Adapting time and agency: Arrival and ‘Story of Your Life’

Adapting time and agency: Arrival and ‘Story of Your Life’

Arrival was my favourite movie of 2016: a moving, intelligent tour-de-force whose brilliant twists and clever use of science put pretentious sci-fi films like Interstellar to shame. I was rooting for it to win the Oscar for Best Picture even knowing that it was highly unlikely. The film is based on the 1998 novella ?Story of your life?, written by Ted Chiang. In a curious marketing move that I?m tempted to call ?retro-adaptation?, a new edition of the collection that contains ?Story of your life? was released by Picador in 2016 featuring Amy Adams on the cover, exclaiming that it is ?now a major motion picture?. It is this re-packaged edition of the original novella that I encountered, which got me thinking about the nuances of adaptation from one medium to another.

I approached Chiang?s ?Story of Your Life? knowing the main twist, and the main linguistic ?what if?? that the novella would pose. Despite this, the novella felt very different from the film. It develops roughly the same premise, but the emphasis is placed elsewhere. The divergence is worth exploring in greater detail, because it can enhance the appreciation of both film and novella. How does the same premise express itself across the two mediums to achieve a different type of success? How different is each work?s effect on its receiver as a result?

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In adaptation studies, scholars distinguish a few different approaches to the question of how one text gets turned into a work in a completely different medium. The first, in terms of the history of adaptation studies, is concerned primarily with fidelity: how closely can or does a film match its source text? Academics today consider it less appropriate than more sophisticated theoretical viewpoints that embrace intertextuality (Aragay 20). However, its importance for non-academic reviewers and for audiences mean that some concerns of fidelity are still worthy of discussion. In the case of Arrival, it?s worth noting that it was never meant to faithfully adapt the source novella: director Denis Villeneuve recognizes that ?we were taking big liberties with the original text?, which also helps explain the change of title (Tartaglione). The film deviates significantly in its plot ? but noting these deviations and what they imply for the work?s overall significance is still valuable. It can provide a starting point to think about what makes both the movie and the novella function as they do, within their specific mediums.

The idea of each work functioning within its medium corresponds to a second possible approach to adaptation studies, based on medium-specificity, which Aragay associates with the risk of technological determinism (Aragay 13). In this case, technological determinism would be something like arguing that Arrival had to be certain way because film functions in a way that is categorically different from prose, and that?s it. This is not enough to discuss how Arrival differs from ?Story of Your Life?; it could lead to neglecting the parallels that can be drawn between novella and film despite the technical differences in media. Rather, I would say there is a non-deterministic specificity given by the cultural context in which each was going to be received: a sci-fi novella is not subject to the same criteria of success as a big-budget Hollywood production. My line of analysis thus falls somewhere between medium-specificity and a third way of thinking about adaptation, that considers adaptations as a cultural practice that needs to be understood inter-textually as well as within the historic and institutional contexts of production and consumption (Aragay 19). Audience?s expectations for a ?major motion picture? are vastly different from those of readers of science fiction novellas or short stories. This explains, in my view, why the film?s key plot driver of international collaboration is entirely absent from the novella, which focuses instead on more intimate experiences and a deeper exploration of the premise?s intellectual implications.

Both film and novella are about communication and how we think about our future. The relevance in both of the Heptapod?s simultaneous written language is proof of this. However, the ?we? involved is of a different scope ? this is perhaps the biggest change made to the plot in the film as opposed to the novella. The novella is focused on individuals; as the author writes, it?s ?about a person?s response to the inevitable? (Chiang 334, emphasis mine). Meanwhile the movie?s plot is more concerned with a global message about human communication, and ensuing collaboration.

To elaborate on this crucial difference between each work?s message, I will look at the differences between the technical devices available to express time in novella and film. I will also look at the degree to which characters possess agency, observing that the film gives Louise more agency but diminishes that of other characters in what is likely a way to make the film more palatable to film-goers and has the additional benefit of presenting mass audiences with a strong, intelligent female lead.

Before turning to these two specific distinctions between film and novella, it?s worth noting what is perhaps the biggest difference at the level of the events within the story. In Arrival, the heptapods have a clear motive for visiting: to encourage humans to come together so that in the future the human species will be able to help them survive in turn. In ?Story of your life?, Louise explains that ?we never did learn why the heptapods left, any more than we learned what brought them here? (Chiang 171). The heptapods teach their language to a few linguists and make them aware of the future, participate in some ultimately redundant information exchanges, and then depart. And this is likely due to a context-specific demand of Hollywood films: a narrative that anti-climactic would simply not be acceptable for a Hollywood science-fiction film. There has to be a source of suspense and action beyond Louise Bank?s internal transformation to justify the budget and technical elaboration required to depict the heptapods, their ship, their intricate language, and so forth. Within the exigencies of a mass-media entertainment context, the plot of international collaboration was a clever one: it maintained the focus on communication from the original novella, but made the stakes higher by widening the scope.

