How I Wrote Arrival
November 15, 2016 12:14 PM   Subscribe

After I was done with my rant, the Dans stared at me wide-eyed and said, “All that needs to be in the script. In fact, you can replace most of these little beats with that rant.” And they were right. So I cleaned up my own rant and made it Louise’s in the script, to the colonel trying to understand her reasoning.
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer writes about the process of adapting Ted Chiang's novella "Story of your Life" into the screenplay for Arrival.

Eric Heisserer previously. Ted Chiang previously.
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Arrival on FanFare
posted by noneuclidean at 12:26 PM on November 15, 2016 [7 favorites]


I cannot wait to see this -- the reviews look stellar. You can check out Heisserer's screenplay here.

Also, a lot of links in the old Chiang post are busted, here are some updated ones from Archive.org:
Tower of Babylon (1990) - A Bronze Age laborer joins the construction of an impossibly high structure on a mission to breach the vaults of Heaven. Nebula Award (Best Novelette).

Division by Zero (1991) - A brilliant mathematician wrestles with the consequences of her earthshattering proof.

Understand (1991) [.mp3 1 2 3 4 ] - An experimental treatment bestows a regular person with superintelligence, propelling him into a dangerous series of mindgames.

Story of Your Life (1998) - A talented linguist reflects on her life as she struggles to grasp the meaning of an alien language. Nebula Award (Best Novella).

The Evolution of Human Science (2000) - Scientists despond as their mentally-augmented descendants leave them in the dust.

Seventy-Two Letters (2000) - In a world where mystical scrolls impart animating power, a shocking discovery threatens to upend society.

Hell is the Absence of God (2001) [full .mp3 ] - An unbeliever struggles with the question of faith when God is scientific fact and angels routinely visit the earth. Hugo, Locus, Nebula Awards (Best Novelette).

Liking What You See: A Documentary (2002) - A documentary examines people's reactions to a technology that allows one to see others without bias or judgment. Chiang declined a Hugo nomination.

What's Expected of Us (2006) [full .mp3] - A simple time machine undermines the concept of free will, with disastrous consequences.

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate (2007) [full .mp3 ] - An ancient alchemist introduces a traveling merchant to a mysterious time-traveling gateway. Hugo, Nebula Awards (Best Novelette).

Exhalation (2009) [full .mp3 ] - A non-human scholar relates the dissection of his own brain, and the implications his discoveries hold for his curious clockwork universe. Locus, Hugo Awards (Best Short Story).

The Lifecycle of Software Objects (2010) - The relationship between people and their creations are explored in a near-future world of sentient AI.

Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny (2011) [Ctrl+F "dacey"] - Victorian social mores are explored through the efforts of a disgruntled inventor to devise a mechanical nanny.

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling (2013) - The experience of two societies separated by space and time contrasts the natures of truth, fiction, and collective memory.

The Great Silence (2015) - A heartbreaking message from the parrots of Arecibo to the builders of the great radio telescope that lies there.
You can purchase the first eight stories, with additional commentary, in the updated collection Stories of Your Life and Others (Amazon). His short story on the Automatic Nanny is available through the fantasy anthology The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities. (Remember, MeFi gets a small cut if you buy through these Amazon links!)
posted by Rhaomi at 12:44 PM on November 15, 2016 [77 favorites]


Read the novella when the movie trailer first came out. Saw the movie this weekend. Went back to see it again the next night, this time dragging my husband and a friend to see it with me. Just excellent.
posted by lizzicide at 12:45 PM on November 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


> Also, a lot of links in the old Chiang post are busted, here are some updated ones from Archive.org:

Thanks for the list! I was telling my mom (a librarian) how much I like Ted Chiang's work and she was unfamiliar with him. I told her I'd send her some links, and now I can just send her to your comment.
posted by noneuclidean at 12:48 PM on November 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


I have been telling anyone who will listen: don't read any reviews or watch any previews or trailers, just go see Arrival. I think going in colder might be better. Best movie I've seen in years.

Louise is an opinionated expert, knows she's at the top of her field, isn't afraid to press an argument or even an ultimatum - and there's never a hint that any of this is unusual or unexpected in a woman. There's no sense that any of this makes her bitchy or difficult or that her male colleagues resent her. She does not suddenly appear in her underwear for no reason, there is no scene where she dolls herself up to dazzle a love interest. She is never a damsel in distress. And it is a better story for avoiding all those stale tropes and actually providing some substance instead.
posted by Western Infidels at 1:05 PM on November 15, 2016 [50 favorites]


Screenwriter Eric Heisserer writes about the process of adapting Ted Chiang's novella "Story of your Life" into the screenplay for Arrival.

