Book v Film: Arrival (Story Of Your Life)

“I’d love to tell you the story of this evening, the night you’re conceived, but the right time to do that would be when you’re ready to have children of your own, and we’ll never get that chance.”

Based on the short story, Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, which is a part of his Stories of Your Life and Others collection, Arrival is directed by Denis Villeneuve and is premised during an alien invasion after multiple mysterious spacecrafts touch down across the globe. Recruited by the military alongside mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), linguist Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) must assist in translating communications with an alien race known as Heptapods. As mankind scrambles for answers as to why these aliens are here, Banks tries to distinguish between their two distinct forms of language – the Heptapods’ spoken language, which has a free word order, and their written language, which has a complex structure that a single semantic symbol cannot be excluded without changing the entire meaning of a sentence – a vital study to maintain peace with this mysterious race.


The following post is a review of the film adaptation in comparison to the book. You can read my review of the book on its own here.

Based on a brilliant short story by Ted Chiang, Arrival isn’t just a story about aliens; its science fiction setting is merely a background to something much bigger.

The film adaptation expands way beyond Chiang’s minimal plot, but it still uses the aliens’ arrival as a means to look at how we evaluate our own lives and being. It’s is not a science fiction story about conflict, action and futuristic technologies, it is about everyday ideas and ways of thinking.

Above everything else, Arrival is an incredibly intelligent and philosophical sci-fi with a compelling narrative that hints to something much deeper throughout. Linking language, maths and physics, Arrival combines two stories – one about aliens and one about humanity – to explore how we perceive our own existence.

The beautiful way that these two stories connect together is the reason why you will feel so overcome by this powerfully engaging story.

Denis Villeneuve is an incredible filmmaker. Arrival looks stunning from start to finish and the score suits his style perfectly. The story is handled incredibly well and Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner lead it brilliantly.

You can buy the film on DVD here

Differences From The Book:

With the book being adapted from a short story, there are obviously quite a few differences from the book to the film, although it does stick pretty closely to the premise for the first half or so.

I will begin with a few character changes, then go into some bigger structural changes, and then end with everything else.

So, firstly:

  • Ian Donnelly is called Gary in the book. Louise describes him as looking like an “academic type” with a full beard and moustache and wearing corduroy. Jeremy Renner looks very different from this in the film.
  • In the book, Louise’s daughter doesn’t have a name as Louise is narrating the story to her. In the film, she is called Hannah.
  • In the book, her daughter dies in a mountain climbing incident. In the film, she dies of an unknown disease but it looks like she has spent a lot of time in the hospital.

And here are some of the bigger structural changes:

  • The book appears to be in the present tense, looking into the future, as it begins with Louise narrating to her daughter about the night of her conception. She talks about things that are going to happen. The film makes these clips look like visions into Louise’s past, making it look like something bad has happened to her daughter already.
  • The film shows a montage of clips showing Louise’s daughter as a baby, a toddler, a teenager, and then as an adult when she dies in hospital. In the book, Louise talks about her daughter as an adult first and then she looks at memories (or future glimpses) going backwards in age.
  • The film narrates the concept of the film better from the start, whilst the book takes its time to explain what is happening. Straight away, the film talks about being bound by time and its order and how Lousie doesn’t believe in beginnings or endings anymore. The book is not as straightforward as this, and instead links Louise’s learning of a new language to situations with Hannah as it goes on.
  • In the film, when Louise is shown images of her future, she doesn’t know that she is going to have a daughter in the future so she doesn’t recognise the girl in her flashforwards (although we are made to believe that these clips are from her past). In the book, Louise is narrating to her daughter so both we and Louise know who these passages are referring to.
  • Because Louise doesn’t know who her flashforwards are of, in the film, we don’t see her relationship with Hannah as much. In the book, Louise is always referring to something that she has done with her daughter, so we are told about things such as family vacations, her college graduation, and Louise going on dates.
  • In both the film and the book, it is mentioned early on that Louise is no longer with her daughter’s father, but the film doesn’t emphasise this as much. In the book, Louise often talks about her ex-husband’s new partner, “What’s her name”. We just assume that he isn’t around anymore in the film.