Agency and ?characterhood?

Although the stakes of the heptapod?s visit were widened and heightened in the film, there is one area where the film chose to narrow down the narrative relevance of a key existent within the novella: Louise?s relationship to her daughter. Although she does get a name, unlike in the novella, she seems to be more of a ?MacGuffin? than a character: she is a plot device that drives and motivates Louise, but with little agency of her own. Hannah has scarce dialogue, and though the ?non-zero-sum game? scene is directly taken from the novella, she ultimately comes off more as a narrative device to showcase Louise?s altered sense of time than anything else. Hannah?s presence is important, but her individuality is not. As Seymour Chatman notes in his impressive theoretical study of narrative in both film and text, ?characterhood? can be thought of as a matter of degree rather than an absolute distinction (Chatman 141). In this sense, Hannah?s flatness and lack of agency in the film mean that she is less a character than in the novella.

Perhaps the crucial evidence for the daughter?s decreased characterhood in the film is her cause of death. While in the film she dies in adolescence of an unstoppable disease, in the novella she dies in a rock-climbing accident at 25. This means that there are forward-looking sections in the novella where she graduates from college, takes a job in finance, and generally surprises Louise through her differences and choices:

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 (Chiang 131)

In Arrival, Hannah might well be Louise?s clone and it would make no difference to the role she plays. The inevitability of her death shows that, while film-Louise develops a capacity to accept unstoppable occurrences such as Hannah?s death, she does not entirely renounce her capacity to act. In fact, she must retain this capacity in order for the international-collaboration plot to make sense. She must realize that her future self?s knowledge is important to her present self and then take the determination to make the phone call to general Chang.

On the other hand, in ?Story of Your Life?, the daughter dies of a presumably preventable cause. In a linear understanding of time, Louise could have exercised her free will and done something to prevent it ? perhaps keeping her daughter from going on that specific expedition. Instead, she knows of her daughter?s death and the reader knows that she knows since very early in the text. Yet Louise does nothing. This shows that the story takes a much more stringent approach to the consequences of Louise?s newfound simultaneous understanding of time: it really does imply that she loses her free will in exchange for knowledge of the future. From our traditional understanding of time and volition, Louise could be judged as somewhat callous, or excessively passive: she becomes morally ambiguous to a greater degree than in the film. At the same time, the first-person narration of her process allows readers a deeper insight into exactly what learning Heptapod B is doing to her. For example, at one point late in the narrative Louise explains:

Usually, Heptapod B affects just my memory: my consciousness crawls along as it did before, a glowing sliver crawling forward in time, the difference being that the ash of memory lies ahead as well as behind: there is no real combustion. But occasionally I have glimpses when Heptapod B truly reigns and I experience past and future all at once; my consciousness becomes a half-century-long ember burning outside time. I perceive ? during those glimpses ? that entire epoch as a simultaneity. (Chiang 167)

This explanation is nestled within a section told in the novella?s narrative present. The whole passage plays no role in the narrative beyond further exposition and development of heptapod temporality, enhancing the reader?s understanding of Louise?s psychology and why she renounces agency. Such a passage could conceivably have been depicted in the film as voice-over narration, or even some expository dialogue between Louise and some neutral witnessing character ? but it would likely have come off as clunky, a data-dump, an excess of unnecessary explanation. By keeping the exploration of Louise?s altered sense of time to a more superficial degree, tightly linked to the film?s overall story, Arrival achieves less moral depth but more narrative tension than the novella.

Another aspect in which the novella differs from the film is in how collaboration is represented. As I already discussed, the film explores the idea of international communication and collaboration. It does it through a suspenseful storyline related to the heptapod?s mission on Earth and the Chinese reaction to their offer of a ?weapon?. This all works very well to create the film?s narrative tension.

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Because the heptapods? presence is not aiming at any specific goal, the film?s storyline of international collaboration is wholly absent in the story, therefore placing the focus more narrowly on individuals. There are, however, other forms of collaboration. One, which is under-emphasized in the film, takes place between the linguists and physicists working across the nine landing sites across the US. Rather than focusing on Louise as the one brilliant individual who deciphers and acquires Heptapod B (which is characteristic of films, with their tendency to have clear protagonists who are ultimately responsible for most important plot developments), the novella shows the findings being reached collaboratively, through the exchange of questions and hypotheses between Dr Banks and researchers in other sites. Crucial insights such as the fact that heptapod writing is not carried out sequentially but teleologically (with the end result in sight at the start) are provided not by Louise by ?Cisneros from Massachussets? (Chiang 145). At one level, this collaboration makes the linguistic discovery process more plausible than focusing all the achievements on one gifted character.

