‘Arrival’ - Adaptation Analysis
Critical Film Studies
Written by Amanda Tan - 23. Nov. 18
Pre-existing pieces of art, theatre and literature that are broken down and translated visually into films tend to serve the insatiable need for our minds to be refreshed by the stories we are already familiar with, yet being told to us again through a perspective that differs entirely from the original. Screenplay adaptations manifest in varying degrees, ranging from a strict adaptation where the filmmaker religiously translates every page and character of a novel, to a less literal kind of adaptation, where the filmmaker is more flexible with the elements he has to work with (Bluestone 171). The approach to how a screenplay adaptation unfolds is dependent on a number of considerable factors - the differences in the two mediums and how these affect the channeling and perceiving of information, the disparity in the creative choices of the author and filmmaker, and also the aptitude of a written piece of work to be conveyed visually on screen (Cartmell and Whelehan 22). With these in mind, the juvenile and incessantly made declaration that “the book will always be better than the film” is rendered almost invalid, when it is fact that the expectation to indulge in the exact experience of the original text through a different medium is unlikely to be met. In this essay, I will be using the film ‘Arrival’ (written by Eric Heisserer and directed by Denis Villeneuve) which was adapted from the short story ‘Story Of Your Life’ (written by Ted Chiang), to draw attention to the concerns involved in the process of adapting a short story to a feature film, to unveil how effectively both Heisserer and Chiang used the strengths of their respective mediums to their advantage, and to justify the necessary changes that Heisserer had to make in Chiang’s short story in order for him to convey the narrative compellingly enough that he could mirror to the audience the brilliance he witnessed in it the very first time he read it.
One of the banes of screenplay adaptation stems from the reality that a short story from a book and a feature film are built on characteristics that are distinct and completely separate, and that there is a direct effect on how information is being relayed, be it through words or visuals, as well as how it is being received and absorbed (Cartmell and Whelehan 9). In both ‘Story Of Your Life’ and ‘Arrival’, time shifts are a key feature in both narratives and there is a vast differentiation in the portrayal of this in each medium. An author has more control over the use of the English language, tenses and specific vocabulary to directly convey a feeling, action or scene as compared to a filmmaker (Vela 238). In ‘Story Of Your Life’, Chiang takes advantage of this and uses straightforward, clear sentence structures and grammatical functions to indicate shifts in time in his narrative: “I remember the scenario of your origin you’ll suggest when you’re twelve (Chiang 1).” From the very beginning, through Louise’s recounts of future conversations and the perpetual act of her recalling in future tense what seems to not have happened yet e.g. ‘you’ll say bitterly’, ‘I’ll live to see strangers occupy both houses’, ‘“If you weren’t my mother, this would be illegal,” you’ll say,’ (Chiang 1) - the readers are being fed the major premise of the short story, that Louise has the ability to look into her own future. ‘Story Of Your Life’ is narrated by Louise on the night her child is conceived, as she alternates between memories of her past with the Heptapods and visions of her future with her daughter through the clear divide of tenses and the separation of paragraphs throughout the book. With little help from the play of words and language, cinema instead makes use of visual cues as indicators of time (Spiegel 28). A significant change that Heisserer decided to make in the screenplay was to omit the premise and to withhold the fact that Louise could see into her future which eventually becomes a twist at the end of the film, a complete shift in perspective as to how the story was going to be told. Rather than following a protagonist who can alternate between past and future right away, and rather than making known her flash-forwards from the beginning of the film, Heisserer makes use of the psychological phenomenon of the Kuleshov effect, where audiences infer meaning from two shots that are placed next to each other (Mobbs and Dolan 98), as he ingeniously disguises these flash- forwards as supposed flashbacks of the past. This allows the audience to assume a more conventional arc for Louise at the start, as we unquestionably regard her ‘memories’ with her daughter as flashbacks, and as we empathize with her as we assume she is grieving over a child she lost. It is not until Louise herself learns that these ‘memories’ are indeed visions of her future, that we begin to internalize and understand this as well. Heisserer’s choice of Louise’s perspective for ‘Arrival’ makes use of the visual medium to not only involve a sensational twist towards the end of the film, but to also ensure a systematic flow of what is revealed to the audience.
