A reader’s relationship with visual storytelling is fraught with apprehension: screen adaptations of literary works are so often disappointing.
This makes sense to readers. How could a film ever hope to capture the vast, detailed, emotionally complex and kaleidoscopic universe imagined by an author and then regenerated in a reader’s mind?
That’s why I often avoid going to see a film based on a book I’ve read, and hesitate before seeing a movie inspired by a book I plan to read but haven’t gotten to yet. Sometimes though, the situation reverses itself, and an exceptional writer is discovered thanks to a transformative piece of filmmaking.
That’s what happened with ARRIVAL (2016), Denis Villeneuve’s Academy Award winning film. The movie looked great, but I’d never heard of Ted Chiang, author of the novella “Story of Your Life” (upon which Arrival is based) and of fourteen short stories that have won him twenty-seven major science-fiction awards.
Arrival is the type of movie that’s irresistible to me: visually breathtaking, expansive, emotive and speculative in a quiet, introspective way. But what of the novella that inspired it?
Though the bibliophile’s dilemma is always Should I read it or watch it?, I can say with both certainty and surprise that in this case, you should watch it THEN read it. And I feel very strongly about both parts of this prescription.
What I’m saying is that the visual language developed by Villeneuve deepens our understanding of the work of an author whose use of written language has been described as displaying:
“[…] no particular interest in style, and yet it shines with a brutal, minimalist elegance. Every sentence is the perfect incision in the dissection of the idea at hand.”
It’s Eric Heisserer’s gorgeous screenplay adaptation that provides the key.
Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” first appeared in 1998 in a sci-fi anthology called Starlight. In this, the fearful and anxious twenty-first century, the ideas he explores are more relevant than ever, and I’m immensely grateful to Denis Villeneuve and his creative team for bringing Chiang’s words to life.
I read “Story of Your Life” just last week.
In Arrival, we find all of the principle characters of Chiang’s novella. There’s Dr. Louise Banks, an expert in field linguistics, called in by the US military to help establish first contact with an alien race of heptapods whose twelve vessels (in the novella, they’re referred to as “looking glasses” and number one hundred and twenty) have suddenly appeared and are positioned all over the planet. There’s the physicist Gary Donnelly (in Chiang’s story, his first name’s Ian), brought in to attempt to establish communication in the language of mathematics and physics. There’s Colonel Weber, the man in charge of a larger cast of supporting characters (the latter are barely present in the novella). And finally, there’s the heptapods themselves. Over time, two in particular (in Chiang’s story, Louise and Ian name them Raspberry and Flapper) develop a close relationship with Louise Banks.
I marvel at the way filmmaker Villeneuve was able to express dimensions of the story that its creator was not.
In Chiang’s novella, first contact is almost matter-of-fact, and “Story of Your Life” focuses on the mechanics of the problem: how would humans and an alien life form establish communication? What linguistic pathways might be chosen? What would be the cognitive obstacles? How would communication transform the interlocutors? For what purpose might this be attempted?
The problems being worked out are grounded in an exploration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis—in short, a theory of linguistics based on the premise that the language we speak shapes the way we think.
Chiang’s ruminations include a rather brilliant examination of the differences between written language that represents speech and written language that doesn’t. It explores the interplay between mind and language when thought is linear (as it is with humans) and thus chronological—how events are then interpreted in a causal way:
“[…] one moment growing out of another, causes and effects creating a chain reaction that grew from past to future.”
It contrasts this with the possibility of semasiographic communication (the heptapods written language form), which frees the mind of linear thinking and which, in the story, is more conducive to a teleological interpretation of reality:
“[…] by viewing events over a period of time, one recognized that there was a requirement that had to be satisfied […] And one had to know the initial and final states to meet that goal; one needed knowledge of the effects before the causes could be initiated.”
If this seems complicated, it is. What matters is that in Chiang’s story, as in Arrival, learning the heptapods’ written language transforms Louise Banks’ mind and allows her, in a sense, to live in the past, present and future simultaneously.
Chiang presents the changes occurring within Louise using breaks interspersed throughout the narrative, which are future tense monologues destined to her daughter.
But Villeneuve’s hands aren’t tied in the same way and he’s able to go to places which simply aren’t accessible to a writer. Combining breathtaking imagery, lyrical “flashbacks”, intimate, beautifully scripted scenes with a handful of very gifted actors and a score that speaks where the actors can’t, he moves us from the intense, jittery apprehension of first contact, through the tense, very predictable struggle between the world’s superpowers, to a final resolution and revelation that moved me to tears.
The effects of Arrival lingered. Such was the beauty of its message, that it stayed with me for days. Shortly after, as I was coming to the end of a teaching contract with a group of employees at a local company, one of my students—a recent immigrant to Montreal, a young dreamer and citizen of the world who clings to the hope that our better natures will always respond to the imperative of the common good—offered me a goodbye gift. It was the newest edition of Chiang’s best work, including Story of Your Life. He had seen Arrival and loved it as much as I did.
How fitting it is that my language student should have chosen, as his parting gift, a story about learning the timeless language of love.