At a deeper level, the linguists? collaboration provides a crucial illustration of the way Heptapod B differs from human language: its function is performative rather than straightforwardly communicative, since heptapods already know the future and therefore the information that will be relayed in the future. As in speech act theory, utterances are actions as well as transmissions of information. This communicative implication of a simultaneous understanding of time is not much explored in the film, where the assumption is always that the heptapods have some information they need to transmit. Meanwhile, the novella explicitly refers to speech act theory and Louise explains heptapod communication as a radical example of performative language:

For the heptapods, all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, heptapods already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place. (Chiang 164)

When the linguists in ?Story of your life? talk to each other, their dialogue is framed in a way that illustrates the same performative understanding of language: ?That was my cue to frown, and for Burghart to ask ?What does it mean by that?? His delivery was perfect? (Chiang 169). The analogy to acting, to delivery of lines that have been cued beforehand, contributes to the estrangement of the reader. This is not how we are used to thinking about a conversation, either in real life or in a narrative text. The same idea of simultaneous language and time, then is used in the novella to explore an aspect of communication that is not developed at all in the film. The linguists? collaboration questions what teamwork or information exchange would be like in a world where everyone perceived time as a simultaneity ? whereas the film remains centered on Louise?s individual struggle to achieve collaboration in a regular, sequential-time world.

Time and technical devices

Both Arrival and ?Story of your life? open on the evening when Louise?s daughter is to be conceived, the story?s narrative present. Both then jump back and forward in the story?s time ? back to the heptapod?s arrival, and forward to significant moments in Louise?s life with her daughter. In narratology, the jumps backwards are known as analepse and the forward jumps as prolepse. Colloquially, we usually call these by the less-fancy flashback and flash-forward, although these terms should really be restricted to instances of analepsis and prolepsis that take place visually in film (Chatman 74)

In the case of the novella, the jumps forward and back are clearly marked by the verb tense used in the passages. Past tense marks the analepsis, while the events in the narrative future are correspondingly in future tense. From the start, then, we get the sense that the scenes with Louise?s daughter are happening in the future. Although reading something in the future tense is slightly disorienting (how does the narrator know these things?), as the story progresses it becomes clear why the scenes where Louise talks about her daughter are told in this way. The novella?s reflections around time are thus expressed in its form as well: it weaves a narrative that almost always alternates between sections in past and future tense. There are also a few interspersed sections told in a simple present tense that could signify either the narrative present or a sort of timeless reflection (Chatman 80). The overall effect is a mirroring of the heptapod?s simultaneous consciousness, as far as the sequential nature of narrative will allow.

Meanwhile, the film has its own challenges to face when capturing this simultaneity. There is no way to translate the verbal tenses of a written narration into film. As events unfold on a screen, everything seems to happen in the real-time of the present ? one cannot have straightforward tenses in film to signal time displacements (Chatman 84). Rather, the shifting from past to future can only be suggested in a less direct way that remains more open to interpretation. Chatman frames this difficulty for audiences to interpret cuts in temporal times as a ?problem? of the medium: ?sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether a given cut signals a flashback, a flashforward, or simply an ellipsis followed by the next (spatially removed) event in the story.? (Chatman 63)

What Chatman frames as a problem, Arrival uses to its advantage. Precisely because it does not tell the story through necessarily tensed verbs in past and future, the film is able to play with the audience?s interpretation of the cuts and make us believe throughout most of the film that the scenes where Hannah appears are flashbacks, rather than flashforwards. The result is much more suspenseful, for both Louise and the audience, than the tensed narration of the novella. Whereas in the novella, events are narrated from Louise?s point of view once her time-consciousness has already shifted, in the film the audience follows Louise through this mind-boggling process. Just like her, we do not know exactly what is going on until the end of the film. We see these visions of Hannah without knowing if they are past or present. Even more than that: thanks to years of watching films with more flashbacks than flashforwards ? after all, films usually assume that the ending must not be given away until it is actually reached ? the first instinct is to assume that these too are flashbacks. The surprise when the nature of the cuts is revealed helps make the film more conventionally moving than the novella. In short, it gives the film a moment of resolution more suited to cinema than the gradual revelation achieved in the novella.

