This message contains spoilers for both “Arrival” and the novella “Story of Your Life.”
‘Arrival’ is a remarkable sci-fi movie for many reasons, not just because it convinced Hollywood to let director Denis Villeneuve take the lead on a sequel to ‘Blade Runner’ (which was great) and then ‘Dune’, which was even better. Villeneuve seems to have a knack for taking an already impressive existing story and putting his own spin on it, and it was with “Arrival” that this talent of his became apparent to all.
The movie is based on the novella “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, which was first published in 1998. The story is about 50 pages long and doesn’t seem particularly interested in creating some kind of dramatic, ticking clock screenplay. Aliens still visit Earth and the main character is still a linguist trying to communicate with them, but it doesn’t make much sense that these aliens could be a threat or that the world is actually in danger. There aren’t many details in the novella that tell us how the other countries in the world deal with the aliens, but it seems like everyone works together without drama.
‘Arrival’, meanwhile, bases most of its final act around the actions of General Shang (Tzi Ma), the Chinese military leader who nearly causes World War III before our protagonist Louise (Amy Adams) uses her newfound time-travel powers to gain his wits. The day is saved with a paradoxical time loop that “Doctor Who” fans are very familiar with: Louise knows how to call Shang and tell him the exact words to change his mind, but only because Shang reveals the event to her years later. will tell. The entire third act basically revolves around a bootstrap paradox, one that the novella treats very differently.
A movie that keeps its cards close to its chest
The lack of suspense about a possible war in the novella makes sense because, unlike the movie, the novella is quite candid about the time travel element. From the very first page, we can already get the feeling that the narrator is someone who knows the future. From the way Louise talks about her daughter-to-be, we know that after the aliens leave, she can live a pretty mundane life after her interactions with the aliens. This means there isn’t much suspense to milk about the fate of the world as we know from page one that everything is going to be alright.
“Arrival”, meanwhile, hides this element for most of its runtime. The film opens with a montage of Louise losing her daughter to an unspecified terminal illness; we assume it’s a flashback because that’s how movies generally present flashbacks. The future is still a mystery throughout the first half of the movie, meaning it can build a lot more fear around the premise of mysterious aliens suddenly appearing on Earth. Not until Louise asks “who is this kid?” that everything shifts. At this point it is clear that the aliens are benevolent and that humanity’s fate is secure; the only question left is how it all plays out, which is answered with Louise’s call to Shang.
But of course, when people think of ‘Arrival’, it’s not really the geopolitical crisis that comes to mind. It’s that final montage where Louise gets together with Ian (Jeremy Renner), bears a child and enjoys the company of her young daughter, even though she knows the tragic end that awaits her.
Hannah’s death in the book
In the novella, Louise’s daughter (who was never given a name here) dies at the age of 25 in a climbing accident. This raises a big question: why doesn’t Louise just tell her daughter to stay away from rock climbing? The answer is that she can’t, not really. Her experience of knowing the future has fundamentally changed her, making most of what she says and does seem more like a performance in a play; by the end of the story she says things because she knows what to say to make sure things continue as she saw them. At one point, Louise muses to herself:
“What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act exactly as she knew she would?”
The reasoning behind this is explored in detail throughout the novella, both scientifically and emotionally. It’s not that Louise is exactly a prisoner of time; she may not have free will as we would understand it, but she also lacks any desire to change the most painful upcoming moments in her life. “I would never act against that future,” she says, “including telling others what I know.”
It’s kind of like how Doctor Manhattan operates in “Watchmen.” Like him, Louise doesn’t feel much like changing the future because she’s been experiencing it before, now and later. Past, present, and future all play out inside her at once, and she seems quite comfortable in this state of existence. (There must be something particularly compelling about these kinds of characters, since Manhattan’s spotlight episode on the 2019 show was a highlight of the series.)
Hannah’s death in the movie
Probably because it would take a while to explain why Louise wouldn’t just let Hannah know about the dangers of rock climbing, the movie changes her cause of death to an unspecified terminal illness, one that kills Hannah as a young teen. On the surface, the main appeal of this change is that it makes the film’s twist easier to hide and easier to believe. (After all, if Hannah had turned 25, the movie would have had to figure out how to deal with the fact that Louise would have aged noticeably within that time frame.)
The other appeal of the change is that it simplifies Louise’s situation. Presumably there’s nothing she can do to stop her daughter’s eventual death, so the audience doesn’t sit out the final edit wondering why she doesn’t try this or that. Even though Hannah hasn’t been born yet, Louise has already come to know and love her. The only way to avoid the eventual heartbreak is to never have Hannah, but Louise decides that having her is well worth the effort.
It’s a version of the story that seems to give Louise a little more freedom of choice. She is portrayed not as one who is instinctively compelled to follow what fate tells her to do, but as one who actively chooses the path she sees. This is what makes the central message (basically the old adage, “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved”) shine all the brighter. As Louise puts it in her narration during that final sequence, “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it and welcome every moment of it.”
Embrace the benefits of film
It’s no surprise that Denis Villeneuve got to direct “Dune” not long after, as “Arrival” has got to be one of the most successful sci-fi movie adaptations of all time. On the other hand, “Story of Your Life” also gave him much more creative freedom than Dune; not only is the novella much shorter, but it’s nowhere near as famous as the “Dune” books. Villeneuve could afford to make massive changes to the source material without drawing the wrath of the novella’s millions of internet fans.
More than anything, Villeneuve seems to understand the value of a director putting their own personal spin on the story they’re adapting. If you only faithfully adapt a book to the film form, you ensure that your film is always subordinate to the source material. It becomes a copy of the book, only in a medium for which the story was not originally intended. Much of what makes “Story of Your Life” so great is how the prose can jump back and forth between past, present, and future, sometimes all within a single paragraph. This is not something a movie can really do.
Just as Stanley Kubrick understood that a completely faithful adaptation of “The Shining” would be impossible to pull off, Villeneuve understood that “Arrival” was a film that could benefit from a massive rearrangement of the order in which Louise’s story is told. “Arrival” emphasizes and expands on the novella’s more cinematic elements while changing or downplaying the things that work best in prose, which is how it ultimately packs such a strong emotional punch. Villeneuve didn’t give us a faithful adaptation at all, and it’s one of the best decisions he’s ever made.
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The post End of Arrival Explained: Modifying the Source Material Just the Right Way appeared first on /Film.