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How Arrival Changed the Original Story to Be About Choice, Not Just the Inevitable

Arrival was one of our favorite movies last year, giving us a unique sci-fi story that was all about communication, trauma, and fear, set to amazing visual effects.

In a new video essay that will make you appreciate the film even more, Michael Tucker of Youtube channel Lessons from the Screenplay took a look at how Denis Vialleneuve’s film Arrival differs from the story it was adapted from, Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer, in an interview on Jeff Goldsmith’s podcast, explains that there were a few significant changes from Chiang’s text for pacing reasons, creating conflict, and changing Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) story from one of determinism into one of choice.

In Arrival, Laura’s daughter passes away from an illness, but in Chiang’s story, she dies in a rock-climbing incident at 25. Heisserer said, “I think it’s more profound for me if she has a choice, if she has free will, and can change her future, and yet she chooses to have Hannah.” Thus, by turning Laura’s death into something unpreventable, Louise has chosen her daughter despite the pain of knowing she will lose her.

These differences are all fascinating to hear about and stand as a great example of what it means to adapt a story for the screen. The essay is full of particular ways the screenplay chose to provide exposition and how editing changed original scenes, all great lessons about how to make a powerful screenplay.

Additionally, Tucker reflects on what makes Arrival such a powerful science fiction movie, mainly that through the alien and unfamiliar, we learn more about humanity. He puts into words what’s always been great about this genre, and what it can do. It actually reminds me a lot of director Guillermo del Toro’s recent speech at Cannes about monsters, where he says:

“Today, we need to draw our monsters again, to engage the ones that we live with, to find empathy again, to forgive us our imperfections, and rebel against those that tell us that it’s the other that we have to fear, that there is an us and that there is a them, that we need to reject and demonize everything that is different from our own. It is not true.”

Alien invasion stories definitely build on the xenophobia we see in our society, since we know through history what happens when unknown invaders land on shores of a “new” country. Stories about fighting off the invaders can be fun, but when a story decides to ask why monsters are monsters, and why we are the way we are, the result can be something as compelling and beautiful as Arrival.

(via Indiewire, image: Paramount)

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