Story of Your Life is a 1998 short story written by Ted Chiang and is the inspiration for the 2016 film Arrival, adapted by Eric Heisserer. Both the short story and the adaptation follow the same tale about a linguist specialist who is brought on to help the US Government communicate with the aliens that have suddenly landed on Earth. The short story is all but 37 pages long, and since the film is two hours, a lot of information and story had to be added but the basic plot stays the same. In the short story, Louise Banks specializes in linguistics but it’s never specified exactly what she does for a living and what that all entails. In the film, it’s shown that she is a linguists professor at a University, which grounds her more in reality than the ambiguity that the short story offered. For me, the narrative in the film far surpassed that of the short story mostly because it went about telling the story with much more conviction and urgency. Story of Your Life is very straightforward and matter-of-fact, while Arrival carries much more gravitas and poignancy, even though it doesn’t really change the plot itself. Louise is brought on to help the US Government communicate with the aliens, but it is told is past-tense, intercut into scenes about her daughter, in which she talks directly to her daughter. The strange thing about these scenes is that they are told in past, present and future tense all at the same time. For example, “I remember a conversation we’ll have when you’re in your junior year of high school.” In this sentence, “remember” is past tense, “we’ll” is future tense, and “you’re” is present tense, which would be an error in any other story but is actually the most important aspect of this one, which is something that I’ll return to in a few paragraphs.
Both media contain what appear to be flashbacks, but turn out to be much more than that. The reason for this is much better stated in the film than the source material, and therefore the theme of the narrative is much clearer. A line of dialogue states that the language one speaks determines the way that their brain works. For example, English speakers see things as adjective-noun-verb-adverb, etc., while other languages, say Mandarin, for example, works differently and is even read differently. Arrival asks, what if languages can re-wire your brain to think in completely different ways? In both media, the heptapods are aliens that come to Earth speaking an entirely different language than any one seen on Earth. Heptapod A and Heptapod B are what the short story calls the written and spoken languages that the aliens speak, respectively (Heptapod is the name given to the alien race because of their seven legs on their one body) and we see how learning these languages changes our main character into somebody who, for all intents and purposes, has a newly rewired brain because of the new language. That is essentially the “theme” of the entire story, and although the movie states it better, the short story has a few key points that I thought drove the theme home equally as effectively. The Heptapod language is one that is read all at once without any sort of continuity or order; in the story, a sentence is laid out like a completed cross-word puzzle, which a sentence in the film is laid out as a circular symbol that represents their words. As humans who speak human languages, it would be impossible for us to try to easily understand the language, but as we see through Louise, it is possible and can have amazing effects.
I mentioned the changing of tenses within the scenes in which Louise is speaking directly to her daughter, but these scenes have not yet taken place at the time the story is being narrated. The same goes for the film: there are scenes in which Louise and her daughter are together and Louise narrates to her daughter, but these scenes also have not yet happened yet, which is something we learn at the end of the film. Instead of being flashbacks, they’re actually premonitions, but how is that possible? Well, she is able to have them because she effectively rewired her brain by learning Heptapod. The reason that this works is because the film mentioned that learning a new language could alter how one perceives the world. In English and many other languages, we perceive time as occurring left to right, top to bottom, and on a single line. Since the Heptapods have a language that has no start or end to any of their written or spoken languages, they are able to perceive time all at once. They can see the past, future, present at any given time which explains the premonitions that Louise ends up having during the film after learning the language.
What really works in the film is that as an audience member, I expected all of the intercut scenes of her and her daughter to be flashbacks, and I automatically assumed that Louise had a daughter that died in the past, when actually, she has a daughter that dies in the future. Once she learns Heptapod, she’s able to see “memories” of her daughter, but she has no clue who the little girl is at all. Upon seeing one of these, Louise will start to panic and lose control, and the audience assumes that it’s because she is stressed about losing her daughter when in actuality, she is stressed because she thinks she is going crazy for hallucinating random images of a girl she has never met. Story writing like this is absolutely genius because it takes a trope and turns it on it’s head, effectively redefining a paradigm of storytelling. This could not work in the short story because Louise’s reactions are based on visual cues, and her narrating the story would make reactions like that implausible.
Furthermore, Louise mentions to her daughter while describing her infancy that “At that stage of your life, there’ll be no past or future for you; until I give you my breast, you’ll have no memory of contentment in the past nor expectation of relief in the future… NOW is the only moment you’ll perceive; you’ll live in the present tense. In many ways, the enviable state.” The reason that this passage is important is because it ties us back to the theme of language, and how learning human languages hinder one to perceive time linearly whereas, if the daughter would learn Heptapod instead, she would experience present, past, and future tenses all at the same time and will be able to live her life accordingly, whilst knowing everything that will happen.
There were smaller changes between the media such as Louise’s husband’s name Gary changing to Ian, and his entire character being less of a goofball and more of a respectable scientist, as well as the shift from being science-based to language-based which makes sense given that Louise is a linguist. Perhaps the most prominent change is the fact that the alien arrival forces all countries to flex their military muscles, and this is much more apparent in the film and maybe even too diluted in the short story. Arrival climaxes with the Chinese getting ready to launch missiles at the aliens before Louise is able to stop the war from taking place, which she is able to do by making a call to the Chinese general and telling him something that only he would know (which she is able to do by seeing into the future, in which he tells her what she told him that day. A time-travel plot point like this brings up what is called the Predestination Theory, but that theory only makes sense if time occurs linearly, which Heptapod taught Louise not to perceive that way.). The largest difference, and my favorite part of the short story, is the mentioning of the Book of Ages, which Louise uses to describe how one who knows the outcome of their life will change their life, and therefore the Book of Ages rendered incorrect. I thought that this may have been a little too on-the-nose, but it was extremely effective in defining the theme in a concrete manor.
The film is a masterpiece in every way, and not just in regards to the acting, score, or cinematography which were all absolutely incredible, but the story is where the film shines best. Even though it is based on the short story Story of Your Life, the film shines best in it’s differences, which are mostly possible given the film’s visual medium. The cinematography and score help set the tone while the story had to use words to convey all of the emotions and messages; while this was effective, it’s incomparable to how the film sets itself up but both of them are great in their own right for the story alone. The source material was much less cinematic in it’s telling of the story and was almost a little bland in it’s delivery, compared to the film version. The movie really treated the Heptapod language’s capabilities as a last-act twist, especially in how Arrival portrayed the premonitions as flashbacks. Since the short story was unable to do this, Chiang had to use different tenses in the writing to make the reader feel as though time is shifting. It worked well, but in different ways from the film and much less impactful ones as well. Both are great experiences and staples for contemporary sci-fi narrative stories.