This post contains spoilers for “Arrival” and the novel “Story of Your Life”.
“Arrival” is a remarkable sci-fi film for many reasons, not just because it’s what convinced Hollywood to let director Denis Villeneuve helm a sequel to “Blade Runner” (which was awesome) and then to “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 “Arrivée” that his talent became clear to everyone.
The film is based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”, first published in 1998. The story is around 50 pages and doesn’t seem particularly interested in creating a delayed drama storyline. Aliens are still visiting Earth and the main character is still a linguist trying to communicate with them, but there’s not much sense that these aliens could be a threat or that the world could actually be in danger. There aren’t many details in the news that tell us how other countries around the world deal with aliens, but it seems like everyone is working together without drama.
“Arrival,” meanwhile, bases most of its final act on the actions of General Shang (Tzi Ma), the Chinese military leader who nearly brought about World War III before our protagonist Louise (Amy Adams) uses her new time travel powers to change her mind. The day is saved by 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 event years later. late. The whole third act is essentially centered around a bootstrap paradox, which the short story deals with very differently.
A movie that keeps its cards close to its chest
The lack of suspense about a potential war in the short story makes sense because, unlike the film, the short story is pretty straight on the time travel element. From the first page, we already have the impression 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 enjoys a fairly mundane life after her interactions with the aliens. That means there’s not a lot of tension pulling the fate of the world, since we know from page one that everything is going to be fine.
“Arrival”, on the other hand, hides this element for most of its execution. The film begins with a montage of Louise losing her daughter to an unspecified terminal illness; we’re guessing it’s a flashback because that’s how movies usually present flashbacks. The future is still a mystery throughout the first half of the movie, which means it’s able to create a lot more anxiety around the premise of mysterious aliens suddenly appearing on Earth. It’s only when Louise asks “who is this child?” that everything changes. At this point, it’s clear that the aliens are benevolent and humanity’s fate is certain; the only question that remains is How? ‘Or’ What everything is in play, which is answered by 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 that final cut where Louise reunites with Ian (Jeremy Renner), has a child with him, and enjoys the company of her young daughter even as she knows the tragic end that awaits her.
Hannah’s death in the book
In the novel, Louise’s daughter (who is never given a name here) dies at age 25 in a climbing accident. This begs a big question: why doesn’t Louise just tell her daughter not to rock climb? 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 feel more like performing in a play; at the end of the story, she says things because she knows what she’s supposed to say to keep things going the way she saw them. At one point, Louise said to herself:
“What if the experience of knowing the future changes a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?
The reasoning behind this is explored in detail throughout the short story, both in a scientific and emotional way. It’s not like Louise is a prisoner of time, exactly; she may not have free will as we understand it, but neither does she have the desire to change one of the most painful coming moments of her life. “I would never act contrary to that future,” she says, “including telling others what I know.”
It’s kind of like how Doctor Manhattan works in “Watchmen.” Like him, Louise doesn’t really want to change the future because she’s already seen it before, and now, and later. The past, the present and the future happen in her at the same time, and she seems quite comfortable in this state of existence. (There must be something particularly captivating about this sort of character, given that Manhattan’s landmark episode in the 2019 show was a show highlight.)
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 rock climbing, the film changes her cause of death to an unspecified terminal illness, which kills Hannah as she was 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 be 25, the movie would have had to figure out how to handle the fact that Louise would have aged noticeably during that time.)
The other attraction of the change is that it simplifies Louise’s situation. Presumably, there’s nothing she can do to prevent her daughter’s eventual death, so the audience won’t sit around during the final cut wondering why isn’t she trying to do this or that. Even though Hannah has not yet been born, Louise has already come to know and love her. The only way to avoid the eventual heartbreak is to never have Hannah at all, but Louise decides having her is more than worth it.
It’s a version of the story that seems to give Louise a bit more agency. She is not portrayed as someone instinctively compelled to follow what fate tells her to do, but as someone who actively chooses the path she sees. It’s what allows its core message (essentially the old adage, “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”) to shine through all the more. As Louise says in her narration during this final sequence: “Even though I know the journey and where it leads, I embrace it and welcome every moment of it.”
Reaping the Benefits of the Movie
It’s no surprise that Denis Villeneuve directed “Dune” soon after, as “Arrival” has to be one of the most successful sci-fi movie adaptations of all time. Then again, “Story of Your Life” also provided him with far more creative freedom than Dune has; not only is the short story much shorter, but it’s also nowhere near as famous as the “Dune” books. Villeneuve could afford to make massive changes to the source material without angering millions of internet fans of the novella.
More than anything, Villeneuve seems to understand the value of a director who puts his own spin on the story he’s adapting. If you only adapt a book faithfully to its cinematic form, you ensure that your film will always be secondary to its source material. It will be a copy of the book, just in a medium the story was not originally intended for. A big part 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 in a single paragraph. It’s not something a movie can really do.
Just as Stanley Kubrick understood that a completely faithful adaptation of “The Shining” would be impossible to achieve, Villeneuve understood that “Arrival” was a film that could benefit from a massive rearrangement of the order in which the story of Louise is told. “Arrival” emphasizes and expands on the short story’s most cinematic elements while altering or downplaying the elements that work best in prose, and that’s how it delivers such strong emotional impact at the end. Villeneuve didn’t give us a faithful adaptation at all, and it was one of the best decisions he ever made.
Read This Next: The Most Controversial Scenes From Sci-Fi Movies
The post Arrival Ending Explained: Changing Source Material the Right Way appeared first on /Film.