Arrival, based on Ted Chiang's excellent The Story of Your Life, is an amazing film; I've seen it three times, devoured the original fiction in a single session, and spent a few enjoyable hours dissecting it and everything in between with the delightful and talented Tara Cartland. We thought having a record of these discussions would be nice, and help us understanding our strong yet differing emotional reactions to both film and written story.
What follows is an email exchange and massive, unthinkably unfair spoilers. If you have any interest in seeing it, go now. We'll wait.
I have an opening question! Is text or email better? That wasn’t the question. The question is — why change the title from Story of Your Life to Arrival? (Apart from the ability to market it as science fiction.)
I think this goes to the heart of our questions around adaptations; What to keep? What to remove? How does the new medium change the narrative? With this story/film in particular, the changes are necessary and, for me, mostly welcome.
The short answer to the question is: because it's no longer the story of someone else's life. The shift from a first person narrative to third person, necessitated by the shift in medium — and the nearly inherent distance filmic conventions — mean the subject of the film is no longer "Hannah" (left nameless in the short story), but Dr. Banks. This shift in focus changes the weighting of narrative structure, too; far more time is spent with Dr. Banks and her translation work in the film, and less on the life of Hannah.
Instead, Arrival presents us with slivers, moments of emotional time which build to a revelation; the same revelation as in Story of Your Life, and no less anguishing and hopeful. (I'm trying to find a word to describe this emotion. It is joy and melancholy and nostalgia all at once?)
I think one advantage the written story has is the ability to shift tenses and timeframes rapidly. By projecting forward and backward in the same moment, it enables us to inhabit many spaces contiguously. Film, more so than almost any other medium, is reliant on putting one foot in front of the other. It's quite common for films to take us into a character's past or future, but it usually requires a grounding in the present. Notable exceptions to the are Shane Currath's Primer (to a lesser extent, Currath's Upstream Colour does the same) and Christopher Nolan's Memento.
We've spoken about this having a chiastic structure, which is something much more common in literary convention than filmic, but I do think both Arrival and Story of Your Life are phenomenally successful variants of the same ring. Even if they have different names.
How do you think language and syntax change our reading of these story? (Yes, that's deliberate plural singular.)
We'll edit this, right? 😉
You’re right - the subject shifts from the unnamed daughter of the story to Louise in the film. This is something I feel is a slight, though understandable, loss in the adaptation. The story grants the daughter an ‘unknowable’ quality:
“What I’ll think is that you are clearly, maddeningly not me. It will remind me, again, that you won’t be a clone of me; you can be wonderful, a daily delight, but you won’t be someone I could have created by myself.”
And in doing so acknowledges the limitations of Louise’s subjectivity. This is powerful - even when she can see into the future, it doesn’t make her more perceptive. If anything, she’s more human, thankful and joyous that she can care so deeply about something she can’t understand.
In the film, Hannah exists essentially and only in relation to Louise (and later, somewhat in relation to Ian. Although that, too, is ultimately about Louise). And so the film is somewhat more solipsistic in its telling. While it retains anti-solipsism as a theme, it maybe loses something here - another concentric ring, perhaps - and I ended up missing the thoughtful tone of the story.
Both texts prompt you to experience them as Louise. But the ‘knowing Louise’ of the story and the ‘learning Louise’ of the film offer very different experiences. Emotional engagement with both is achieved, I think, differently too.
Having read the story, perhaps I was never going to enjoy the film journey of Louise as much as you were? I already knew what she had yet to discover. I didn’t/couldn't feel the full force of that incredible line: “Who is that child?”
This gets at something I’m itching to talk about I’m going to completely ignore your question and instead ask you another one - does the Louise of the film have free will?
You're exactly on the money with the variation between Knowing and Learning of Louise—I think these are necessarily different experiences due to the way each medium gets us to engage with the characters and their story. Film necessarily requires us to Learn the character, as we cannot see, know, or understand their inner thoughts without monologue (a trope to be avoided). Instead, we must learn who they are through the way they respond to the scenarios presented to them. I think it's telling that Filmic Louise—actually, maybe in the parlance of Story of Your Life, Louise B is better. So, it's telling that Louise A (story Louise) and Louise B (film Louise) react in the same way to the appearance of Colonel Halper, and yet the way these reactions play out is entirely different.
