Arrival/Story of Your Life: Languages of film and Prose

[This isn’t the first time I’ve written on Arrival, and I doubt it will be the last. you can check out my original view of the film here at The Spectatorial:  Arrival – A Case of Déjà vu]

Though Ted Chiang’s novella Story of Your Life was originally published in 1998, I did not discover it until after watching it’s 2016 adaptation Arrival, So I approached the short story with the same temporal awareness of the narrator, but like Dr. Louise Banks, even though  “I know how this story ends” (Chiang 1) I still find myself returning to it often, and I do not believe that knowing the ending did anything to hurt my initial experience as a reader. I don’t think this is an accident, but part of the design of the story.

When dissected, the narrative of Story of your Life is reasonably straightforward. Alien vessels arrive in Earth’s orbit, containing to creatures called Heptapod’s. A team of scientists including the linguist Louise Banks – who acts as the narrator, telling the whole story to her as-yet-unborn daughter – and the physicist Gary Donnelley are recruited by the US military to figure out how to understand and communicate with two of the Heptapods. As Louise unravels the mysteries of the Heptapod languages, they begin to alter her perception of reality, until she has memories of the future, up until and including her daughter’s inevitable death from a rock climbing accident. Both the novella and the film follow Louise experiences with the Heptapod’s chronologically, but pepper in scenes with her daughter following the more “simultaneous mode of consciousness” (32) of the Heptapod’s, jumping back and forth through time. But a significant difference between the film and the novella is how they treat these scenes with the daughter. In the movie, scenes with mother and daughter seem to take place before the main events of the film, and only near the end do we – and Louise – realize that she is having visions of the future just as the story reaches its climax, which is also when it’s revealed that the daughter is destined to die. But the novella not only clarifies Louise’s clairvoyance from the beginning but also immediately explains that the daughter will die.

What I find interesting is how this fundamentally separates the language of film and the language of the written word, almost exactly the way Chiang divides the two Languages of the Heptapod’s: the written and the spoken. The film operates under the rules of “Heptapod A” (15). Everything is experienced in an analog, chronological sequence of events. But the novella operates more like “Heptapod B” (15), the written language of the Heptapod’s. It is a digital system, where events of different periods can be experienced simultaneously. We, the reader, experience the daughter’s death before experiencing Louise meeting the aliens. We experience Louise coming unstuck in time (to borrow the terminology of Vonnegut) before experiencing how “working with the Heptapod’s changed [her] life” (39).

The unstuck nature of the novella is a unique feature of the page, something I don’t think the screen or stage could ever capture the same way. Chiang focuses on the intriguing nature of his aliens, along with the touching vulnerability and tragedy that lingers in each scene of mother and daughter, because while the “twist” was needed to keep audiences of the film engaged, trying to unravel a mystery would have only cheapened reading of the original story. The up-front nature of the story allows the reader to pay full attention to the concepts Chiang wanted to discuss, in regards to linguistics, diplomacy, and destiny. Hearkening back to Theory of Adaptation, in which Linda Hutcheon’s argued that we don’t enjoy stories only for experiencing them the first time, but for the ability to go back to them, Chiang understands the power of following a story with the ending given away. “If you already know how the story goes, why do you need me to read it to you?” (34) Louise asks of her daughter, having picked out a fairy tale. “Because I want to hear it” (34) she says. Chiang’s work here is a reminder that the work of the page is not merely to relay information, but to create an experience that can survive us already knowing how it must end.

Work Cited:

Chiang, Ted. Stories of your life and others. New York: Vintage. 2016