To be fair, it's pretty easy when you can jump ahead and pull the dialogue from the final cut of movie when drafting the screenplay.
posted by leotrotsky at 1:08 PM on November 15, 2016 [58 favorites]


Thank you for posting this. I can't recommend Arrival enough. Didn't know what to expect going in, except that it started life as a Ted Chiang novella, which was recommendation enough, though I held off reading it until afterwards.

I wrote elsewhere about it, but just to note that director Villeneuve's use of silence and pauses really gives one the chance to approach the film, rather than having it in your face demanding attention. Which made it all the more engaging.

I was actually going to post to AskMeFi re: articles on the film's depiction/design of the written language. So, I'll just drop that here in case anyone might've run across same.
posted by the sobsister at 1:19 PM on November 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'm just kind of boggled that an faithful adaptation of a Ted Chiang story somehow scored a $24 million opening weekend. Hell, I'm kind of boggled a faithful adaptation was made at all.
posted by tavella at 1:20 PM on November 15, 2016 [12 favorites]


I mean, I adore his work, but Hollywood wide release is not exactly what you think of when reading Chiang.
posted by tavella at 1:21 PM on November 15, 2016


I'd love to see some of his shorter pieces done as a film anthology along the lines of a 3 by Chiang.

And I'll also note here that, though I'd never seen one of Denis Villeneuve's films before, on the basis of this, I am very excited about his helming Blade Runner 2049.
posted by the sobsister at 1:28 PM on November 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


The Great Silence is, like, scientifically calibrated specifically to make me cry, so thanks for that.
posted by tobascodagama at 1:48 PM on November 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


The movie is great. Go see it now before some asshole spoils it for you.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:51 PM on November 15, 2016


All Things Linguistic has a round up of articles about the linguistics in the movie; Language Log has had a series of posts about both the movie and "Story of your Life".

TL;dr, overwhelming reaction from linguists is (with some minor quibbles) that the movie and the story do a very good job of both depicting linguistics and what it's like to be a linguist.

I saw it last night, and was alternating crying at the plot, and doing a little happy dance/squeal whenever they got something right.
posted by damayanti at 2:19 PM on November 15, 2016 [6 favorites]


I'm just kind of boggled that an faithful adaptation of a Ted Chiang story

You could do Seventy-Two Letters pretty well, and The Lifecycle of Software Objects would be a good film, if kind of talky. Understand would get made but would be dumbed down into some kind of Matrix kung-fu thing.

I am holding out for someone to find a way to film Exhalation, though.
posted by Quindar Beep at 2:20 PM on November 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


One of the things that makes Arrival so compelling is that just about every facet of the movie serves to support Louise's perspective. Little things like manipulation of depth of field are used, not just to look cool, but to convey something about the story.

Also what was said above about the quiet spots. And I don't recall a moment where a due swooped in to overshadow Louise in her own field.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:35 PM on November 15, 2016


And while so much of his work is built purely as literature, when I think about adapting a story I don’t dwell on how cinematic the source material is but rather how it makes me feel.

I think this is why Heisserer succeeded so well. I really, really loved the movie, and found it both tremendously moving and very intellectually engaging. A lot of times in science fiction, one side or the other of the story is under-served or half-baked: a great idea without much of an emotional core/hook, or a great emotional core with a lackluster idea. Arrival quietly succeeds in keeping its big ideas front and center without sacrificing any emotional weight. A lot of that is down to Amy Adams' performance, but I also appreciate how much space the movie gives the viewer to interpret and dive into its ideas.
posted by yasaman at 2:37 PM on November 15, 2016 [5 favorites]


I saw it last night and loved it, and I agree with both damayanti and yasaman above. I'm recommending it to everyone. Go see it!
posted by languagehat at 2:42 PM on November 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


Hell Is The Absence Of God would make a GREAT movie, but there is absolutely no way such a movie would ever get made
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:49 PM on November 15, 2016 [16 favorites]


i am so excited about arrival

so excited that i will watch it by myself for a 100% ego experience

it's serious, people
posted by Foci for Analysis at 2:57 PM on November 15, 2016


On our way out, as the credits rolled, I told my wife there was an easter egg at the end for Division by Zero.

