Arrival: From Novella to Film

The following discussion is relatively spoiler free. To talk about the novella and the film without giving out the most crucial piece of information is like writing with both hands tied at my back, and trying to hold a pen with my mouth to scribble down words. A difficult task. But it’s all worth it, as that’s the main thrust of the story: to communicate takes effort and hard work.

After watching the movie, spellbound for two hours, I left the theatre knowing  I must get hold of the story to read. I found it here. But, I most likely will seek out Ted Chiang’s other sci-fi fiction to explore more, despite not being a regular reader of the genre. His writing just grabs me with its insight and sensitivity.

Novella: “Story of Your Life”

The source material of the movie Arrival is Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”, winner of the Nebula Award in 2000.  A host of aliens had touched down in numerous spots in different countries on Planet Earth; in the U.S. alone there are nine. Their intention does not appear to be conquest. With multiple tentacles that look somewhat like an octopus, they are hence called heptapods by their cautious human observers. In order to understand their purpose, the U.S. Government sends teams of physicists and  linguists to establish communication with the foreign arrivals. They do this via the aliens’ transparent, face-to-face meeting devices, again, nicknamed by humans “the looking glass”. The large, two way glass separates the two living species, but joining them is the desire to communicate peacefully using each other’s language.

An ideal case Chiang has depicted. One, that the aliens come in peace; two, that humans respond with peaceful means all for the purpose of understanding and communication. A much needed case study for us Earthlings today. While they have set up military base surrounding the alien spacecraft in the open field to stand guard, the commander Colonel Weber leaves the task of communicating with the foreign arrivals to linguist Dr. Louise Banks and physicist Dr. Gary Donnelly.

Running parallel to this major plot line we see a more intimate story of human interactions, Louise and her daughter. Chiang’s writing is emotionally subtle and sensitive as he juxtaposes different episodes to depict the bond between Louise and her daughter through the stages of her life, as infant, child, teenager and later adult. Every stage we read some realistic situations. The human mother-child relationship is not without conflicts, but all interwoven with the bond of love. That’s the whole package of motherhood, the joys, the risks, the pains.

The language the aliens use to communicate with humans looks like a system of semagrams, each semantic symbol referring to a concept. It doesn’t appear to have a phonetic association, i.e., can’t be read out audibly, but is visually transmitted. Here’s Chiang’s eloquent description through Louise’s words:

“If I wasn’t trying to decipher it, the writing looked like fanciful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice, each slightly different in its stance.”

I just love this idea: “An Escheresque lattice”. Fascinating.



A movie will be the best means to depict such kind of a language system. But then again, the movie Arrival is much more than illustrations of the story. In this case, Arrival is one of the most apt transference of art forms, from literary to cinematic that I’ve seen.

Arrival the film has magically lifted the story out of the page. It has transferred the imaginary onto a visual plane in an aesthetic and inspiring way. We see the alien spacecraft suspended just slightly above ground in the open field like a vertical Hindenburg, or a stylistic installation of an objet d’art balancing in midair.

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, 2015; Incendies, 2010) and cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, 2014) had transported Chiang’s eloquence from page to screen affectively, emotionally enhanced. The juxtapositions of time is seamless and effective, spurring my curiosity to think. Villeneuve leads us through a passage of cerebral perplexity, prodding me to decipher, to try to understand, like linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) does through her experience.

Amy Adams’ nuanced performance is effective in emotional capture. That’s the key factor for the film to work. Kudos also to Jeremy Renner as physicist Dr. Ian Connelly. The leading man Renner, who usually plays the cool hero in other movies here steps aside to let Louise run the show, offering his support and tender loving care wherever needed, most moving in the climatic scene.

Of course there are alterations and elaborations for dramatic effects. In situations like this where different countries on Planet Earth need to operate in a united front to share information and knowledge, there’s bound to be conflicts and dissensions. So some countries decide on military action to assault and take down the arrivals soon after attempts at understanding fail.

