Willful Writing
An essay comparing Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" to it's film adaptation "Arrival."
I felt that in his short story "Story of Your Life," Ted Chiang overused several key elements of the story's plot, which in turn, made the story feel too predictable. In contrast, for the story's adapted film, "Arrival," the film's director, Dennis Villeneuve, took a more minimalistic approach to these elements, which allowed him to do more with less and create a more fulfilling, and liberating experience for the viewer.
Ted Chiang's short story, "Story of Your Life," begins with the story's protagonist, Louis Banks, retelling of the night that she and her husband decided to conceive of their only daughter, of whom is now deceased. Throughout the story, Loise's narration will continue, as she'll go on to both relive and retell several events that took place both before, during, and after, the life of her daughter. These events include critical moments for Loise, such as the first time that she met her husband, and the last time that she saw her daughter, and the time that she deciphered an alien language that allowed her to do away with her subjective perception of linear causality regarding time altogether. While, in the short story's adapted film, "Arrival," the film's director, Dennis Villeneuve, begins the film with a montage of scenes of Loise and her daughter, that is portrayed to span the beginning, middle, and end of her daughter's life. The montage is followed by the entering of Loise into a room, in of which she will begin to teach. During Loise's teaching she becomes aware that alien hover crafts have arrived in several places all over earth, this causes Loise to cancel class. Not long after Loise's canceling of class, she is approached by two government officials, and afforded a chance to help the U.S. government decipher the alien's language. Upon joining the government in this endeavor, Loise meets a physicist named Ian Donnelly. Throughout the remainder of the film, Loise and Ian work together to decipher the alien language, although, being one of the world's most talented linguist, Loise manages to learn the language faster than anyone else does. As Loise grows more competent in communicating with the aliens, the Chinese government grows more capable of miscommunicating with them. The Chinese government's miscommunicating with the aliens cause them to misinterpret the aliens as being a threat, and as a result, they prepare their weapons to attack the aliens, and because no one knows of how quickly the aliens can communicate amongst each other, the rest of the world's governments prepare their weapons also. Moments before the Chinese governments' firing of their weapons at the alien hovercrafts, Loise figures out the alien's language, develops the ability to perceive time non-linearly, and repeats something that a Chinese general said to her in the future back to the general to get him to lower his government's weapons. After the lowering of the Chinese government's weapons, the rest of the world lowers theirs also. The alien hover-crafts dissipate into thin air, and Loise and Ian ride off into the sunset and go on to have the child that is shown at the start of the movie. The film ends as it began, with Louise narrating over a montage of her and her daughter.
Ted Chiang's short story, "Story of Your Life," and its adapted film, "Arrival," each utilize flash-forwards, their story's protagonist, and their protagonist' husband, to drastically differing extents, which lends themselves to create drastically differing experiences for their story's viewers. Story of Your Life, over utilizes its story's protagonist, Louise, for narration, while in Arrival, Loise's narration is minimal, and is used just enough to complement the other aspects of the film. The same comparative tendency for utilization applies for the usage of flash-forwards, and Loise's husband, in both stories. Furthermore, I felt that by minimizing his usage of these elements, Dennis Villeneuve was able to maximize the viewers' freedom to interpret the story, which allowed for a much more satisfying, and meaningful conclusion than its short story counterpart's.
Dennis Villeneuve's portrayal of Loise functions better for the engaging the viewer. In Story of Your Life, Loise narrates and provides quippy insights throughout the story. While, in Arrival, Loise's narration opens and bookends the film, and while doing so, provides no intimations as to what is actually happening, but only contextually frames the scenes enough to produce an added sense of thematic consistency. In Story of Your Life, when Chiang writes "That was my cue to frown, and for Burghart to ask, "What does it mean by that?" His delivery was perfect," (37) Chiang shows that Loise is always ahead of the events playing out in the story, but, while doing so, he also reduces the reader's intrigue in the characters' interactions by stripping the dialogue of its ambiguity. Contrastingly, in Arrival, Loise's narration is minimal and just vague enough to grab the viewers' attention. For example, the film starts with Loise saying "I remember parts in the middle and the ending. But now, I'm not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings," which provides no information as to how or why Loise came to form these beliefs, which in turn, forces the viewer to focus on Loise to try to form their conclusions. Amy Adams, the actress who plays Loise in the film, does a fantastic job of appearing every bit as confused as the audience is. The result of Arrival's combination of minimal, and vague narration, alongside Amy Adams' stoic, and skeptical performance, is a portrayal of a Loise that draws the viewer in, mirrors them, and provides just enough information to keep the viewer intrigued as the plot progresses. Conversely, in Story of Your Life, by making Loise evidently all-knowing from the start, the reader is left with no one to connect to, and in turn, is left unable to stay connected to the plot.
