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?