In my defense, I didn't expect her to believe me.

We were both gobsmacked that an adaptation of such an introspective story worked.
posted by Zed at 3:03 PM on November 15, 2016


Stephen Wolfram, of Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha, was a consultant on Arrival. He has an interesting article on his blog about the experience: "Quick, How Might the Alien Spacecraft Work?"
posted by RichardP at 5:13 PM on November 15, 2016 [4 favorites]


You know, I never thought I'd say this about a film based on a Ted Chiang story, but I like the movie better. The story is wonderful, of course, but it's a classic sf story, heavy on exposition and repartee, low on emotional impact. The movie skimps on exposition (creating both productive confusion and annoying blurriess) but goes all-in on the emotional impact, and it works for me: the grief and sorrow of the opening sequence stays with the movie and is slowly justified, providing the backbone of the film, and the banter is pretty much reduced to the Abbott and Costello business.

One thing that did bother me was the blatant mispronunciation of “semasiographic” (as having a stressed -SIGH- in the middle). Come on, people, use a damn dictionary.
posted by languagehat at 5:52 PM on November 15, 2016 [4 favorites]


Who the fuck is "Ian" Donnelly?
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:18 PM on November 15, 2016


I very rarely go to see movies in theaters anymore, but based on word-of-mouth I saw this one over the weekend, and was not disappointed. Like the others I'm rather surprised a movie this, well, *good* got made. Like others, I'd say this movie hits a midpoint between being as cerebral as 2001 and as emotional as E.T., and damn if that isn't a great place to be.

Side note:
"One thing that did bother me was the blatant mispronunciation of “semasiographic” (as having a stressed -SIGH- in the middle). Come on, people, use a damn dictionary."
I've never been to a conference that didn't teach me how many different ways other people pronounce five-dollar words we mostly see in print. If the movie's wrong about "semasiographic", it might just be a different kind of right?

Back to my main thoughts, there was a group in front of me in the theater who loudly lamented the lack of car chases in this one. I thought of them here: “If it’s a martial arts action bonanza, your character and story moments happen in the framework of fight sequences.” Against stereotype they were group of silver-haired retirees, mostly women. And if action's what a person wants action's not a bad choice, for them or for me. I love Jackie Chan's movies, I love car chases in the right movie when they do the right things. But kudos to Heisserer for embracing what sort of story this was.
posted by traveler_ at 9:48 PM on November 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


The ads had left me cold on this, but all of the women coming out and saying how incredible it is has convinced me to go see it.
posted by Deoridhe at 2:14 AM on November 16, 2016


The ads had left me cold on this, but all of the women coming out and saying how incredible it is has convinced me to go see it.

The opening was a little too UP for me, as a parent.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:13 AM on November 16, 2016


The central story concept of language and it's interaction with time is fascinating and profound. However, Arrival the Hollywood movie is gracelessly manipulative and exceeding dull.
posted by fairmettle at 5:21 AM on November 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


While I see its commercial necessity, the action plot that Heisserer added was pretty creaky, including the verging-on-non-sequitur Chinese people/situations subplot that basically every movie with a budget over $10mm seems to have these days. (I am looking forward to the Three-Body Problem adaptation if only because its Chinese content is guaranteed not to be weirdly patronizing or tacked-on.)

At the same time, it was almost too subtle -- half the people in the theater I saw the movie in clearly did not get the key twist.

"Hell Is the Absence of Other People" is extraordinarily cinematic just lying there on the page, going to be really interesting how they try to adapt that, even so. "Exhalation" is, for all its sense of wonder, probably a little too interior -- one character just solving a scientific problem. "Lifecycle of Software Objects" will be gorgeous if it is done right.
posted by MattD at 6:16 AM on November 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


So is this evidence that we are in the 'Dark Reality' where corporo-fascist forces dominate the West, or evidence that we are in the 'Light Reality' where Ted Chiang overtakes Phillip K. Dick to become the wellspring of the new era of Hollywood sci-fi?
posted by mrdaneri at 7:14 AM on November 16, 2016 [2 favorites]


> I've never been to a conference that didn't teach me how many different ways other people pronounce five-dollar words we mostly see in print. If the movie's wrong about "semasiographic", it might just be a different kind of right?

