Don’t Judge a Book by Its Movie

Editor's Note: There are some minor spoilers in this blog! Read with caution... :) 

I’m here to praise reading the book and seeing the movie. Let’s begin with some comparisons:

In the movie Arrival, a linguist named Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, has a daughter who dies of cancer. Arrival is based on a short story by Ted Chiang, titled “Story of Your Life.” In that story, Louise Banks has a daughter who dies in a mountain climbing accident.


In both the movie and the story, Louise is brought by the government to meet two aliens who have come to earth. They want her to use her skills as a linguist to communicate with the aliens. In the story, the two aliens are nicknamed Flapper and Raspberry. In the movie, they are nicknamed Abbott and Costello.

In both the movie and the story, the nature of the aliens’ written language plays an important role. It is a two dimensional, nonlinear language. In the story, it is described like this:

Much more interesting were the newly discovered morphological and grammatical processes in Heptapod B that were uniquely two-dimensional. Depending on a semagram's declension, inflections could be indicated by varying a certain stroke's curvature, or its thickness, or its manner of undulation; or by varying the relative sizes of two radicals, or their relative distance to another radical, or their orientations; or various other means. These were nonsegmental graphemes; they couldn't be isolated from the rest of a semagram. And despite how such traits behaved in human writing, these had nothing to do with calligraphic style; their meanings were defined according to a consistent and unambiguous grammar.

In the movie, the aliens’ language looks like this:


In the story, certain sections are written in first person future tense. In the movie, there are flash-forward scenes, but obviously the grammar of “future tense” is impossible.

In the story (spoiler alert), the aliens leave rather abruptly and undramatically, their purposes mysterious. In the movie, in a very different scenario, Louise must race against time to avert a catastrophic war.

Some of these differences are purely matters of choice or style. Others are driven by the advantages or limitations of a particular storytelling medium. Still others may be driven by differences in audience or divergent genre expectations across the two storytelling mediums.

As writers, we make choices all the time. If we’re writing a story with a narrative logic that requires a daughter who dies, we have to choose whether the daughter dies of cancer, or in a mountaineering accident, or some other way. What are the narrative ramifications of a child who dies of cancer, versus one who dies in a mountaineering accident?  (We might note that cancer is a matter of chance, while a mountaineering accident implies certain things about the mentality of the character who dies. These become themes and character elements with effects elsewhere in the story.) Films adapted from books offer a kind of laboratory experiment, where we can examine two versions of the same story, and we can experience the effect on the audience when parts of the story are altered.

And at the same time, the contrast between a story’s written version and its film version highlights the freedoms and constraints of each of the two storytelling mediums. It provides us with clues about how to take full advantage of the medium we choose for our own stories.

Lighthouse instructor Nick Arvin is teaching Reading as a Writer: Adaptation, which will look at four different stories and their film adaptations, starting March 23. Arvin is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the author of three books: In the Electric Eden, Articles of War, and The Reconstructionist.