We see Louise A's ambition and excitement through her inner monologue, the way she describes and reacts to the information presented. We see Louise B's ambition and excitement through her eventual push and competitiveness for the opportunity; something which unfolds over time. These moments position the Louises as people who have wants, needs, desires which extend beyond the map of the story—there is an academic life for Louise only barely hinted at within these moments. And yet, they are part of the weaving of personality through the film which creates the emotional punch at the flip towards the end (or the very end) of both stories.
The written story naturally calls for reflection and thoughtfulness; it enables us to engage with the subject matter at an intellectual level which is not allowed for in the film. Chiang is able to spend multiple paragraphs describing the ins-and-outs of the heptapod language structure, whereas I think doing so within the film would probably lose some audience engagement. (I did very much enjoy the breakdown of how to frame a question and the assumptions within it as shown in the film. Nerd alert.) However, the multi-sensory approach film allows for delivered, for me, a bigger emotional reaction to the narrative.
I'll ignore you ignoring my question... So, does the Louise of the film have free will?
This probably goes broader than you're wanting, but it does raise the question of any of us having agency over our choices. Sam Harris talks in his book Free Will about the appearance of choice not being the same as actually having choice. There's an interesting paragraph which I don't have in front of me now, but, to paraphrase, it states that; examining the point at which choices come from reveals a nothingness. From where does the choice spring? Do you have control over thinking or not thinking? These answers would imply that none of us have Bonafide Free Will™, but more of a Free Will Light™. And then we have Daniel Dennett's compatibilist counterpoints to respond to... maybe best to leave that discussion for another time.
To project onto the final moments of the film, I would suggest that Louise B has made a Choice. Interestingly, we don't know, in the way that we know in the book, whether this is a real Choice or the Vision of a Choice. The montage of moments leading to the final shot of [SPOILER HORN] Ian's embrace would suggest that she does have free will, she has accepted her choice, and will live out her life as shown within the memories of Louise B. How reliable is the film as a narrator? We seem to be taking it as wrote that these memories are real and true memories—the film does not suggest otherwise, of course.
It's implied that Louise A has choice, but that choice appears to be deeply influenced by the modification of her thinking. It becomes more instinct than cognition. I think.
Don't you find it interesting that pre-knowledge of events for the Louises reinforces their humanity, their emotion, in a way that pre-knowledge of events did not for your impression of the film? I mean, hearing that "Who is that child?" line for the first time was a shock, but compared to the repeated gut punches dotted throughout on second viewing... hoo boy.
I'm curious about your impression of the Drs. Banks agency... who has more agency? Louise A or Louise B?
Well - to address your second last paragraph -l, to address your point about carrying in pre-knowledge (from the story) to the film - that was exactly my I certainly experiencehad an even more emotional reaction when I read the story for the second time. And I suspect this will be my experience when I see the film again, I’m surein (and I’m not caught up trying to figure out how it works). That’s why we’re talking about this as a successful adaptation. The emotional truth of Chiang’s work is so beautifully intact.
But I wondered, halfway through the film, if I was going to cry. (Reading and rereading the story makes me cry.) I was loving the film, but I wasn’t getting as emotionally involved. And I realised it’s because I was too caught up in trying to figure out how it worked. Towards the end of the film, when I no longer had to figure that out, the full and cumulative force of it hit me and I did gross, snotty crying.
Who has more agency? It seems to me that Louise B has more agency, and some sort of free will to boot. Louise A has given up her free will - although as you point out, it’s written in a way that softens and minimises that fact (presenting her non-choice as a willing choice, an instinct followed or a line recited). Louise B, I think, has not.
Let’s consider both sets of ‘memories’ of the future. Louise A knows everything there is to know about who she is, and why she got there. There’s no context missing - in that memory, she also has the memories of everything leading up to that moment, and acts accordingly. Louise B does not - she doesn’t seem to know completely what is happening or why, even though she goes with the flow. Crucially, she brings information from these future memories (such as the General’s phone number) into her present thereby arriving (so to speak) at the time travel paradox the story so neatly avoids.
This is why Hannah’s death is changed (translated even?) from a rock climbing accident to a congenital and fatal disease; something no one - even with knowledge of the future - could have prevented. For me, it’s less poignant than the accident in the story. I can relate to the helplessness of a narrator watching someone they love taken by disease. But I am confronted by a narrator who can do nothing to stop a simple accident - seemingly so preventable - from taking place. And for me that depth of feeling is the real gift of the story.
Speaking of gifts - why did the Heptapods of the film gift their language? The film seems to present language as a key to empathy and growth, but language can also be used to lie, obscure and oppress. Surely knowledge of the future would also be double edged...
