Arrival vs. Story of Your Life: What’s the difference?


I’m a huge fci-fi nut when it comes to film and literature. I think that goes without saying if you have seen my previous articles and reviews. In the last decade, we’ve had some gems in the genre that have really helped reshape sci-fi to the modern day generation, such as 2009’s Moon and District 9, 2011’s Attack the Block, 2013’s Her, and 2015’s Ex Machina and Synchronicity. Sci-fi has been a genre that has always taken a backseat to most box-office busters in the past, taking second-seat to films in the genre of action, comedy, and even romance, but with the delivery of these and other great sci-fi films, we are now on an upswing of seeing more and more of these in theaters, such as the release of the incredible and cerebral sci-fi film from Denis Villenueve, Arrival.

Now, like most sci-fi works, most are often inspired by literature or art, whichever spurn the emotional responses, and Arrival is in that same vein. Arrival, directed by Villenueve, was derived from a short story created by author Ted Chiang entitled Story of Your Life. Uniquely enough, Villenueve had originally wanted to title the film under its original name, but test audiences weren’t too crazy for it, so it was changed to just simply Arrival. Eric Heisserer, who was hired on to create the screenplay for the film, didn’t steer too far from the original work, as both are focused on time and communication on the surface, but once we get into the sub-layers of each piece, we begin to see where Villenueve grabbed the bulls by the horns to create the masterpiece that is sweeping moviegoers around the world. So what kind of changes were made? What favorite parts of  yours were either from Chiang or Villenueve? Let’s dive in, with a large SPOILER ALERT in your face, and see what are the top 5 major differences between the film, Arrival, and the short story, Story of Your Life!


1. Opening Sequence

In both the film and the short story, the female lead character, Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, is beginning to tell a story to her daughter about her life. The film, however, does a quicker yet concise job of detailing the daughter’s unfortunate death, whereas the short story does take its time, although revealing that she does die young in the beginning. The short story also goes into detail about the separation of Louise and her husband, stating that after her daughter’s “departure,” she would have moved into their farmhouse with someone named Nelson, and her dad will be living with “what’s-her-name.” The film skimps out on these minor details, as the overall focus of the story may shift if the viewer is fed too much of unnecessary information, in my opinion. And speaking of “departure,” this is another point of difference: the film shows scenes of Dr. Banks’ daughter finding that she has some ailment, and passes from the illness. The short story, however, doesn’t reveal the nature of her daughter’s death until after the meeting with Colonel Weber, where it is revealed as a mountain climbing accident, at which the story states that the daughter is twenty-five years old. The film does not give a definitive age, but from the scenes, we can gather that she is much younger than twenty-five, quite possibly still in her teens. And speaking of meeting the colonel…

2. The Meeting


In both the film and the short story, Dr. Banks is introduced to Colonel Weber, played by Forest Whitaker in the film, when he walks into her office to show her the recording. What’s different about this scene in comparison to the story is that the meeting is actually scheduled, as by the surprise in Dr. Banks’ face, we can speculate that their meeting wasn’t. Also, this is also the time where we as an audience, as well as Dr. Banks, are introduced to Dr. Gary Donnelly, a physicist, played in the film by Jeremy Renner. The film portrays this meeting while in a helicopter ride to the site, where Dr. Donnelly expresses his thoughts on how the cornerstone of civilization is science rather than language, which is something Dr. Banks believes. The story describes a slightly longer conversation that the colonel and Dr. Banks have, with Dr. Donnelly in the background adding comments. Their introduction is less snarky in the story, but the camaraderie is apparent, as they share a smile at the end of the conversation.

3. The Alien Encounter


It’s already pretty widely-known knowledge by now as to how the ships look in the film. Being plastered on every poster and marketing material tends to make that pretty comprehensive. The crazy thing, however, is that in the short story, the ships aren’t even seen. Let me explain. What occurs in the film is that there are 12 alien ships that descend on to Earth around the world, located in random locations, from China to Montana. In Chiang’s version, there are ships, but they are in orbit, and aren’t described in the film. So since they’re in orbit, you may be asking how the heck do the scientists talk to the aliens? The answer: the ships send several large “Looking Glass” type objects. 112 objects in total, to be exact. These artifacts are what is used to communicate with the aliens, as they operate on a similar function as the glass walls we see in the film. So in the story, there isn’t a large oval-shaped ship in the sky, it’s just a rather large glass monocle- of sorts- that acts as a two-way video conference screen. The aliens, known as heptapods, look very similar to how the short story describes them, in fact they are spot on, minus one detail. In the short story, the heptapods, named Raspberry and Flapper, are described to have seven lidless eyes ringed the top of its body. In the film, oddly named Abbott and Costello, they seem to be without eyes, giving an expressionless response to their interactions. Other than that, Villenueve did a really impressive job creating creatures as described by its source material. And speaking of their interactions, the conversations with the heptapods are gone into with more depth in the short story, as opposed to the film. In the film, Dr. Banks as Dr. Donnelly discover that the heptapods are able to communicate through a picture/sentence structure called a logogram, through a process that is too long and difficult to explain here. The logograms are, in a nutshell, they’re way of creating a sentence by making unique marks along a circle, appearing to look like more art than grammar. The film spends a lot of time in their discovery of the logograms, but in the short story, it details the attempts made to understand complex mathematics with the aliens.