The nature of a respective medium is congruous with the diverging experiences of processing a particular narrative - a novel is often digested leisurely at a reader’s own pace whilst a film is more often than not being viewed in one sitting (Vela 239). Consequently, the lack of discord and conflict is more appropriate in a piece of literature than it is in a film (Cartmell and Whelehan 18). Another crucial change that Heisserer made in the screenplay of 'Arrival' was to heighten the tension and conflict necessary to sustain a feature film (Kranz and Mellerski 150). In Chiang’s short story, the Heptapods sent observational devices as their means of communication instead of actually landing on earth, and they simply retreated without any sort of conflict towards the end. Heisserer decided that a more impactful thread would be to have the Heptapods down on earth in proximity with the human species, which would create an instantaneous threat and thus raising the characters’ as well as audience’s inclination to question the intent of these creatures, which can then effectively fuel the conflict of the film. The mere existence of extra-terrestrials on earth stirs widespread hysteria and the dramatic intervention of world leaders. Through the visual medium of film, the cinematic potential of extra-terrestrial creatures interacting with the characters on earth is also far greater than watching, as Eric Heisserer puts it, ‘human beings spending a year in a room skyping some aliens.’ Given the nature of film coupled with the unremitting exigencies of the box office (Axe 21), the narrative in 'Arrival' is told in a way that is more action driven and in a more suspenseful manner as compared to Chiang's story, which is more contained and has a gentler touch.
When adapting literature into a screenplay, what also has to be taken into account is the tendency for books to explore thoroughly complex theories or philosophy that have to be streamlined or brought to life when on screen in order to capture an audience’s attention (Vela 239). In both the film and the short story, the issue of communication is dispersed throughout, with it being prominently conveyed through Louise’s experience - a professional linguist trying to understand and to make herself understood by a species that occupies a universe entirely outside the human realm. Both works cite the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits how the structure of a particular language affects our world view and cognition (Gasser 2). Chiang’s story is incredibly philosophical and goes in depth into how the language we speak and think in everyday affects the way we experience the world. To successfully incorporate these incredibly abstract concepts into ‘Arrival’, Heisserer and Villeneuve had to devise a visually and audibly captivating way of delivering an incomprehensible form of language, bringing about the birth of Abbott and Costello and the arrestingly exquisite way they communicate. The written language of the Heptapods come in the form of logograms which in the film, resemble intricate circles of black smoke being suspended in water (Gasser 7). These logograms are further accentuated by the amalgam of familiar sounds, according to the film’s sound editor - vegetables being dropped in water, dried rice and metal brushes being scratched across plastic boards (Walden). The prominence of the distinct look and sound of these logograms are ingrained in our minds, which would inevitably aid us in understanding Louise’s experience as she goes deeper into understanding Abbott and Costello’s non-linear thoughts, speech and writing.
Another point of contention when adapting a screenplay is also the disparity in the creative choices of an author and a filmmaker (Bluestone, 175). ‘Story Of Your Life’ is a heartfelt assemblage of humanity, communication and determinism, as well as the love and loss of a child. Chiang gave Louise the character arc of discovering determinism in the world, and how she had no choice but to embrace her inexorable course of life, as she lives with the knowledge that her daughter Hannah will die at twenty-five in a rock climbing accident. Without compromising the essence of the short story, Heisserer wanted a different character arc for Louise in the film - he wanted to create a level of depth that he felt was absent from the short story, and he felt it would be more profound if it was reflected that Louise had the power of choice and free will, the ability to change the future and yet she still chooses to have Hannah (Gasser 15). Heisserer saw the absolute need to make known to the audience that his protagonist’s choices meant something, and for this to be achieved, Hannah could not have died from an avertable tragedy such as a rock climbing accident, as the logical solution for Louise with the ability to change the future, would be to simply forbid her from rock climbing. By changing the narrative such that Hannah dies from an incurable disease, Louise’s choice to keep her child, even after knowing that it is impossible to prevent the impending tragedy, is made more powerful, which would induce a greater empathy and degree of believability from the audience (Spiegel 31). Another more practical reason for this change is the overlapping factor that film is a visual medium, and if Hannah dies when she is twenty-five, the actress playing Louise (Amy Adams) would have to be aged in the flash-forwards that were disguised as flashbacks at the beginning, which would give the premise away and consequently abolishing the largest reveal of the film.
