This post contains spoilers for both “Arrival” and the short story “Story of Your Life”.
“Arrival” is a remarkable sci-fi film for many reasons, not least because it’s what convinced Hollywood to let director Denis Villeneuve take charge of a sequel to “Blade Runner” (which was fantastic) 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 film is based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”, first published in 1998. The story is about 50 pages long, and it doesn’t seem particularly interested in creating any kind of dramatic, ticking scenario. Aliens still visit Earth and the main character is still a linguist trying to communicate with them, but there isn’t much sense that these aliens could be a threat or that the world is actually in danger. There aren’t many details in the short story that tell us how the other countries in the world deal with the aliens, but it seems like everyone is working together without drama.
“Arrival,” meanwhile, bases most of its final plot 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 new time travel powers to change his mind. The day is saved with a paradoxical time loop familiar to “Doctor Who” fans: Louise knows how to call Shang and tell him the exact words to change his mind, but only because Shang will tell her about the incident years later. The entire third act is basically about a bootstrap paradox, one that the short story handles very differently.
A film that keeps its cards close to its chest
The lack of suspense over a potential war in the short story makes sense because, unlike the movie, the short story is pretty upfront about the time travel element. Already from the first page we can get the feeling that the narrator is someone who knows the future. From the way Louise talks about her future daughter, we know that after the aliens leave, she gets to enjoy a pretty mundane life after her interactions with the aliens. This means that there is not much excitement to milk the fate of the world, since we know from the first page that everything is going to be fine.
“Arrival,” meanwhile, hides that 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 this is how movies generally present flashbacks. The future remains a mystery throughout the first half of the film, which means it’s able to build a lot more anxiety around the premise of mysterious aliens suddenly appearing on Earth. It is only when Louise asks “who is this child?” that everything changes. At this point, it is clear that the aliens are benevolent and that humanity’s fate is certain; the only question that remains is how it all plays out, which is answered with Louise’s phone call to Shang.
But of course, when people think of “Arrival,” it’s not really the geopolitical crisis that comes to mind. It’s the final montage where Louise gets together with Ian (Jeremy Renner), has a child with him, and gets to enjoy her young daughter’s company even though she knows the tragic end that awaits her.
Hannah’s death in the book
In the short story, Louise’s daughter (who is never named here) dies aged 25 in a mountain climbing accident. This raises a big question: why doesn’t Louise just tell her daughter to stay away from rock climbing? The answer is she can’t, not really. Her experience of knowing the future has changed her fundamentally, so that most of what she says and does is more like a performance in a play; towards the end of the story she says things because she knows what to say in order for things to continue as she has seen them. At one point, Louise thinks to herself:
“What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it produced a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act exactly as she knew she wanted to?”
The reasoning behind this is explored in detail throughout the short story, both scientifically and emotionally. It’s not like Louise is a prisoner of time, exactly; she may not have free will as we understand it, but she also has no desire to change some of the most painful moments of her life. “I would never act against that future,” she says, “including telling others what I know.”
It’s much like how Doctor Manhattan operates in “Watchmen”. Like him, Louise does not have a great desire to change the future because she already experiences it before, and now, and later. Past, present and future are all happening inside her at once, and she seems quite comfortable in this state of existence. (There must be something particularly endearing about this kind of character, since Manhattan’s spotlight episode in the 2019 show was a highlight of the series.)
Hannah’s death in the film
Probably because it would take a while to explain why Louise wouldn’t just tell Hannah about the dangers of mountain climbing, the film changes her cause of death to an unspecified terminal illness, one that kills Hannah as a young teenager. 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 lived to 25, the film 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 through the final montage wondering why she doesn’t try to do this or that. Although Hannah hasn’t been born yet, Louise has already gotten to know and love her. The only way to avoid the heartache is to never have Hannah at all, but Louise decides that having her is more than worth the trouble.
It’s a version of the story that seems to give Louise a bit more leeway. She is not portrayed as someone instinctively forced to follow what fate tells her to do, but as someone who actively chooses the path she sees. This is what allows its central message (basically the old adage, “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”) shine all the more clearly. As Louise puts it in her narration during the final sequence: “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it and I welcome every moment of it.”
Embrace the benefits of film
It’s no surprise that Denis Villeneuve got to direct “Dune” not long after this, because “Arrival” has to be one of the most successful sci-fi movie adaptations of all time. Then again, “Story of Your Life” also gave him a lot more creative freedom than Dune has; not only is the short story much shorter, but it’s also nowhere near as well-known as the “Dune” books. Villeneuve could afford to make massive changes to the source material without angering the novel’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. Simply adapting a book faithfully to its film form ensures that your film will always be secondary to the source material. It will be a copy of the book, just in a medium the story was not originally intended for. Much of what makes “Story of Your Life” so great is how the prose is able to 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 massively rearranging the order in which Louise’s story is told. “Arrival” emphasizes and expands the more cinematic elements of the short story while altering or downplaying the things that work best in prose, which is how it delivers such a strong emotional punch at the end. Villeneuve didn’t give us a faithful adaptation at all, and that’s one of the best decisions he’s ever made.
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The post Arrival Ending Explained: Changing the Source Material in Just the Right Way appeared first on /Film.