Challenging question, but before that…
I feel a need to raise issue with one of your points—the idea that no-one could have prevented Hannah’s suffering. I think the emotional weight of the film rests on this question (in fact the third last line of the film): Should Louise B have made the choice that she did about her future, knowing everything that would come to pass? Once again with this retelling, I think what we’re seeing is not a removal of the emotional/narrative intent, but a restructuring of it to make sense for the medium in which it is presented.
The climax of the film dramatically is Louise B’s “mad dash for translation” and the conversation with her antagonist (how nice that a film with aliens in it rests on a conversation!), but emotionally it is those last few future/present moments with Ian.
Your question is reminiscent of one of the challenges presented and left unanswered by both Chiang's original story and, to a slightly lesser extent, the adaptation; what are the geopolitical impacts of discovering alien technology ahead of other nations? This is something Paul Macauley tackles within his work, and I think for the sake of the story, it is lucky that this technology—their language—is given to someone whose intention for the use of it lacks malevolent intent.
The same challenges are raised with the development of ‘true’ artificial intelligence; if one nation were to develop that technology ahead of another, how would that technology advantage or disadvantage global outcomes? How do other nations react? How does the ‘host’ nation use it’s newfound power? These are challenging questions that we actually have no answer to, and neither does Arrival/Story of Your Life.
What is interesting for me is that within the film, it appears that the Heptapods have been able to advance their understanding of their language to such a point that they effectively become omniscient; they can see beyond the end of the cigarette ash, unlike Louise A and Louise B (although it is not clear that Louise B is fully unaware of the future).
So… why gift the language? This is getting beyond the text, there is reference within the original story to the Heptapods encountering plentitudes of other, non-sentient lifeforms—maybe this is about recognising sentience? Part of me feels that the strength of the narrative rests on the enigmatic nature of the encounter; the fact that their motives are unknowable is, again, a central plot point to Arrival.
Unlike the heptapods, we cannot know all.
Okay; last question for you! Would you make the same choice as Louise?
I would apologise for the lateness of my reply, but I've given up on the concept of free will. So....suck it, I guess. ;)
Would I make the same choice as Louise? (I'm going to consider this in relation to the film, as I don't think Louise A has a choice.)
The short version is: yes. The longer version is: if I was Louise, yes.
Longer again - I'm struggling to say that I would choose to have a child, no matter the grief it would result in, because the experience of love would make it worthwhile. And the more I hold that concept in my mind, the more it feels like an anti-choice ("pro-life") sentiment.
Here is the thing: Louise is only given visions of one future narrative. We're inventing a second potential future for her right now - one where she doesn't have a child or watch her die. That alternative reality is hinted at in the film - it would, presumably, be a continuation of the relatively static (and stable) life she has at the start.
I'm thinking of her house. The lake house. Big, beautiful, empty. The perfect stage for a child (and a husband, for that matter) to walk onto.
On such a stage, we can consider grief. I couldn't possibly put it better than this whole piece by Dear Sugar, to a father who lost his son:
"You have the power to withstand this sorrow. We all do, though we all claim not to. We say, “I couldn’t go on,” instead of saying we hope we won’t have to[...] More will be revealed. Your son hasn’t yet taught you everything he has to teach you. He taught you how to love like you’ve never loved before. He taught you how to suffer like you’ve never suffered before. Perhaps the next thing he has to teach you is acceptance."
The lives of our loved ones are longer and more meaningful than the number of years they last. So if I'm Louise and I'm standing on this beautiful empty and stable stage, then yes, I make that choice.
But what if I'm not? What if I don't (yet or ever) have the things - education, family, support - that grant the resilience you need to raise a child (let alone endure her death)? Or what if the thing I could build in my second narrative was as beautiful and meaningful as the child in my first - though only made possibly by her absence? What if the heptapods gave me visions of each?
We're all holding a thousand futures in our head. Even stuck in the present, experiencing time sequentially, we're making Louise-type choices all the time. We don't need Heptapods to understand that life ends and that love exposes us to grief. Euripides wrote of Alcestis' passing: "She has merely unwrapped the gift of death her mother gave her."
The best we can do is hope our choices are motivated by love, and not fear. But outside of Louise's narrative, it's impossible to simplify - as was my first instinct - and say that the choice motivated by love is the one to have the child. Which is my way of answering your question with "I just don't know".