With the Oscars around the corner, I thought I’d share my thoughts on one of my favourite adaptations in recent years, ARRIVAL, which is up for Best Picture in 2017.
ARRIVAL is written by veteran Hollywood scribe Eric Heisserer and directed by director of the moment, Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners). It’s adapted from the short novella, Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang.
Warning – SPOILERS!!! Do not read on if spoilers bother you
Ted Chiang’s stories are highly cerebral and Story Of Your Life is no different. Chiang is clearly a passionate, highly educated man and his writer’s voice is quite unlike others I’ve seen before (which, as someone who works with writers daily, is quite something!).
Unlike others in the collection however, Story of Your Life probably the most accessible (bar the award-winning Tower Of Babylon, which reads rather like a science fiction Bible story). Drawing heaving on academic references to linguistics then, Ted Chiang weaves a hypnotic, heartrending tale about a woman who is burdened with the knowledge her only child will grow up, only to die at the untimely age of twenty five in a climbing accident in a national park.
Unlike many science fiction stories that rely on expositional clichés like entirely random flashbacks, sudden psychic abilities or time travel, Story of Your Life side-steps these obvious crutches with panache. Instead, our protagonist Louise Banks will meet aliens – and in learning to converse with them via their strange and other-worldly language, she discovers an entirely new way of looking at space and time.
This means she will be able to see everything in the space she occupies, from the moment she learns the alien language, until her death. In doing so, she also discovers this same time period will include the birth and death of her own beloved daughter.
In the course of the story, we will discover how Louise deals with this knowledge – both via grief and joy. It also draws forth the difficult question: “If you knew then, what you know now, would you still do what you did?“
In other words: would you still have a child, if you knew they would grow up, only to die prematurely?
For me, the answer is a resounding YES. As a cancer survivor, it’s been brought home to me that none of us know how much time we have – yet even if we do (ie. through a terminal diagnosis), this does not negate the existing time we have.
What’s more, every person born will die. We cannot escape this. For me, it is selfishness personified to avoid creating that child who will die, simply to avoid the pain of losing them. I accept however that some people feel the exact opposite.
Story of Your Life is roughly 70 pages in length, so it stands to reason there will be some key differences in terms of ‘padding out’ the material to fill a hundred and twenty minutes like ARRIVAL.
In addition, as a script editor I am aware of the different conventions a movie would need in creating tension and drama that are not necessarily applicable in a short story. Short stories can get away with being more of a ‘snapshot’ of a character’s life (which can also happen in short film), whereas the story approach for a two film will need to be more holistic in its approach to the story.
Heisserer is a big fan of Story of Your Life and Ted Chiang and this shows in this adaptation. Every difference and addition to the source material – and there are many – he has brought forth with due care and attention (more on this, in a sec).
It should be noted – Heisserer wrote his screenplay on spec and despite being well-known as talented and capable of delivery in Hollywood circles, he’s written at length of his struggles in getting ARRIVAL to screen. In other words, this adaptation has been a labour of love.
As mentioned, much of the below has been added, though some are strikingly different from the source material:
- Most obviously, the title. The reason is obvious too, though Eric did originally want to call it Story of Your Life, ARRIVAL is much more compelling in a marketing sense when it comes to movies. Also, the movie was sold to potential audiences ‘up front’ as being about aliens (hence the ‘Why are they here?’ tagline), rather than the personal struggles of our protagonist. This is because genre usually sells better than drama.
- The daughter dies of a terminal illness, not a mountaineering accident in the film. She’s also considerably younger, about fourteen or fifteen (she’s twenty five in the novella). It’s again obvious why, as there is much more ’cause and effect’ here, which movies demand – plus her husband also leaves Louise directly because of her prior knowledge of the daughter’s death. This detail is significantly more hazy in the short story.
- The suspicion of the worldwide military regarding the aliens is present in the short story, though there is more discussion of whether it’s possible to trade with the aliens than the fears of alien invasion/domination present in the film.
