Arrival by director Denis Villeneuve might be my favorite movie of the year. It’s definitely in the discussion, and probably the frontrunner at this point (which is no small feat, given that it’s up against movies like Sing Street and Swiss Army Man*). And on the one hand, that shouldn’t seem like too much of a surprise. The novella that it’s based on, Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, is one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing.
*I meant to write about each of these earlier in the year and never got around to it. Maybe I’ll circle back around if I have time.
But it’s not always that simple. When the adaptation was first announced, I was incredibly skeptical that such a project would work. After all, when you look at the story, it has approximately zero or even negative overlap with what you would traditionally associate with a blockbuster movie.
I mean, it’s a hard science fiction story that’s mainly about how linguists would handle a first contact situation, with long passages of exposition informing the reader about the mechanics of the process and an inverse amount of action. Meanwhile, it’s structurally non-linear with a major emotional twist that hinges on the medium being prose; the second that it would be displayed visually, it would give itself away. If any of that screams “$50 million blockbuster” to you, you’re lying to yourself.
And yet, they pulled it off. It may be the best adaptation of an already-incredible source material since…shoot, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World maybe? And much like Scott Pilgrim, it’s perfect in part because it realizes the key to making a great movie from a great book (/short story/series of graphic novels, in these cases) is not to make it a 1:1 adaptation of the source material, but instead to understand the different constraints of the different mediums and make changes to preserve the feel of the original in a way that works better for the screen.
What I’d like to do here is just dig in a little deeper to those changes, and pull apart what they are and why they were made. And I’m going to try and do it in a way that doesn’t spoil either Arrival or Story of Your Life because, seriously, they’re fantastic and everyone should check them out. However, if you have only seen the former or read the latter, that should be fine. The film is a faithful adaptation, know that the basic story beats are the same, and you already know where the other is headed*. Hopefully, I will be a good enough writer to explain the situation, whether you experience one, both, or neither.
*I mention this because I was concerned that the short story would be made unrecognizable to work as a movie script, but this was thankfully not the case.
First, to fit in with the demands for of modern blockbusters, Arrival needed the addition of some form of “excitement”. The original short story was much more exploratory in nature, with the conflict being driven more from a question of whether the aliens could be communicated with. Thankfully, screenwriter Eric Heisserer resisted the temptation to make that addition “action scenes”, like I feared might be the case based on advertisements. Instead, he expands the role of the military to add tension with the main characters over a difference in approach over how to deal with the aliens, a good way to underscore the themes of the piece without feeling out of place.
But the most masterful translation might be the successful preservation of the original story’s twist. As mentioned, in Story of Your Life, Chiang is able to conceal a major surprise by virtue of not having to visually portray something. It can shock you with the “what” of the story (what is going on, essentially). Villenueve and Heisserer thankfully decided they needed to find some way to translate this emotional gut-punch. But how does one do that?
Similar to the first problem, by extrapolating from the text. The book explained the “how” of the problem (how the language works, how language and perception overlap) so that it could shock you with the “what” (what it ultimately means. With that option out of the question, they instead lay all their cards on the table from the start. With that “what” out of the way, they manage the same emotion gut-punch that Ted Chiang pulled off instead using the “how” of the story; namely, how all the events fit together. They mimic the story’s non-linear style to obscure all of the implications of the events, while also developing their own connections to deepen the meaning of the reveal. And these new connective ideas, while not necessary in the original (one of them even explicitly changes a fundamental aspect of the original in fact, while the other is totally absent), do add a lot to the story, especially with regards to its theme of interconnectedness.
I’m simultaneously worried that I both didn’t explain myself well enough and gave away too much and any further explanation would certainly give everything away, so that’s probably a good sign to stop for the time being. They key take away from this should be that everyone should check out Arrival, as well as Story of Your Life even if they weren’t both fantastic on their own, comparing the two is highly instructive.