Computer technology might have helped Louise to decipher each symbol and finally the whole train of alien thoughts, it is her inner passion that drives her to persist and continue with the peaceful means to communicate, against the order of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to withdraw the operation and leave the military to handle the situation.

Computer technology is crucial no doubt, but it is the human heart that has motivated Louise Banks to reach out, to achieve a Non-Zero-Sum Game: a win-win situation for both sides. The aliens’ gains does not necessarily mean human’s loss. Both sides can benefit from their exchanges.

In the grand scheme of things, however small the individual human may seem, the significant acts could be the everyday choices one makes. For Louise Banks, choosing to take up the role as a frontline translator to liaise with unknown aliens is a courageous act, but then again, so is choosing to embark on love and to take up the whole package of motherhood, with all that her choice will entail.


Short Story and Film:

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

16 thoughts on “Arrival: From Novella to Film”

  1. What a glowing review!! I cannot wait to see this movie now… I have great respect for Amy Adams work and the story sounds fascinating.


  2. I hadn’t really anticipated going to see “Arrival” — didn’t seem like my kind of movie. But I have to say you may have changed my mind. You make it sound like the MUST SEE of the season! And I do find Amy Adams extremely talented. Thanks for drawing my attention and interest here!


    1. Jeanie,

      I’m not a sci-fi fan either. But this is very different. Both in story and cinematography, emotionally engaging. No need to brace for graphic violence. You’ll like this one.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Stefanie,

      I saw they even have the movie-tie-in edition of Ted Chiang’s book Stories of Your Life, which is a short story collection. I admit, I haven’t heard of the writer’s name until now. He has been a multiple Nebula and other awards winner. Of course, I’m not a regular sic-fi reader. Maybe that explains it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a wonderful review. I can’t remember where I first became aware of this film, but the premise intrigued me, and you’ve fleshed out some of the details in a way that makes me determined to see it.

    There have been times over the past months when it’s seemed to me that communication with other-worldly aliens might be easier than communication among humans, but it’s also true that the effort to communicate sometimes is rewarded. I’m anxious to see how it works out in the film.


    1. Linda,

      Ha! That’s so true, “…it’s seemed to me that communication with other-worldly aliens might be easier than communication among humans…” And yes, this film is about communications, on various levels, and then some more. That ‘more’ is even more poignant than the communication element, I feel. But can’t say anything here. 😉


  4. Sci-fi isn’t my genre and I hadn’t intended to see Arrival. But you’ve certainly intrigued me — especially with that link to the original short story. I’m saving it as a treat for the next free evening. And maybe see the movie even 😉


  5. Sci-fi isn’t my genre either, but I was willing to see this film because the trailers implied that it was about communication and wasn’t going to be a typical alien-invasion-big-battle scenario. We liked the film a lot too – it keeps you thinking and guessing all the way through. Talk about leaps of faith, eh?

    You’ve written about it very well Arti.

    BTW the story link doesn’t work. I wonder if they’ve taken it down. I’d love to read the story.


    1. WG,

      Thanks for alerting me to the link. I’ve changed it now, try it. It’s a pdf version online which I found this afternoon and had since printed the story out. It’s about 32 pages and I’m old school… I like reading the hard copy rather than staring into a bright screen. Guess what, I’ve been reading several of Chiang’s stories, printed them all out cause i want to keep them. They are all so interesting and left me with a good feeling after reading each one. BTW, they are all about language and communication, which is my cup of tea. I’ve read 3 so far and they definitely have changed my view of sci-fi. I just might write a post on them. Well, maybe I should say, Chiang does sci-fi in a most human and relational way.


      1. Thanks Arti, I am printing it too. Although I have a kindle and use it occasionally, I don’t read much on my tablet or laptop, and whenever I find a story online I print it out too. Then the problem is I try to keep it and it’s additing to my clutter. In folders but nonetheless clutter.

        I think the best sci-fi focuses on the human, which is why I loved John Wyndham in my teens but didn’t go from him holus bolus into SF. Kurt Vonnegut Cat’s cradle I liked for similar reasons in my twenties. And then of course there’s Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction.


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