A few weeks back, I blogged about the movie Arrival, a smart science fiction film that some critics are touting as an Oscar nominee. The film was based on a short story by Ted Chiang, and I found it compelling enough for me to seek out that original effort, titled Story of Your Life.
The core of the short story is the same: linguist Louise Banks is tapped to help communicate with aliens who have arrived at Earth. Intertwined with her experiences is a personal tale, the loss of her daughter to cancer.
When considering a film adapted from a novel, you often focus on what had to be cut from the novel to create a concise, two-hour film. An adaptation from a short story is quite different. The film could have conceivably been a transcription of the story, so the ways in which it differs are quite interesting.
Some of the differences aren't surprising, the removal of non-visual elements that wouldn't have played well on a movie screen. Chiang's original story puts more emphasis on the linguistics, and touches on other efforts to communicate with and learn from the aliens, particularly in the areas of mathematics and physics. It also touches a bit on other linguists who also learn the alien language as Louise does, and portrays the world view they share as a result.
The short story is arguably an even more personal journey than the film, and so does not concern itself with answering some larger questions the film chose to address. The motives of the aliens remain a complete mystery in the original story. The reactions of different countries and governments around the world is also largely ignored in Chiang's original work. The film wisely chooses to flesh out both these aspects.
But the principle differences between the short story and the movie have to do with technique and message. And I can't address either issue while continuing to dance around SPOILERS. So if you have not yet read the story or seen the movie, either bail out here or skip to the last paragraph.
In terms of technique, the movie is very much trying to pull off a "twist ending." And while it's impossible to know how I would have read the story if I hadn't seen the movie first, I feel confident saying that the story is far less cagey. Right out of the gate, Chiang plays with tenses in his writing. He sometimes uses the past tense, other times the present tense, and still others the future tense. On a few truly impactful occasions, he even weaves all three into a single sentence. (My pick for the most clever, polished line in the story: "I remember a conversation we'll have when you're in your junior year of high school.") Where the movie waits until the end to reveal that its main character's "flashbacks" are actually "flash-forwards," the short story gives this away much sooner (and must) due to its constant switching of tense.
In terms of message, I found the short story considerably more bleak than the movie. First, by adding a reason behind the aliens' behavior, the movie introduces a hopeful message about cooperation. The idea of "one message broken up in 12 parts" is also invented for the movie, and supports this dream of a world uniting after one extraordinary event. Second, the movie minimizes the question of free will when one knows the future. It implies that a person with future knowledge must decide whether or not to embrace that future, but doesn't explore this issue in much depth.
That's probably because the short story delves deeply into this issue, and comes to a very dark conclusion. You can have free will, or you can see the future. Not both. The short story concludes by explaining (in detail) that free will is as strange a concept to the aliens as future sight is to us. And anyone who truly internalizes the alien language as Louise does assumes a life of performance. Every moment of every day, every thought and every conversation, plays out exactly as she knows it must; there is no free will, only the "satisfaction" in fulfilling a preordained role.
It's great stuff for thought-provoking science fiction. It's also a major bummer. But just as Chiang suggests in his own story, there can be two equally valid ways of perceiving the universe. In this case, I feel like the short story and the film are two different but valid ways of telling the same story.
In my mind, I prefer the film adaptation. Nevertheless, praise goes to Ted Chiang for the fascinating idea he put down first in Story of Your Life. I give the short story a B+.