2. The “Gift/Weapon”


Both the film and the story build to a climactic point where they realize that the heptapods are wanting to give them something. The buildup to this in the film is met with global tension, as China, along with other nations, are no longer trusting of the aliens, choosing to become hostile. Even soldiers within the U.S. Army are making rash decisions, causing discord within the military base near the ship. The journey to this point in the short story, however, is a bit more relaxed. There is no global terror, no massive army ready to take on the ships, no insurgency. The discussion with the colonel just pops up, stating that they want to engage in a type of exchange. The discussion amongst the colonel, Dr. Donnelly, and others, is brief, and the story shifts to all of them in the same room as the artifact. The scientists offer a “gift” of a presentation on the Lascaux cave paintings, and in return, the heptapods displayed images of equations and information. After this, they said goodbye in their language, and disappear, leaving the glass translucent and empty. The information, however, wasn’t anything new to humanity, as it duplicated research being done in Japan. In the film, however, it’s a bit more dicey. Because of an issue with translations, many researchers around the world working to communicate with the heptapods receive a message that references them giving humanity a “weapon.” China is the first to think that something’s up, and causes the whole world to stir, deciding to become hostile. The researchers, however, find that what the aliens do want to give them is a tool rather than a weapon, and that it is actually one piece of twelve others, meaning that the nations will have to work together to understand the gift as a whole. Despite some insurgency within the military at the base, Dr. Banks is able to persuade the other nations to exchange their pieces with theirs, in a non-zero-sum game: everyone benefits, no one loses. The gift that is given is the gift of their language, in its entirety. Why give their language to humanity? How is Dr. Banks able to persuade some of the most powerful men around the world? Well…

1. The “Other” Gift


This is probably the point where that spoiler banner should be, but oh well. So, what ends up happening is that Dr. Banks is the one that received “the weapon,” moments before an insurgent attack by a few soldiers trying to kill the aliens. Dr. Banks, in an effort to save humanity, as well as the aliens, finds a way back into the ship, where she finds that she (**SPOILER ALERT**) has been gifted the ability to see into the future! The aliens tell her that they have given Earth the gift of their language, and her the ability to see the future, because the heptapods will need Earth’s help in 3,000 years. Dr. Banks, now understanding that she has been seeing glimpses of her future, realizes that she plays a much more important role in establishing peace between the world and the aliens, and must act quickly to resolving this conflict of world powers trying to blast the alien ships out of the sky. She, through her mind’s eye, I suppose, is able to recollect future moments and thoughts, giving her the ability to change the mind of the Chinese military leader, General Shang, leading to other’s following suit. This also explains what she had been seeing this whole time in her mind, as we as an audience find that she hasn’t had a daughter yet, and that the daughter she loses in the beginning of the film hasn’t happened yet. The thing is, the short story doesn’t have this in it, although it seems like a picture perfect fit, if you ask me. The story ends with the reader feeling like this was the start of their daughter’s story, Dr. Banks reminiscing about where she met her daughter’s father, and where it all started. The film, however, plays into the thought process that time is congruent to each other, happening simultaneously while other events occur. A story that has no definitive starting or stopping point. It’s poignant to find that Dr. Banks now knows and understands all that will happen to her, and still, she decides to pursue a life where her daughter will be born, live, and die, in a manner that she knows.

Of course there are a few other smaller differences between the two, but that would just be splitting hairs. The film was an outstanding piece of cinematic artistry, as the story not only pegs humanity with the question of purpose and choices, but it stems from a work that evokes just as much emotion and thinking. Both works are a testament to their mediums, as Ted Chiang created literature that was far ahead of its time back in 1998, and posing to humanity the idea of unity and cooperation. This work would give birth to an idea that Denis Villenueve would take and nurture, releasing a film that can easily be described as the best film of 2016.

Have you seen the film? What did you think? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below!

If you haven’t checked out our review for the film, click here to read our thoughts!

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