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Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it…

This week I re-watched the 2016 film ‘Arrival’, directed by Denis Villeneuve and read the short story it is based on - Ted Chiang’s 1998 “Story of Your Life”. I decided to share my views on both versions – some similarities, some comparison, some discussion. There will be spoilers ahead!

“Story of Your Life” is a detailed, methodological and profound story exploring determinism and linguistics. As a graduate in Linguistics, this immediately appealed to me (in both film and book form) more than many Science Fiction films might have done. Science fiction as a genre has a rich history in film, from Metropolis and 2001: A Space Odyssey to the modern Ex Machina and Annihilation. The challenge of adapting a science fiction story in the literary form is maintaining the complexity and depth whilst not watering down the themes. The temptation in these adaptations often seem to be to create a more visceral experience by ramping up the action and drama, leaving the subtle exploration of topics as mere window dressing.

“Story of your life” may be profound, but is entirely devoid of drama. For a story of aliens visiting earth there is no action, no goal and no payoff. The beauty is in the journey of the main character Louise Banks and the surprising humanism which is evident in many of Chiang’s works. Pages are devoted to explaining linguistic theories (which reminded me heavily of my undergraduate years) and physics theories (which reminded me that I’d always struggled more with that side of science!) A very plausible scenario of aliens landing and how we would possibly communicate with them if they did is created, with the short story taking us on a journey understanding language, physics and the perception of time itself.

The challenge for Eric Heisserer when writing the screenplay was maintaining these elements whilst fleshing out the story from a short read (it took me under an hour to finish it) to a full length film.

The differences between the film and book reveal the strengths of each medium, and elucidate the limitations. In the story the aliens do not physically visit earth, but send 112 “looking glasses” that allow two way communications with the Heptapods (the name given to these aliens). In the film the aliens physically come to earth and there are only 12 ‘pods’ or ‘ships’ scattered across the world. This serves to engender a sense of urgency and danger, and is cinematically more interesting. In the literary form the author is able to precisely guide you to focus on what they want, as you are only able to view the world through what is described. In film you are unable to hide; everything has to be shown. The director is able to use cinematography, shot composition and a myriad of other techniques to express the story they want but everything has to be put up on screen. Having the characters and aliens essentially ‘video call’ for a year “works perfectly for the book, but would be too bland and be a lost opportunity in the film for visual storytelling.” (Heisserer). Instead the aliens appear in smooth, half-spherical pods, with smoke oozing around them, in tanks filled with white smoke that hide their true size. There is still separation between the humans and aliens but the setting seems much more intimate, and visually impressive on the big screen.

A second change is the frantic sense of urgency and mystery in the film, which replaces the slow methodological approach in the book. In the film, Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) first ascends into the ship in a slow, tense scene, until their world is literally flipped as a result of the changing gravity and clever use of camera angles. Upon entering the room the image is inverted, in a clever use of visual storytelling showing how the characters are disoriented by their journey. In the book Louise is, like the other characters, well-educated and confident as she conducts the “first attempt at conducting a true monolingual discovery procedure. It was straightforward enough in theory, though.”

The two largest changes are the shift in the view on determinism and the fate of Louise’s daughter Hannah (so named in the film for its palindromic nature). In the book she dies at age 25 from a rock climbing accident but this is changed to 14 in the film and the death is a consequence of a rare genetic illness. One reason for the change was practical: Hessinger said that lowering the age prevented the need for aging Amy Adams which would have undermined the reveal of the film – the fact that it is unclear for the audience through much of the film whether the daughter has died before the current events (which you initially assume) or after. This is another example of the ability of books to hide salient facts without the reader even realizing that they are being deceived; the film has to show the actor and therefore reveals the age.

One of the biggest issues dealt with in both the book and the film is determinism; the idea of a world where all events are fixed; the future is already written. As the plots explores time at the way in which the Heptapods view it (and in which Louise can later view it after learning the Heptapod’s language), the audience begins to question whether these events are certain; whether there is any choice involved. The short story describes “The Book of Ages” in which all history is written. If such an artefact existed would it be accordant with free will? If upon viewing the book I change my behaviour how is that consistent with the infallibility of the book? The book explores these questions. Louise foresees that a salad bowl will fall and cut her future daughter, but proceeds to buy the bowl anyway, aware of the knowledge that the act is antecedent to the accident. Is she compelled to follow the prewritten path or are they “neither free nor bound.... Their actions coincide with history’s events, it is also that that their motives coincide with history’s purposes, they act to create the future, to enact chronology”.

This is illustrated as Louise is considering a conversation exchanging knowledge with the Heptapods, where she knows they will already know the answer:

“In order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place.”

And in a conversation with her daughter who keeps trying to correct her silly version of a fairy tale:

“If you already know how the story goes, why do you need me to read it to you?”

In the film the emphasis is removed from determinism to emphasise free will and volition. The quote titling this blog explores this – “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it…” It feels like she may have some choices in the decisions she makes – such as when her physicist turned husband (who has a name change from the book to the film!) asks “shall we make a baby?”

Heissner said that he thought that a sense of free will would lead to greater involvement in the story, as you can question whether given the chance to have a child knowing that it was going to die, would you? Determinism would have robbed the film of that opportunity. The cause of death was changed from rock-climbing to a genetic illness as in a world of free will it would be easier to just ban the daughter from rock climbing or inform her of her fate, the plot device of the illness removes that impediment.

Both the book and film pose many questions, and I am left feeling that neither is better or worse; they both simply make the most of the medium they are shared with us in. I would recommend reading the short story and watching the film – it’s definitely one I will be re-watching again.

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