great Korean actress to play Sonmi, who may be the most important character in the novel. ‘An Orison of Sonmi-451′ is the fifth tale in Cloud Atlas, taking place in a futuristic Korea that is dominated by corporations to the point where many grow their own clones (‘fabricants’) to man stores and industry. Sonmi is one such clone, and her story has a great effect on what follows.

The other big question is: how the hell does anyone make this into a movie? It isn’t just that the six distinct stories each has their own style. It is that each is a real story, and cannot be shortened beyond a certain point without making it useless. From story to story, the characters are related in ways that are sometimes very subtle, and occasionally quite overt. Having the same actor play different characters would be a way to get some of those relationships across, but this is still a daunting adaptation. There is an overarching theme, but it is one that works in the context of the book — condensed into a two or three hour film, I can’t predict how it will flow.

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