Dammit, you hit me right in the descriptivism. Yeah, if people (other than Hollywood stars winging it from the script) actually do say it that way, it's just an alternate pronunciation that hasn't made it into the dictionaries yet. Do you know what it costs me to say that? Do you??
posted by languagehat at 8:09 AM on November 16, 2016 [7 favorites]


So is this evidence that we are in the 'Dark Reality' where corporo-fascist forces dominate the West, or evidence that we are in the 'Light Reality' where Ted Chiang overtakes Phillip K. Dick to become the wellspring of the new era of Hollywood sci-fi?
We are in both simultaneously, we are all of us Schrodinger's Cat. That's what makes life so interesting.
posted by dannyboybell at 8:10 AM on November 16, 2016 [4 favorites]


"Hell Is the Absence of Other People" is extraordinarily cinematic just lying there on the page, going to be really interesting how they try to adapt that, even so

"...of God", just to nitpick. But I also cannot imagine it getting made in the evangelical US that's shown its face recently. Or before that, even.
posted by Quindar Beep at 10:15 AM on November 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


I just adored this movie. ADORED it. From the emotional depth to the linguistics focus to the spot-on awe of first contact to the twist that isn't a twist at all ... wow.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 11:02 AM on November 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


I got nothing to add except this: mumblemumble years ago, one of my first gigs in LA was retyping the script for Manhunter into Final Draft and exporting for PDF so it could be included on a new DVD release. I ran into the same problem Heisserer did for a part of the script that included the 中 character the detective finds carved into a tree. I wrote Final Draft back then and asked for better inline image support in a later version. That was a long time ago, and I'm dumbfounded that they haven't done anything about it since then (although maybe they will now since they've been publicly called out by the writer of what appears to be an amazing film).
posted by infinitewindow at 11:12 AM on November 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


Never mind all this, I still want to know why does Portuguese sound so different to other Romance languages...
posted by jontyjago at 1:18 AM on November 17, 2016 [9 favorites]


One of the lead actor's visage (not Adams! tbh) and person makes me feel a bit pukey, but if you all insist that it's a great adaptation then I'll go see it. Thanks for the rec, maybe I'll drag a friend along if I can.
posted by one teak forest at 4:22 AM on November 17, 2016


One of the lead actor's visage... if it's Renner, well, he was miscast and not especially convincing as the brilliant physicist he was supposed to be. I'd call that the film's biggest misstep.

But it's really Adams' movie, and she was good.
posted by Zed at 7:51 AM on November 17, 2016 [3 favorites]


Saw this yesterday by myself based on this thread. It was in fact great, but spoiler alert: very very very very sad, especially for parents. But also hopeful. But also sad. Thanks for posting.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:43 AM on November 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm not a Renner fan, but after seeing the movie I found myself approving of his casting for reasons that would be mildly spoilerish to explain.
posted by Lexica at 4:28 PM on November 17, 2016


Any chance a Ted Chiang loyalist won't be disgusted by the movie version?
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:33 AM on November 18, 2016


Song Exploder did an episode with Jóhann Jóhannsson, who composed the score, about how he wrote the song "Heptapod B". It was a really interesting episode that I recommend for any fans of the movie. The episode page is here.
posted by noneuclidean at 4:39 AM on November 18, 2016 [2 favorites]


I've been obnoxiously recommending both to just about everyone. But I'm very much in the "different media is different" camp. Thomas's expanded aria for Ophelia is a payoff enough to justify the awkward tensions between the 19th century French and English endings for a Hamlet opera.

Similarly, I think Arrival's adaptations pay off in terms of drama. The inserted monologue about semiotic ambiguity and tacit knowledge is a nice break from a year of cinematic handwavium and unobtanium, and is something I might actually think about using in the future.

(I don't consider the Clarke's law mysteries of Arrival to be handwavium. Primarily I'm thinking of, "let's defeat the aliens by playing the Beastie Boys really loud," and "why would a space city have a single point of failure for its life support system?")
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:53 AM on November 18, 2016 [3 favorites]


I rather enjoyed the film. And thought the ending was quite poignant.

But strangely I've been reading a few reviews of it and a lot of the reviews seems to misunderstand the extent to which the timeline is re-configured by the ending. They don't seem to have understood the film at all?! (or they are just avoiding spoilers?)
posted by mary8nne at 1:03 AM on November 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


I e-mail'ed one reviewer and got a nice e-mail back saying that he mangled a central fact in the movie in the interest of avoiding spoilers. I don't understand people. I mean, I can see the reasons why he did it but I don't understand why those reason are significant.
posted by rdr at 6:26 AM on November 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


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