And here’s a list of all of the other changes from the book the film, in chronological order:

  • In the film, Lousie is lecturing when a pupil puts the arrival of the aliens on the news. In the book, we don’t know anything about the beginning as the aliens have already arrived.
  • In the book, Colonel Weber rings Louise up before he turns up at her office. He then meets her with Gary. In the film, Weber arrives at her office with an unknown soldier. He then picks her up from her home in a helicopter, where she meets Ian on board.
  • In the film, Louise gets a phone call from her mother to emphasise to the audience that she has been having a rough time. This is not in the book and there is no mention of her mother at all.
  • In the book, they do not have to have a medical or immunisation vaccine like they do in the film. Nor do they have to wear decontamination suits.
  • In the book, we are not described what the alien ships look like. We are only told that they appeared in orbit. In the film, we see 12 pods land in different locations around the world.
  • In the book, they are given an alien device known as a looking glass, which they use to communicate with the aliens from afar. There are 112 of them around the world (although we do not know how many ships there are) and they merely sit in a plain room with a table and two chairs. In the film, they go inside the pods on a lift and meet the aliens at a glass wall. The setting is much more visual and allows more personal interaction between Louise and the aliens.
  • In the book, the aliens have seven lidless eyes on all sides. They also see the alien’s mouth underneath its tentacles. The film follows the book’s descriptions pretty well aside from this, although it does often hide them from view with the use of some atmospheric mist.
  • In the book, the aliens’ names are Raspberry and Flapper. In the film, they are called Abbett and Costello.
  • In the film, the aliens omit ink to express words whilst Louise writes on a whiteboard. In the book, Louise and the aliens talk to each other in their first few sessions. She then shows them words on a screen, and they reply back in the same way.
  • In the book, Louise gets Gary to act out loads of verbs like eating and running. They don’t do this in the film.
  • In the book, they discover two languages – Heptapod A (talking) and Heptapod B (writing). In the film, we don’t hear the aliens talk so they only learn their written language.
  • The film explains better how Louise begins to know her future, commenting that learning a new language can affect how you see things and interpret the world differently, a language theory by Benjamin Lee Whorf. The book is much more complicated and doesn’t spell it out to readers quite so simply.
  • The book, instead, better describes how the aliens’ language works by explaining that their language has no radial symmetry, just like their bodies which have no forward direction.
  • In the book, the aliens tell Louise that they have come to Earth “to see” and “observe”. In the film, they don’t know why the aliens are here.
  • In the book, Gary takes Louise on a few dates and even makes her a homecooked dinner at his house, after which she stays over. In the film, their relationship isn’t this close in the beginning and there isn’t much of a romantical link until Louise begins to understand her flashforwards.
  • In the book, no photo of the aliens goes viral like it does in the film and there are no riots. Instead, we know very little about how it is affecting the rest of the world.
  • In the book, the aliens and the humans make a few trades or acts of “gift-giving”. They have made 8 around the world and Louise has been a part of 2 of them, but the aliens don’t understand the concept very well and don’t give the humans anything important. In the film, the humans translate this request for trade as the aliens offering of a weapon. This leads to the different countries working against each other initiating a war, which is central to the film and this is where it begins to expand from the short story.
  • There is no explosion inside the pod in the book since they do not go inside them, and Louise is not especially picked out by the aliens. Therefore, one of the aliens doesn’t die and they do not give Louise their whole language all in one go. In the book, the whole world learns their language by working together through the use of Fermat’s principle of least time, explaining how the path of a ray of light when crossing through the air to water always takes the fastest route.
  • The film better describes Louise’s ability to see into the future by seeing a vision of what she has to say to the Chinese leader to stop the impending war. In the book, the countries are not in conflict with each other so Louise doesn’t have to use her future-seeing abilities to do anything.
  • In the book, we do not know why the aliens teach the world their language as they all leave afterwards. The film, however, adds in a whole new plot about the aliens needing Earth’s help in 3,000 years time, so they are teaching the world the gift of their language so that we can perceive time the way that they do. The film expands from the short story to give it some relevance and explanation, whilst the short story didn’t need to do this.
  • In the book, we are not told as straightforward that Louise chooses to have a child even though she knows that she will die young, we only assume this. She comments that, “From the beginning, I knew my destination, and I chose my route accordingly. But am I working toward an extreme of joy, or of pain?” The film hints at this much more obviously.
  • At the end of the film, we are given a glimpse to Louise teaching the world about the aliens and to her writing a book about her experience. The book doesn’t detail anything that happens afterwards, but we can assume at the beginning of the story that she is working as a lecturer.

Overall Verdict:

The writers do an excellent job expanding the story whilst also remaining faithful to the original short story. Chiang’s story is incredibly intricate and intelligent, but the film makes it slightly easier to follow whilst also going far beyond Chiang’s imaginings at the same time.

The short story is definitely worth a read, and the film is now one of my favourite science fiction films. Villeneuve is one of the best directors of the decade and he has certainly proven himself with this respectful adaptation.

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