As much as both the short story and the film are about communication, they are also retrospectively, about the failure of communication. Heisserer chose to develop this very differently from how Chiang developed it in his short story. In ’Story Of Your Life’, this failure is exhibited through interpersonal relationships between characters and the displays of the many ways human beings are incapable of speaking to one another even when we paradoxically share a common language. These moments unfold throughout the narrative, such as Louise lamenting after her interaction with a military officer, that she “could see he wasn’t accustomed to consulting a civilian” (Chiang 3), and in her ‘recollections’ about her daughter, noting that she gets daily demonstrations of the asymmetry in their relationship (Chiang 20). In ‘Arrival’, Heisserer chooses to enact the problem of human communication through a global epidemic and the conflicts between world leaders (Gasser 42). In the midst of elevating tension all over the world, nations that initially worked together in an effort to decipher the Heptapods’s purpose on earth gradually ceased all forms of communication, even when the solution could only be expedited if the twelve nations collaborated and shared the pieces of data each of them acquired. Beyond the film, it begs the mind-provoking quandary of how the gaps can be bridged through communication and diplomacy, even with the vastness of world views between nations, and how ruling parties can best use the ability to communicate to resolve large, colossal issues such as world poverty and nuclear disarmament. Heisserer’s call to portray the crucial theme of misplaced communication throughout the film in such a large-scale manner not only adds to the gripping experience one can immerse in while in theaters, but also raises questions about the core of ourselves and of humanity.
Making changes to the screenplay so that the material becomes palatable through a different medium barely hits the surface of the arduous process that comes with adapting a short story to a film (Cartmell and Whelehan 12). Carefully formulated by the human mind, creative works are referred to in legal terms as ‘intellectual property’ where the law prohibits the duplication of a piece of work, unless copyright from the original creator is acquired (Axe 3). Heisserer spent a long time refining his take on the material before pitching ‘Arrival’ to Chiang and eventually acquiring the rights to ‘Story Of Your Life’ for a year. The leap from acquiring copyright to a story and turning it into a film is exceptionally significant, considering the fact that novels themselves are the end product, whereas a screenplay is merely a blueprint for creating a film. While Chiang as a writer had the final say in how his short story would turn out, Heisserer as a screenwriter was one of the many key people who were involved in the making of ‘Arrival’, and every input yielded a change in various aspects of how the film was made and how the narrative turned out (Axe 25). Thus, it was vital that the screenplay was a strong foundation that could clearly and effectively articulate Heisserer’s vision of the narrative – although literature has the luxury of being protracted, screenplays have to be relentlessly efficient. The toll on filmmakers of having to juggle between appeasing studio executives to ensure financial sufficiency, meeting reasonable timelines of production, all whilst fighting to preserve the essence and integrity of the narrative that they are trying to bare to the world, is without question complicated and a challenge that when beaten down, can produce something phenomenal and possibly life- changing.
To conclude this discussion, the concerns adapting a screenplay can be mitigated by assessing the strengths and limitations of the respective mediums involved, and being able to dexterously pick out the essence and elements crucial to the narrative, before translating it into the visual and auditory platform of cinema. By reconstructing the necessary elements in the short story, ‘Arrival’ outstandingly encapsulates the lyrical core of the ‘Story Of Your Life’, and beyond that, conveying to us the profound underlying message of the film - how we communicate with each other.
Axe, Joshua Q. “Issues and Challenges of Adapting a Creative Work.” Indiana State University Honors Thesis (2015): 1-41.
Bluestone, George. “Word to Image: The Problem of the Filmed Novel.” The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television 11.2 (1956): 171-180. University of California Press.
Cartmell, Deborah and Imelda Whelehan. Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text. Psychology Press: 1999.
Chiang Ted. Stories of Your Life and Others. Picador: London, 2002.
Gasser, Mathis. “Learning from Time.” https://brand-new-life.org/b-n-l/learning-from-time/pdf. Brand New Life Magazine fur Kunstkritik, 2017.
Kranz, David L and Nancy C. Mellerski. Fidelity: Essays on Film Adaptation. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.
Mobbs, Dean and Ray J. Dolan. “The Kuleshov Effect: the influence of contextual framing on emotional attributions.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 1.2 (2006): 95-106. Oxford Academic. 1 Sept. 2006.
Screencraft. “‘Arrival’ Screenwriter Eric Heisserer Reveals How He Beat Hollywood.” https://screencraft.org/2016/11/18/screenwriter-eric-heisserer-on-the-qa-podcast. Web. 12 Nov. 2016.
Spiegel, A. Fiction and the Camera Eye. Visual Consciousness in Film and the Modern Novel. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976.
Vela, Richard. “Of Films and Philandering in Theory and Practice.” Literature/Film Quarterly. 37.3 (2009): 237-240.
Villeneuve, Denis (Director) and Eric Heisserer (Screenwriter). Arrival. Paramount, Nov. 2016.
Walden, Jennifer. “Creating the Poetic Sci-Fi Sound of Arrival.” https://www.asoundeffect.com/arrival-sound. A Sound Effect. Nov. 2016.