Michael Tucker's new video essay examines the 2016 science fiction film Arrival, which started its life as a Nebula and Theodore Sturgeon award-wining short story by writer Ted Chiang called "Story of Your Life." Before it could make it the transition from the world of prose to the universe of cinema, screenwriter Eric Heisserer had to make significant changes to the story.

The work Heisserer and the Arrival team did provides many lessons for filmmakers looking to successfully adapt works (especially complex, non-linear ones) from other formats into movies. (Note: the video contains many spoilers to what is, truly, a mind-bending movie).

Arrival is the story of Louise (Amy Adams), a linguist who is called in by the U.S. government to help communicate with an alien species who have arrived on Earth, their intent unclear. Tucker theorizes that, in adapting Chiang's story, which is "a moving mixture of discussions about science and determinism, and the love and loss of a child," the filmmakers made changes to three crucial elements of the story: perspective, conflict and tension, and exposition. 


The first change had to do with the perspective from which the story is told. Chiang's short story is narrated by Louise on the night of the conception of her child, and moves back and forth in time, alternating between Louise's memories of her past, with the aliens, and her future, with her child. But in Heisserer's screenplay, the story is reframed, so that rather than being told by "a Louise who can already look backwards and forwards at her life, Arrival follows Louise as she discovers the gift of alien language."

When Louise begins to have has flashes of herself and her daughter, we perceive them as memories, just as she does. 

In the short story, Louise's flash-forwards are a constant, but in the screenplay they are, instead, shown to us at the beginning and then placed throughout the film, as she learns more of the alien language; this has the effect of helping to place the audience inside her perspective (so that, for example, when Louise begins to have has flashes of herself and her daughter, we perceive them as memories, just as she does.) And it's not until she begins to understand that these memories are actually visions of the future that the audience comprehends this, too. This alteration by Heisserer allows the film to give a steady series of reveals, both to the audience and to the protagonist at once.

Conflict and Tension

In the short story, the Heptapods (as the aliens are known), never actually land on Earth, instead sending down observation devices that they use to communicate. Tucker quotes screenwriter Heisserer, from the podcast The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith, who said, "I can't have them spend a year in a room skyping with some aliens--this is not a film! And the first major change that I pitched to [Chiang] was...they show up at our door."

A short story can afford to be far more lyrical than a film can (though make no mistake, this is a very lyrical science-fiction film). Tucker suggests that "changing the short story so that the aliens actually come down to the planet, and the characters...interact with them face-to-face, had a huge impact on the inherent tension of the story." It creates an immediate threat, raising dramatic questions in the minds of the audience as to the intent of the aliens. Their mere presence motivates most of the story's conflict, creating the tension necessary to make the story into a feature film. 


This is essentially what good adaptation is about: taking the meaning and art of one medium and translating it into the visual, temporal medium of cinema.


A crucial plot point in Chiang's short story revolves around the death of Louise's daughter. As Tucker observes, "In the short story, Hannah [Louise's daughter] dies at the age of 25, but in the screenplay, she dies from an incurable disease at a much younger age. The change was made in part because, in the short story, "Louise's character arc is to realize that the universe is deterministic, and that she must learn to accept the inevitable." But in the screenplay, Louise's character arc involves her having, as Heisserer put it, "a choice...free will..." That is, though she can change her future, she determines to have her daughter anyway. For Tucker, these changes "highlight the importance of screenwriting basics...being engaged in the protagonist's journey of discovery." 

The adaptation of Arrival has a lot to teach about the nature of film itself, and how a story about communicating with an alien species, is, in reality, "about how we communicate with each other."  By tweaking the elements of the short story, the filmmakers took a lyrical short story and made a mind-bending film that still manages to be human and connect with its audience.

This is essentially what good adaptation is about: taking the meaning and art of one medium and translating it into the visual, temporal medium of cinema. Arrival is a mind-bending film, and if you haven't seen it, it's might be difficult to understand all of the subtleties here, but Tucker's essay goes a long way toward explaining how the film makes a successful go of adapting a difficult short story into a transcendent piece of science fiction that deals with free will, understanding, and the nature of time and communication itself. 

Source: Lessons from the Screenplay