Arrival is a 2016 sci-fi film written by Eric Heisserer and directed by Dennis Villeneuve, and tells the story of Louise Banks, a linguist who helps to communicate with aliens visiting Earth. It is based on Story of Your Life, a short story by Ted Chiang. If you have neither seen this film nor read this story, I very strongly encourage you to do one or the other before reading this blog post. I’m going to spoil both of them, and they are both excellent pieces of craft that do not deserve spoiling. Go now; the blog will still be here when you get back.
Anyway, both forms of this story centre around the idea that language shapes thought. Language shapes perception. Learning a new language means learning a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing the world. Learning an alien language means learning a way of thinking that is completely divorced from humanity. For Louise, this means learning to see events not as a sequential series of cause-and-effect, but rather as a simultaneous teleological hodgepodge of timey-wimey … stuff. (Yeah, that got away from me.)
The film doesn’t quite stick to the short story in many small ways but most of these stem from two major points of divergence. The first is that a lot of external conflict is added. The alien ships don’t stay in orbit, but come within touching distance of earth. The idea of weapons and of possible war runs throughout the film as an ever-present threat, avoided only through vigilance and all of Louise’s gifts of persuasion. This is an understandable change for a visual medium. Without the added conflict, the story is all about how Louise learns new concepts that change how she sees the world. This is fascinating to read about but by itself would be fairly monotonous to watch. Nothing wrong with adding more drama.
The second main divergence is that one of Chiang’s themes is made a little more palatable. See, in Story of Your Life, it’s clear that knowing the future essentially robs you of free will. The explanation is a tad more complicated, but that is what it boils down to. This is not the case for the film. Quite the opposite: the film shows us that Louise, knowing the future, is still able to make a choice.
Now I’m a little more conflicted about this change. On the one hand, I’m fully behind the idea of free will. I make choices every day, and the thought that they aren’t really my choices is a little uncomfortable, to say the least. On the other hand, isn’t that the point of the story? That Louise is seeing the world in such an alien way that the rest of us find it difficult to accept?
In a way, the act of a reading a story is a far more localised version of learning a language. It doesn’t gift you with a whole new way of thinking, but it offers some insight into another person’s mind. So I guess the question is: do we seek out stories that alienate us, that make us see the world in a new way? Or do we gravitate to stories where we agree with the core messages, where we aren’t forced to confront uncomfortable ideas? The very fact that I’m more forgiving of this change than I usually am when comparing adaptations tells me it might just be the latter. Or perhaps it’s a little of both. Change tends to be a gradual thing, after all. Thoughts?