Linguistics are a tough sell in Hollywood, I’m betting, but it’s central to the short story (“Story of Your Life”) by Ted Chiang upon which Arrival is based. Specifically, the idea that our understanding of the world is a product of the structure of the language we speak. It forms our thoughts, ideas, perceptions- damn near everything. Chiang and the movie, well-scripted by Eric Heisserer, do an incredible job of carrying this idea into the “What if?” territory of science fiction. The heady ideas are laid out more briefly in the movie with a Jeremy Renner monologue/montage that’s just the right length (with even a Sapir-Whorf name-drop), but the story-length exploration of the human implications are perhaps better in the movie, as the book suffers from a lack of Amy Adams. Yeah, she’s great, as are Renner and Forest Whitaker, though they have much less to do.
The main differences I noticed from the original story (if I’m remembering correctly, though I can’t check since a friend noticed the book on my shelf and nicked it – looking at you, Brent Johnson), are the “suspenseful” sabotage scenes and the ramp-up of global “intrigue” – as if language wasn’t suspenseful and intriguing enough, am I right? But it’s all well-done, and doesn’t dumb-down the cool sci-fi (or linguistic) ideas. In fact, there’s something relevant to our wretched current moment in history: “when in doubt, when scared – just start blowin’ shit up” – and always just when we’re starting to get a few things right. If any of that was in the book, it didn’t stick with me.
This is the best book/movie adaptation I’ve seen in a long time. The things that make Chiang’s story great are well-executed, and the added bits fit in nicely. It’s great visual cinema from great literary science fiction. I’d both read “Story of Your Life” for a deeper understanding of the intellectual aspect, then see Arrival, but make sure you do at least one.