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

Julie and Julia (2009): Movie Review


UPDATE Feb. 2, 2010: Meryl Streep is nominated for a Best Actress Oscar in the coming 82nd Academy Awards.

UPDATE Jan. 17, 2010:  Meryl Streep has just won the Best Actress Award (Comedy or Musical) at the Golden Globes.

Update Dec. 16, 2009: Julie and Julia has been nominated for a Golden Globe Best Motion Picture Award (Musical or Comedy).

Meryl Streep has been nominated for a Golden Globe Best Actress Award (Musical or Comedy).

For someone who would rather lie on the couch and watch the Food Channel than work in the kitchen, what better way to entertain herself than to watch a full feature movie on the legendary Julia Child and her modern day follower scrambling to keep pace.  But still, I had my doubt.

123 minutes of cooking, even though I don’t need to lift a finger, could still make me feel stuffed and exhausted. And, watching a novice attempt an almost impossible feat of cooking through Child’s 524 French recipes in 365 days in a cramped apartment could mean unlimited servings of predictable, clichéd kitchen mishaps.

So, it was with little expectation that I entered the theater.  But I was pleasantly surprised and much gratified.  For first of all,  the movie is not just about food and cooking.  Rather, it describes a journey of writing, publishing, and yes, blogging.  Now that really piqued my appetite.  As for the klutzy culinary mishaps, despite their banality, they are turned into laughable moments that we can all relate to, kudos to Amy Adams (Julie) and Meryl Streep (Julia).

Writer/director Nora Ephron has done a wonderful job weaving together two different books to create the screenplay:  Julia Child’s My Life in France (co-authored by Alex Prud’homme) and Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia:  My Year of Cooking Dangerously.  The two stories, which take place 50 years apart, are intertwined so seamlessly that the audience is given the impression that the two are acting side by side.  Now here’s a spoiler alert, skip to the next paragraph right now if you don’t want to know…  The parallel story lines remained so, Julie and Julia never met. And oh how much more the plot could have thickened if they did.  I was a bit let down by this, after being set up with the ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ cue.

The beginning of the movie sets the stage for some visually pleasing sequences.  The retro design of Julia’s 50’s France is a scrumptious delight.  A revelation: Julia Child was not born knowing how to cook.  After following her diplomat husband Paul (the ever reliable Stanley Tucci, The Devil Wears Prada, 2006; Shall We Dance, 2004) to France, she began exploring her interests.  She had to start from scratch by going to culinary school, the Cordon Bleu.  A late bloomer she was, and what an inspiration… never too late to follow your heart.  Streep has done a marvelous job delivering the personality, speech and nuances of the legendary Julia Child.  I must say though, her performance in this movie seems like a prolonged bed bouncing scene from Mamma Mia!


And fast forward to the present, the cinematic effect makes a run down, one-bedroom apartment in Queens look cozy and even inspiring, which is justly so.  Julie Powell (Amy Adams, Doubt, 2008; Enchanted, 2007) is a struggling writer, emotionally drained by her day job answering the phone at the Lower Manhattan Development Corp in the wake of 911.  Following Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking at home after work saves her sanity and invigorates her desire to write.  Through blogging daily about her culinary experiment, Julie ultimately realizes her dream.

It is Amy Adams that has won my heart.  She is such a natural.  Her performance is pleasingly understated, just a touch to bring out the taste.  It is after all a thankless role, a novice following the cooking guru to the dot in her cramped kitchen.  A tad bit more spicy would spoil her portrayal as merely slapstick and banal.  Her down-to-earth demeanor, like her attempt to explain to her mother what blogging is, makes it sound like a conversation taken out of our own home.  And above all, it’s her relationship with her husband Eric (Chris Messina, Made of Honor 2008) that makes the story grounded and realistic.

And finally, bravo to the two husbands who are always supportive, encouraging, eat and praise whatever their wives cook.  And all the more for Julie’s Eric, who has to silently pop Tums before bed, and, even after running away to escape the nightly ordeal, would faithfully come back ready to reconcile.  Can these men be real?  Like Ephron’s other works, let’s just treat this one as another fantasy.  For it is she who created the screenplays for Sleepless in Seattle (1993), You’ve Got Mail (1998), and yes, When Harry Met Sally (1989).  But wait, Julia Child’s My Life In France is autobiographical.  And so’s Julie Powell’s account.  The tag line does not fail to inform us so: Based on two true stories. It’s good to know.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Enchanted (2007, DVD)

I consider myself a rational person.  As an armchair critic, you have to, right?  Analytical, critical, not easily moved… But when it comes to humor, I just can’t resist.  I have to admit, I tried to control myself from laughing out loud many times, and not embarrass myself among all the preschool kids and their parents in that matinee show, even though it was dark there in the theatre.

Note to myself:  get the DVD when it’s out.  And so I did.

Why am I enchanted?  First of all the movie.  It’s loaded with smart dialogues, humorous parodies, seamless fusion of animation and real characters, and an old-fashioned and yet still wise message for today.  And the cast,  sure looks like they are having the time of their life making the movie. And the Oscar nominated songs by Menken and Schwartz, with the huge conglomeration of dancers, a delightful revival of the old musicals of the heydays.

Enchanted is a classic fairy tale: An evil queen, afraid of being dethroned, tries in all her power to prevent her stepson from marrying his true love by banishing her to the real world of modern day New York City, where there are no “happily ever afters”, a punishment indeed.  While there, the fairytale maiden meets her real life prince…and so on and so forth…But, what’s not typical is that it’s being handled intelligently, thanks to an excellent script, and the talented technical support it receives.

Amy Adams, Patrick Dempsey,  James Marsden, and Timothy Spall all deliver lively and very gratifying performances. Also, Susan Sarandon as the wicked Queen Narissa…I say, she’s in character.  And the then 8-year-old Rachel Covey, the cutest child star I’ve seen in movies these years. This is only her second movie, but she’s a natural, that is, she doesn’t need to act. She can just stand there and be adored.

The DVD is packed full of fun and information. We have a Carrie Underwood music video “Ever Ever After”, an additional animated story, bloopers, and director Kevin Lima commenting on the deleted scenes. I’m most fascinated by the behind the scene look at how the songs and the musical scenes are produced.  It’s fascinating to watch how choreographers have to coordinate hundreds of performers involving gymnastic troops, stilt walkers, eclectic groups of dancers and multicultural musicians in the “That’s How You Know” scene in Central Park.  I’m most impressed to find a few of them are veteran dancers who had appeared in the classic movie West Side Story (1961) and one was a chimney sweeper in Mary Poppins (1964)!  I’m thinking…Can I even get out of my bed when I’m at their age?

Great family entertainment for the Easter break coming up.  In a world of dysfunctional relationships, no wonder I am enchanted by a movie painting couples reconciled, yes right in the divorce lawyer office, and lovers united after swashbuckling adventures in the hustle and bustle of New York City. 

Just don’t remind me it’s only a fairy tale.

~ ~ ~ Ripples