A second textual device not exactly available in film is the second-person narration, especially of the future passages. Right from the start there is a clear intended recipient, or ?narratee? for ?Story of Your Life?, although one that seems to be addressed posthumously. Later in the text, Louise tells her daughter that ?you?ll just pout? (Chiang 134), or will reminisce about ?a picture of you taken at your college graduation? (135). The film does incorporate some of this in Louise?s voice-over narrations at the start and end ? ?I used to think this was the beginning of your story? ? but it plays a minor role compared to the importance of the future passages in the novella. The effect of a voice-over with montage is very different from a narration consistently using the second person.

Voice-overs are not nearly as important as the actual dialogue and events of either film or novella. In Arrival, voice-overs appear occasionally; in the novella every event, character, and setting is being filtered through Louise?s narrative voice. There are about fifteen prolepsis scenes in the novella, compared to just scattered flashforwards, often with no dialogue, in the film. In all these scenes, the novella uses the second-person to direct the narration at Louise?s daughter. On one hand, this contributes to the greater characterhood I?ve already discussed. Additionally, it raises specific questions about the novella?s story: in what time is Louise narrating this to her daughter? Why? Is it only a speculative narration, or is it something that actually happened? In the story?s closing passage, it almost seems as if this narration is a way of justifying herself, excusing her inaction in the face of her daughter?s avoidable death, and to some degree questioning her actions: ?From the beginning I knew my destination, and I chose my route accordingly. But am I working toward an extreme of joy, or of pain?? (Chiang 172)

By addressing the narration directly to her daughter, novella-Louise maximizes the personal dimension of the fundamental questions raised by the story?s premise of simultaneous language and thought, as well as its link to free will. The hesitation that shines through in the final passage emphasizes that her new perception of time is a double-edged weapon. Through a different route, the novella reaches a similar final ambiguity as the one raised by the film?s closing sequence, when Louise chooses to ?perform? her relationship with Gary (Ian in the novella), knowing her daughter?s future and that this knowledge will ultimately dissolve their relationship. The fact that the film, unlike the novella, makes the cause of their break-up explicit suggests that while the novella has subtler verbal devices such as the questioning second-person narration at its disposal, the film has to recur to more overt explanation and narration.

Closing, or circling back

In both the film and the novella, the heptapod language is used a launching pad to explore different experiences of time, which in turn is used to explore questions of relationships and communication. Both are great examples of science-fictional devices being used intelligently: they interrogate human experience and bring concepts such as simultaneous time and performative language to life. The thing that makes both of them succeed above and beyond an appeal to science-any regular human could ask themselves about life.

In the novella?s present-tense sections, Louise offers more explicit reflections on her altered sense of time than the film does, even referring to her thoughts as Borgesian fabulations. She reflects explicitly on the questions of free will versus future knowledge that the film leaves mostly unexplored:

What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?

This is a pivotal passage, after which Louise?s learning of Heptapod B accelerates and her consciousness begins to shift. Shortly afterwards she narrates ?the recurring dream about your death?? she began seeing her unborn daughter?s future death, truly began to understand and write Heptapod B and thus exchanged free will for the heptapod?s teleological knowledge of the future (Chiang 159). In the film, Louise ultimately arrives at a conclusion very similar to this reflection, even if she does not formulate it explicitly: she chooses to enact her relationship with Gary and become a mother despite knowing that it will end in Hannah?s death.

Through Louise?s process, both story and novella can make us (but I don?t want to assume they?ll have the same effect on everyone, so I?ll use the singular rather than the plural now) think about life and choice. I do believe I have free will, or need to live as if I did ? but this does not decrease the thought-experiment appeal of simultaneous time. If I knew what the future held, would I try to change it, or accept and embrace it? As my present recedes behind me and becomes past, am I living just to reach some unknown destination, or savoring each moment?s highs and lows regardless of where I end up?

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This sort of interrogation, above and beyond the particular science-fictional devices (Aliens! Looking glasses! Beautiful circular script!) and theoretical paradigms (performative language, Fermat?s principle, simultaneous time), is what makes both Arrival and ?Story of Your Life? succeed as works of art in their respective domains.

Thanks to you, reader, for getting this far! If you enjoyed it, feel free to share or comment or clap. If you think I wasted 16 minutes of your life or disagree with something I wrote, feel free to leave a comment explaining why ? I?d love to know.


Aragay, Mireia, editor. Books in Motion: Adaptation, Intertextuality, Authorship. Rodopi, 2005.

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Paperback print, Cornell University Press, 2000.

Chiang, Ted. Arrival (Stories of Your Life and Others). Picador, 2016.

Tartaglione, Nancy. ?Denis Villeneuve Talks ?Arrival?, ?A Vacation From Darkness? & The ?Berserk? Risk Of ?Blade Runner? Sequel ? Venice Q&A.? Deadline, 1 Sept. 2016,


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