- Louise tells the ‘Kangaru’ story in the short, just as she does in the movie. However, Louise also makes her concerns regarding language much more obvious throughout the movie, breaking down visually several more times why it’s so important they get it right – not only for the military, for us at home as the audience who may not have this understanding. I was able to follow Chiang’s logic easily because I have studied English Language and taught it myself, but it may not be so obvious for readers who have not.
- The daughter and Louise’s interactions are funny, sometimes even comedic, in the short story. In addition, Louise appears much more of a wise-cracker in the short story; at one point she posits the aliens won’t come out of their ship because of ‘fear of cooties, maybe’. In the film, she is much more serious.
- The Chinese General who causes significant issues for human negotiations in the movie (and whom Louise must appeal to in the resolution) does not play a part in the short story at all.
- There is no bomb planted in the alien space craft by renegade soldiers in the short story. The ‘plot point’ that propels us into the final showdown in the movie regarding the withdrawal the death of one of the aliens and the withdrawal by humans is not present in the short story. The aliens simply take off and go home.
- Louises’s realisation regarding her daughter comes at the end of the movie and is signposted very obviously because of a deftly-done misdirect at the beginning by Heisserer. This realisation does not come to Louise in the short story; instead it’s presented as fact – but comes to the reader instead, much more ‘gently’ over the course of the story.
- In the short film, the aliens simply leave without ever answering why they came. In the movie, they finally answer why they’re here: mankind helps the Heptapods in the future, so they have come to help mankind, hammering home the point their worldview is not sequential like a human’s.
- Louise’s co-worker is called Gary in the short story; he is called Ian in the film (the characters played by Jeremy Renner).
- ‘Come back to me’ is the signpost dialogue in the movie, linking there daughter’s birth and death; in the short story, it’s the words ‘She’s mine‘. Heisserer’s dialogue acts as a signpost for movie audiences of the circular nature of life in this storyworld.
By the way – I read the script and short story before seeing the movie. Intriguingly, the logograms – aka semagrams – are easily to understand in the short story once you’ve seen the movie, I discovered. The filmmakers did an EXCELLENT job here.
This is a genuinely difficult one to call because I REALLY love both versions!! But rather than call it a straight draw, let’s break it right down to its components:
If we’re talking about characters, I think I might say Story of Your Life is my favourite. I enjoyed the insight into characters we don’t see in the movie, such as Louise’s second husband Nelson and the daughter’s best friend. Most of all though, I fell in love with Louise’s wise-cracking voice in the short story, plus Gary’s relationship with her seemed more compelling than Ian’s (which makes sense, given that Chiang was able to ‘hide’ Gary’s involvement in the story because it is a novella, whereas Ian needs to be seen in a movie). It wasn’t I dislike Heisserer’s versions of them – FAR from it, both of them are really great – but Chiang’s had the edge. This also makes sense, because Louise and Gary are Chiang’s direct creations.
If we’re talking plot, then I much prefer ARRIVAL, for the same reason as above. I don’t think it’s any accident my favourite moments in the film are those that were not in the short story! Heisserer’s creations, especially when it comes to the resolution, are really compelling, a script editor’s dream. Heisserer has fashioned a different structure, but it really works. The misdirect at the beginning regarding the daughter’s death is masterful because it makes us THINK we know this story, when nothing is further from the truth.
Heisserer’s dialogue is first rate as always, especially Louise’s ‘I’m about the same’ to her mother; or the soldier’s young wife, crying on the phone, scared the aliens have come to kill them all, which gives him the motivation to plant the bomb.
Best of all, even characters with antagonistic functions – and there’s plenty of them, this is essentially a military movie after all – are not ‘comic book villains’, there to kill or capture the aliens by any means necessary. They’re worried, confused, fearful of the aliens’ intentions – after all, why ARE they here?
In short: Heisserer has done something truly remarkable … he has LITERALLY added to the story. This is surely what every author wants in the adaptation of their story to the screen.