Arrival's selective addressing of Loise's husband makes for a much more focused story than its short story counterpart's. In Story of Your Life, Loise's husband is referred to routinely throughout Loise's narration, while, this does force the reader to begin wondering who this mysterious husband might be, it also undercuts the story's potential for a twist by never redirecting the reader's attention. This misuse is shown when Chiang writes "Your father is about to ask me the question"(1) as the very first line, and thus sparks the reader's curiosity as to who Loise's husband might be, but then introduces the physicist Gary Donnelley at the start of the very next page, making him the readers prime suspect, and in turn, causes the reveal of him as being Loise's husband in the story's last act to be underwhelming. Conversely, in Arrival, although the viewer may wonder who the father to Loise's daughter might be, because the opening montage was so ambiguously framed, the viewer has no reason to believe that the answer to that question is relevant to the story. So, by having never made the viewer dwell on as to who the father of Loise's daughter might be, when it's revealed at the end that the father is Ian, the twist is much more satisfying. Furthermore, by not instilling the viewer with unneeded curiosity, the viewer isn't forced to examine Loise's every interaction, which makes the on-screen romance between her and Ian appear much more natural. This restriction is complemented by the actor who plays Ian's performance, Jeremy Renner, who does an excellent job of bouncing off of Amy Adams' in a way that feels both believable and likable. The result of Arrival's abstaining from mentioning of Loise's husband, is a plot that feels focused, a twist that feels earned, and a romance that feels organic, and that works to hold the film together emotionally. Contrastingly, in Story of Your Life, by starting off the story by making the reader suspicious of who Loise's husband might be, Chiang gets ahead of himself, and makes the reader question Gary before they've cared for him, this causes their relationship to become predictable, and leave the reader questioning why they should care about it at all.
Dennis Villeneuve's selective utilization of flash-forwards in Arrival allows for the story's plot to feel much more centralized, and engaging, than its short-story counterpart's. In Story of Your Life, Chiang repeatedly goes back and forth between the events that led to the birth of Loise's daughter, and the events that took place after. While doing so does allow for the reader to remain focused on that the story is meant to be about Loise's connection with her daughter, it also causes the reader not to be able to form a connection with the story as a whole, because the plot lacks any form of centralized continuity. For example, by making the story go directly from Gary's explanation of the logical sensibilities of Fermat's Principle, to Loise's retelling of a discussion that she had with her daughter about breast, and then back to Loise and Gary's deciphering of the alien language, Chiang maneuvers the plot in a way that is impossible for any reader to follow (24). Conversely, in Arrival, Dennis Villeneuve utilized flash-forwards only when they were relevant to the progressing of the plot. For example, the flash-forward-montage of Loise and her daughter at the start of Arrival, shows several events of Loise's daughter's life, and portrays them as happening in a linear fashion, which causes the viewer to interpret the scenes following the montage as having happened directly after. The effect of the viewers' misinterpreting of the opening scenes, is that until the conclusion of the film, the viewer has no idea that the movie's entire plot has been about the nature of cause and effect, and of free will. Contrastingly, in Story of Your Life, due to the story's self-referential title, the omniscient nature of Loise's narration, the overabundant usage of a physicist in a story about deciphering a language, and an unnecessarily complicated depiction of time, Chiang's intended commentary on the nature of determinism, was nearly self-evident from the story's beginning.
In Story of Your Life, by making Loise an omniscient, ongoing narrator, and by over utilizing Loise's husband as a plot device, while also making it too clear that the story is being told out of order, Chiang makes the story predictable by allowing the reader to have too many dots to connect. Conversely, in Arrival, by minimizing Loise's narration, and reducing her husband's role in the story, while also restricting the usage of flash-forwards, Dennis Villeneuve was able to redirect the viewers' attention, use their preconceived notions against them, and in turn, leave the viewer with no choice but to affirm the point about free will that was made at the film's conclusion. This point being that if Loise is meant to represent the viewer, then similar to how Loise's preconceptions about the nature of time caused her to be unable to perceive the alien's language correctly, the viewer's preconceptions about the nature of movies, caused them to be unable to perceive the movie correctly. And like Loise's gaining of the ability to choose the consequences of her actions by learning to view the alien language correctly, the viewer gains the ability to choose how they see movies, by learning to view the movie correctly. Furthermore, similar to how a movie must subvert its viewer's expectations with a twist, to be enjoyable, in modern universities, for a student to obtain an "A" on an essay, they must subvert their teacher's expectations for that essay, before it can be possible for them to exceed those expectations. But, to do so, a student can't simply take an approach akin to Chiang's in Story of Your Life, and make everything meaningful to be included in the writings conclusion, visible in its opening paragraph. No, for a student to obtain an "A" at universities such as Harvard, or Stanford, a student must be ambitious and be willing to propel the heft of their statements beyond the realms of their essays. To this end, an approach similar to Dennis Villeneuve's with Arrival, would be more fitting. For such approach, a student would need to minimize the omniscient nature of their narrative framing, reduce their portrayal of their linguistic husbandry, and restrict any obvious usage of foreshadowing to their writings' conclusion. Furthermore, I'd argue that a student that could complete such a task, has done more than enough to simply convince a teacher to reward them with an "A," but instead, has made them as Loise prior to learning the heptapod language, and given them no choice, but to do so.

Text Author: Antjuan Finch

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